• What do the grapevine and office cafeteria have in common?

    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    WORD of mouth is a very effective marketing medium. You don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, for advertising your products or services so they can reach your target customers. Now, can you think of other uses of word of mouth, known negatively in the vernacular as “siete” or “tsismis” (gossip)?

    In the workplace, word of mouth is often referred to as the grapevine or any informal communication system that provides information that is often exaggerated, or given different angles depending on the person communicating it.

    Sometimes, some malevolent managers use it to leak information to test the acceptability of certain plans, like reorganization, cost-cutting measures, etc.

    The grapevine becomes active and dynamic in the absence of a proactive, two-way communication process in the organization. If managers don’t inform employees – promptly – about the things that would interest or affect them, the grapevine will quickly emerge as an alternative mode of passing on juicy news at the cafeteria, elevator, hallway, even at the company’s smoking area.

    This can be troublesome because the grapevine is based on half-truths, incomplete data, and outright lies. If management ignores it, chances are hearsays can contribute much to employee demoralization that can turn into low productivity and resignations, among others.

    The obvious solution (depending on where you’re seated) is to initiate and conduct regular town hall meetings where top management gives update about its plans and programs. It can take many forms like a CEO fora, monthly birthday clubs, even department meetings. It can be accentuated by quality circles, labor-management consultation system, suggestion scheme, and many more.

    The corporate universe can tolerate many communication channels. You can also harness employee volunteerism to help you perform many of your CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs. Variety is king, so don’t worry about making the whole thing a brag fest to your peers in other companies, because I’m sure you’ll be emulated.

    The key word is “maximization” or how you should work smart so that you can harness all available resources to lubricate the communication machinery in your organization.

    I’ve done this approach for more than 30 years when I was active in corporate HR, and I should tell you – there’s no alternative to having those face-to-face meetings with the workers from all levels in any corporate hierarchy.

    An eyeball-to-eyeball set-up with the workers is the enemy of the grapevine. It can easily be because the grapevine has a limited audience, normally between and among close friends, except that it can spread like wildfire at times.

    But what I can’t figure out is why so few organizations maintain a proactive, two-way communication channel, like those I’ve explained above. Maybe they’ve not yet realized that it is one potent strategy to make trade unions irrelevant. Or if they’ve a well-functioning employees’ union, they find town hall meetings and other channels unnecessary.

    Anyway, let me hazard a guess on what management is thinking. On top of my mind is this: Spending two to three hours with the workers and prodding them to ask sensible questions is counter-productive. No one will have the courage to ask a question about the elephant in the room, unless he wants to be trampled like a wild grass. And so why bother?

    Now, what’s the favorite hangout of gossipers? Unless, you’re working in a call center where every move of the workers is monitored (even if they’re inside a toilet) the best answer is the office cafeteria. So what can management do? Close the cafeteria? That’s also counter-productive.

    The best approach (and let me repeat it here) – is to establish, nurture, and maintain a proactive two-way communication system with the employees. The actual cost for the organization is relatively small compared to having a bunch of unproductive, dissatisfied workforce.

    By not allowing the workers to write poison letters and throw them in the suggestion box, management stand to lose valuable information they can’t get elsewhere, even if they install hundreds of CCTVs in the office.

    Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn for his random management thoughts.


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