We often think of ethical internal communication issues in the context of big events such as a crisis or exposure of organisational wrong doing. In fact, we encounter ethical issues every day in the routines of internal communication practice and tactics, including the ‘all staff’ email. If we are to really do the right thing for both employees and leaders we need to stop seeing these issues as an inconvenience to be ignored or overlooked, and as an ethical communication problem to be properly resolved.
STOP! Don’t click send on that ‘all staff’ email just yet, it might be unethical.
Don’t be daft, you’re probably thinking, I do this all the time in my role as an internal communicator. How can a routine ‘all staff’ email be unethical?
Well, that’s the nub of the problem. We often think of ethical internal communication issues in the context of big messy events such as a reputation damaging crisis or a whistle-blowing exposure of organisational wrong doing. In fact, we encounter ethical issues every day in the routines of internal communication practice and tactics, including ‘all staff’ emails. If we are to really do the right thing for both employees and leaders we need to stop seeing these issues as an inconvenience to be ignored or overlooked, and as an ethical communication issue to be properly resolved.
Internal communicators have an important ethical role in organisations, because we are effectively caught in the middle between the demands of leaders and management and the needs and interests of employees as stakeholders. The potential for conflicts of interest between these two groups are huge, and it often falls to us to find a way to do the right thing for both of them. In some circumstances, that might not include issuing an ‘all staff’ email.
Now, while you hesitate to press send and reflect on that, here are a few reasons why that ‘all staff’ email might be unethical.
Is it propaganda?
Sometimes we are asked by senior stakeholders to issue communications which have no real purpose other than to satisfy their ego and to portray them and their actions in a good light, whether or not they deserve to be portrayed in this way.
If the message in your ‘all staff’ email is just about the sender and doesn’t take into account any of the needs of the receiver then it has all the hallmarks of being unethical propaganda and worse, vanity communication.
Employees can quickly spot contrived messages from closet narcissists and they do nothing to create employee engagement. So, instead of hitting send, it might be worth going back to the person who asked you to send this email to clarify the objectives of doing so.
By the way, creating ‘awareness’ is rarely a good objective for any internal communication, so don’t automatically buy that one if it is offered up as the reason or excuse.
Is it biased?
Many organisations these days are global, or consist of subsidiaries or smaller divisions often as a result of expansion or mergers and acquisitions. This means that there will be distinct pockets of cultural and geographical difference spread across the organisation.
Is the message in the ‘all staff’ email you are about to press send on sensitive to all of these sub-cultures, and relevant to all parts of the organisation? Could the language being used in it be offensive (even slightly) to some, or is the information in it biased towards one geographical location, for example where your head office is based? If so, isn’t it fairer to employees and more ethical to be tailoring the message for each location or sub-culture rather than issuing a blanket ‘one size fits all’ email.
In all organisations there are also internal turf wars and politics perpetrated by individuals and tribes founded on allegiances with a common agenda. Does this ‘all staff’ email unfairly highlight and expose one of these agendas to the wider audience, and to the detriment of other groups in the organisation? If so, it is possibly biased and unethical.
Is it authentic?
Who wrote the message in the email you are about to press send on? Was it you working for a senior manager as a ‘ghost writer’? Did you make sure that you didn’t inadvertently introduce your own biases or opinions into the message when you drafted it? Internal communicators wield a degree of power inside organisations, so it is good practice to be mindful of over influencing when we draft copy and dispense advice.
If the message is that important and justifies an ‘all staff’ email, why are you writing it anyway? Is it ethical that a senior manager doesn’t write their own communications which would be considerably more authentic and genuine if they did? And, before you make excuses for them, being ‘too busy’ isn’t a good enough reason. Employees are THE most important stakeholder group for any organisation, and it is only ethical and right that leaders make time to communicate with them including writing their own messages, or at the very least, a rough first draft.
Is it spam?
Is the message in your ‘all staff’ email of no interest or relevance to some employees, even a small group of them?
Is so, then from their point of view as a receiver, the message and the email which conveys it is spam. Is it ethical to waste the time of some employees with a spam email which contains nothing of relevance to them?
Have you hit delete yet? No? Well here’s a few more reasons your ‘all staff’ email might be unethical.
Does it disenfranchise parts of the audience?
Sometimes it is only right that some groups of employees who are directly impacted by a decision or change are told about it first. Redundancies and office closures are one such example of a situation where an ‘all staff’ email wouldn’t be an appropriate or ethical tactic to convey the news. Hopefully, most of us get that.
However, more benign issues can have varying impacts on different groups of employees, some positive and some negative. Are you quite sure that you understand ALL of the impacts on ALL employees of the contents of message you are about to hit send on? If not, how can you be sure that an ‘all staff’ email is the most appropriate and ethical tactic for communicating it? It might be that some groups of employees really do need to be told about this first.
Does the final paragraph of the message in your ‘all staff’ email contain that sentence which is often found in internal communications? ‘If you have any questions about this, please ask your line manager’. If it does include this line, are the line managers in your organisation sufficiently equipped to deal with these questions, or is this email the first time they have heard about this topic too?
