TUESDAY 13 DEC 2022 10:26 AM


The fallout from Elon Musk's Twitter-takeover is at odds with a growing expectation that companies support the mental wellbeing of employees. Jason Frank, senior employee engagement consultant at Forty1 consultancy, considers what can be learnt from Musk's "gung-ho" leadership style.

Elon Musk's chaotic, gung-ho approach to Twitter’s recent layoffs was a masterclass in how not to communicate large-scale change. The lack of employee consultation and disregard for people has caused lasting (possibly fatal) reputational damage - inside and outside the business. It may also lead to extensive legal liability around the world. This was the P&O redundancy blunder on steroids.

However, it has served to underline the critical importance of well-planned, empathetic communications with employees, at a time when many businesses are having to work harder than ever to retain and engage employees in the context of the ‘cost of living crisis’, critical skills shortages, the 'Great Resignation' and even 'quiet quitting.'

Recent research from YouGov (commissioned by Forty1) among 1,000 UK and US-based employees of large organisations highlights that communications between senior leaders and their employees are more important now than ever for many people. This is particularly true for some important groups: 55% of remote workers and 48% of 18-34-year-olds told YouGov that employee communications have become more important to them since the beginning of the pandemic. Only 6% say that communications have become less important. Yet sadly, only 30% believe that employee communications have improved in this period, and 11% say they have actually worsened. This is despite (or maybe partly because of) considerable investments in new online internal communications platforms by large organisations. There is clearly work to be done by leaders to meet the changing communications needs and expectations of their disparate and diverse workforces. Evidence suggests that this is not a challenge that can be solved simply by throwing technology at it.

Improving employee communications can be a relatively low-hanging business opportunity. YouGov respondents reported that employee communications can have a positive impact on their: sense of purpose (61%); motivation levels (59%); feeling of being valued (54%); commitment to the success of their organisation (51%); and sense of connection to their company’s values (50%). Just how many existing, ex-, or potential Twitter employees are feeling any of the above right now? What a missed opportunity and act of corporate self-harm by Musk and his team – whatever the economic necessity of the decision.

The fallout from the Twitter lay-offs, and findings of the YouGov research, also show the importance of an often-overlooked component of good (employee) communications - consultation and listening. Less than half of employees agree that they feel genuinely listened to and understood by their employers and senior leaders. People increasingly expect to be heard and involved in many aspects of work and life, whereas in the past they might have accepted a more passive role.

But investing in well-planned and executed employee communications is not just a business opportunity, it is also a business responsibility. There is a growing sense that employers have a duty of care to support the wellbeing of their workforces. Looking at the latest Edelman Trust Barometer results ‘Job loss’ is the number one worry globally for people (85%), above climate change and ‘losing freedoms.' Our work, and how we feel about it, is fundamental to our wellbeing. Given that employees are telling us that employee communications can have a profoundly positive impact on them, businesses owe it to their workforces to take employee communications more seriously than ever.

One of the toughest aspects of getting employee communications right is the question of transparency. Musk is nothing if not open – but clearly to a fault. The tricky challenge for each organisation is to strike an appropriate balance between transparency and positivity that has the optimal impact on both the short and long-term employee trust and engagement of their people. 

It is clear that the stakes are high when it comes to employee communications, in terms of employee wellbeing, engagement, and external reputation. In that context employee communications need to be regarded as much more than just a function or department; they are a business-critical capability that needs to be developed with great care.