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Get the word out first – communication during change is crucial to engagement

An IC faux pas by French car manufacturer PSA Group led to a communications backlash following their £1.9 billion purchase of General Motors’ European unit, which includes Vauxhall.

News of the deal broke in the press before it was officially announced to thousands of employees at Vauxhall’s factories in Luton and Ellesmere Port, raising questions over job security and pensions. In the confusion and worry that followed, some people even vented to the media.

“Everybody is in the dark at the moment. We just don’t know what will happen,” one worker told the BBC. “Is the pension we’ve all been paying into for years going to be protected?” asked another.

Et violà – Vauxhall (and PSA) found itself with a significant PR issue and a major blow to employee engagement, all because it had not communicated news of a major change to its workforce early enough.

So how could this situation have been prevented?

Research by the CIPD – the professional body for HR and people development – has identified some techniques common to organisations that successfully land transformational change.

These include:

• Mass engagement events – Events involving every person in the organisation are costly, challenging to organise and require senior managers to front them. However, staff participating in the CIPD research commented on the effectiveness of such events.

• Achieving clarity through brevity and translation through detail – Much is written about how change visions must be simple and memorable. However, it is increasingly recognised that the most important part of a vision statement is a shared understanding of what the words mean for the organisation, and that they translate into something tangible.

• Repeated consistent communication from the top – Consistent and continued endorsement from the top during programmes of change helps maintain momentum.

In Vauxhall’s case, many of these techniques were used (including a live presentation by senior leaders to employees in Luton), but only after the story broke. Whether things would have played out differently had they been used earlier is open for debate. Every situation is different, after all.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that an absence of communication during a period of change allows anxiety and speculation to take hold, which can harm engagement and cause resistance.

A spokesperson for Vauxhall told Headlines: “Like most organisations, telling employees first, before they read it in the media, is a key strategic objective. However, in this case, the talks were at an advanced stage when the story broke and so we had a rapid period of ‘catching up’ to do.

“We will continue to provide written information to employees and use our internal social networking site, a forthcoming webchat and face-to-face employee meetings to provide opportunities for two-way dialogue, to ensure employees feel as informed as possible and confident about the future.”