If line managers aren’t able to answer questions from their team members, why are you putting them in a potentially difficult situation which does nothing for their credibility? Isn’t it only right, fair and ethical that you tell them first and provide some kind of briefing to enable them to understand the issue properly and prepare to answer questions?
Is there a right to reply?
If the subject matter warrants it, is there the right to reply and the ability to give feedback and/or ask questions baked into your ‘all staff’ email?
No? Then perhaps you and your organisation are living in the past, sometime around the 19th century maybe, when it was accepted practice for employers to issue an edict and expect employees to just comply with it.
Nowadays, employee voice is perhaps one of the most valuable intangible assets an organisation can foster and facilitate. It’s only ethical in the 21st century workplace that you allow and encourage employees to comment, ask questions and provide feedback on messages. You might just uncover something of real value to the organisation, such as a better way of doing something or a fundamental flaw in management thinking that could avoid a disaster occurring.
If it is appropriate to enable employee voice in the ‘all staff’ email, then make sure something happens as a result of receiving it. Soliciting feedback and then doing nothing with it isn’t a very ethical practice either.
Is it really a message for employees?
‘Just email out this press release to all staff, there isn’t time to do some proper internal communication about this’. Really!?!
Is it ethical and fair to employees to send them a message that was meant for someone else? Would you EVER send an internal message to external stakeholders without properly adapting it so it was relevant for the receiver?
As I mentioned earlier, employees are the most important stakeholder group for organisations. The relationship employees have with their employer is deeper, more meaningful and enduring than any other, such as that between the organisation and its customers, investors, shareholders, suppliers, regulators and the media.
With that in mind, isn’t it just disrespectful to the employee/employer relationship to not properly plan in some internal communication as part of an external communication activity, if that is needed?
Is it timely?
How long did it take you to get this message signed off? Is the message still relevant? Sometimes we can end up in an unnecessarily protracted sign off loop with multiple stakeholders all sticking their oars in, and repeated redrafts of an ‘urgent’ message. Then there is the chasing to get the final version signed off which can take hours and days. By the time you’re given the nod to hit send, the issue or opportunity has passed and the message has become somewhat irrelevant, but you’ve been told to send it anyway. After all, everyone spent so much time and effort on it, it would be such a waste not to.
Untimely messages reflect badly on management and leadership, and just serve to confuse and frustrate employees because they are effectively irrelevant communication. Isn’t it better to just hit delete now, rather than cause all that upset? Even though you’ve been tearing your hair out trying to get the thing through sign off for days.
Is it transparent?
Is the message in your ‘all staff’ email accurate and clear? This doesn’t just mean being truthful. It also means using language that everyone can understand, stripping out jargon and any of the ‘corporate spin’ that might have been introduced by some stakeholders during that very lengthy sign off process you just negotiated your way through.
If employees end up trying to guess what this message is really about, then it isn’t clear enough and may end up being a catalyst for rumour, supposition and confusion. Are these the communication objectives you had in mind?
Is it visible enough?
Nearly there….still not hit delete yet?
How many emails did you receive yesterday? Quite a few? Did you open, read and understand the contents of all of them?
The reality of the modern world of work is that we are subjected to a deluge of information every day, far more than we can ever consume and process effectively. We therefore learn coping strategies, to filter and prioritise information, including the use of the email delete button.
There is a shared delusion amongst some people in organisations that just sending something out by an ‘all staff’ email, means that everybody has received and understood the message and the job of communication is done and dusted.
The reality is that some employees will have received the message in their inbox but it will not have been visible to them. They may have overlooked it, willfully ignored it or just deleted it. For others, who are not desk based or digitally connected, their opportunities to collect and read their email may be few and far between. This method of communication is simply not visible enough to them.
Admit it, you knew that didn’t you? So why are you sending another ‘all staff’ email to add to the communications clutter?
Is it right and ethical to send an important, need to know message down a channel that has questionable visibility for some employees, on a ‘one and done’ basis? If the message is really so important that everyone needs to see it, doesn’t its distribution and dissemination require a bit more thought and planning?
Clicking send or delete is an ethical decision
If you’ve made it to the end of this blog without hitting delete, congratulations! Go ahead, press send with the confidence that your ‘all staff’ email is an ethical way to communicate the message to all colleagues in your organisation. However, no gloating, no one likes a goodie two shoes and hubris is not an attractive quality in any internal communicator. The next ethical dilemma you encounter may be the one that catches you out, and now you have a better idea of what one looks like there is sure to be another one along soon.
If your finger is now hovering over the delete button, not to worry, hopefully you will do what countless internal communicators do every day, find a better communications compromise that is fairer for everyone in the organisation.
Compromise is one of the things we do best, even if we don’t always see it as an ethical challenge.
If you need some help and guidance navigating the internal communicators’ moral maze of ethics in practice there are some relevant resources listed in the end notes of my recent blog ‘Ethical IC in a gas lit world’.
© The IC Citizen 2021