Among the many do’s and don’ts of how companies communicate disruptive change to employees is this: Don’t leave it to the janitor.

In a struggling enterprise where I where worked early in my career, I was stunned to learn from the building staff that my life was about to change. Dave – it was stitched in cursive writing on his shirt – entered my cubicle with a tape measure and began taking dimensions.

Sizing me up for a bigger office?

“Nah,” Dave said. “Getting rid of your department.”

What will happen to us?

“Dunno,” he replied. Apparently, he had just one Key Message on his clipboard and no Q&A.

We’ve all had bosses who are terrible communicators. But I worked in the communications department and our peerless leader didn’t do his job nearly as well as Dave did his. While Dave took our measure and chatted amiably in the cube farm with the dearly departing, the boss hid behind his large desk in the corner suite hoping the news would go away. It didn’t, but we did – most of us dispersed to jobs elsewhere in the company.

Years later, this experience informed my approach to managing communications in companies experiencing significant organizational change. Casually hearing about your departmental demise from the building staff is clearly a “don’t.” Careful planning, execution and engagement are among the “do’s” I’ve learned:

• Prepare employees for a transition. Employees often sense when a change is in the air, but rules around financial disclosure limit what you can say until you are prepared to make a public announcement. In the run-up to an announcement, however, you can discuss ways in which your business is facing significant challenges, such as a difficult competitive landscape, a shifting regulatory environment, investor pressures or the need to reduce costs. The more employees understand the context, the better equipped they are to accept the decision once it’s announced.

• Develop a highly-detailed announcement and transition plan. In large, complex organizations, reaching employees directly with an important announcement can be a major challenge, especially in different time zones and remote locations. In our programs, we developed spread sheets that specified responsibilities, messages, and precise timing for delivering the news in waves to employees and key external stakeholders, such as government officials, union leaders and the financial markets.

• Tell employees how the change affects them. We all know the first question on everyone’s mind: What about me? Even if you can’t advise your employees immediately on whether they are being separated, reassigned or left alone, you should be able to define the process that lays out how decisions will be made, the people who will make them, and how you will communicate throughout the process. A cadence of regular updates during a time of prolonged uncertainty reduces rumors and helps employees stay focused on their jobs.

• Make sure employees hear directly from the boss. This is a responsibility that cannot be delegated. Employees want to know what their manager is thinking and why – and their direct supervisor is typically the most credible source of company information. The boss can also be somebody who is a resource to employees as they transition to their next job inside or outside the enterprise.

• Establish a two-way engagement process. Provide ways for people to make inquiries in-person and anonymously. A microsite on the company intranet can be a resource for the latest updates, Q&A and notices about upcoming events. Those events might include bi-weekly group meetings where employees talk with managers and ask questions in an informal setting. It also may be helpful to appoint change ambassadors within each business unit to inform colleagues about news and events and report back on employee sentiment and suggestions.

It’s important to keep in mind that those who survive the change will be watching how you treat those who don’t. That will have a lasting impact – for better or for worse – on morale and discretionary effort.

Have you been through a significant company change? What would you add to this list?

– Jon Pepper
jon@indelable.com

Jon Pepper is co-founder and partner at Indelable, a strategic communications firm that helps companies with change management, employee engagement, competitive positioning, corporate citizenship and brand activation through stakeholder involvement.