How Well Do Your Employees Communicate?

I was surprised last week when I saw the results of a survey by AMA Enterprise, a division of American Management Association. The survey of 700 organizations reports that communication tops the list of skills training provided to individual contributors at companies. Given a list of abilities organizations sometimes try to nurture in training programs, 65 percent said communication skills training was provided.

I was surprised because poor communication in the corporate world is so common it’s almost a cliché. I remember a workshop by frequent Training contributor Jason Womack about five years ago in which he referenced e-mails employees get that they have no idea what to do with. Almost every week I get e-mails from the head of the department at the company where I work (outside of my writing for Training) that just say “FYI.” I usually just glance quickly at the messages, and finding no obvious use for them, file them away in case I need them in the future.

So I was wondering what the communication training delivered to all of these employees consists of. If I were offering communication training, I might include a segment on e-mail and text messaging. Now that we have this more informal, easy-to-send form of communication, there is much less thought put into correspondence. That means that in addition to frequent grammatical errors and missing words, the thought behind the messages also can be incomplete. It might be useful to give guidance on taking these messages more seriously—explaining that just because they’re easily sent off doesn’t mean the content should be taken lightly.

I know what a difference carefully thought out communication via e-mail can make. Recently I was up for an exciting new job at my company, and was e-mailing to check in with the hiring manager. I had two favorable interviews, and he told me I was his favorite internal candidate, but that he was “professionally obligated” to post the job in the outside classified ads. Like most people, I assumed I was close to getting this job. However, this hiring manager was a skilled communicator, so the e-mail he sent me in response to one I sent checking in signaled to me subtly that it wasn’t going to go my way. After thanking me for checking in, he let me know that he expected to make a “resolve” decision in the next two weeks. Not a “hiring” decision, but a “resolve” decision. That was savvy of him. I’m experienced and savvy enough myself that I wouldn’t have assumed it was a done deal if he had written “hiring” decision instead, but “resolve” decision really let me know the job was far from mine.

Sometimes poorly thought out communication can be funny because the sender of the message ends up saying exactly the opposite of what he or she intended. For example, recently my boss sent me an e-mail asking that a box with text in it be placed “below the scroll” on one of our Web site’s pages. Do you have any idea what that means? I figured it out after thinking about it—he wanted the reader to have to scroll down before seeing the box. However, after double-checking with him, it turned out what he really wanted was “above the scroll,” meaning in reality he wanted the reader to not have to scroll to see the box. He was rushing and only partially thinking through his message, so he didn’t notice before sending that he accidentally used the word “below” rather than “above.”

Proofreading of all forms of written communication is an age-old technique that still works, even in our era of advanced technologies. Maybe that also should be part of communication training. While you’re at it, you might try to train employees to proofread their thoughts before the words come out of their mouths.

Do you provide communication training to employees? If so, what does this training consist of? What have you learned about training employees to communicate precisely?