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The Definitive Guide to HR Communication: Know Your Employees

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In this chapter, you learn why it's important to know your "employee audience," what demographics can reveal about employees, and how to learn more through focus groups and other qualitative research.

If you were to enroll in a college course on marketing, the very first rule you'd learn is this: "Know your audience." That's because the most effective way to reach people—and to motivate them to take action—is to understand who they are and what they need.

This may sound basic, but assessing employees is a step that's often skipped in HR communication. We plunge into creating communication without thinking about the people we're creating it for. Even worse, we assume that employees are just like us, taking for granted that the ways we like communicating will work equally well for employees in a variety of jobs, geographies, and functions.

Like many assumptions, this one is dangerous. It leads to these kinds of communication mistakes:

  • Using terms such as "competencies" and "salary structure" that make perfect sense to HR experts but that mean nothing to employees.
  • Telling the entire history of how a program was developed, when employees just want to know what's changed and what they need to do about it.
  • Failing to make connections or put topics in context. You know that "compensation" consists of different elements such as base pay, bonuses, and stock options, but employees may not understand that the individual pieces add up to something called "compensation."
  • "People only understand things in terms of their experience, which means that you must get within their experience."
  • —Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals 1

How can you make sure you truly know your employee audience? We recommend that you start by analyzing your employee demographics and then conducting qualitative research—such as focus groups—to explore communication needs and preferences. This chapter shows you how.

What Demographics Can Reveal About Employees

Back when we started our careers (a long, long time ago), the subject of demographics rarely came up, mostly because there was very little to talk about. After all, the employees at most U.S. companies were mostly homogenous: mostly male, mostly white, mostly all from the same region, with similar backgrounds, accents, values, and aspirations.

Obviously, the workforce has changed. For example, in the United States, the newest generation entering the employment market, the Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000), represents a much more diverse group than the previous two generations. Some 40% of Millennials are black, Latino, or Asian, compared with a total of 25% in both of the previous two generations (Generation X and the baby boomers).

This is just one reason why it's become so crucial to conduct an analysis of your workforce demographics periodically.

  • dem-o-graph-ics
  • The characteristics of human populations and population segments, especially when used to identify consumer markets: The demographics of the Southwest indicate a growing population of older consumers.
  • —Houghton Mifflin dictionary
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