Most employers communicate with their workforce about a wide variety of employment related issues — personnel policies, wage and benefit issues, organizational changes, etc. These communications — whether verbal or in writing — can be an effective way of maintaining high-quality employee relations and positive employee morale. Unfortunately, they also can provide support for employee claims of all varieties if not delivered properly and carefully. In fact, employer communications to their workforce often turn up in employment disputes as evidence relevant to an employer’s alleged wrongdoing. For that reason alone, employers should follow a few basic rules when communicating with their employees about employment related matters:
Where an employer representative verbally addresses groups of employees about employee relations topics, there is always the possibility of misinterpretation or misunderstanding of what has been said. For that reason, it is always helpful to maintain some kind of written documentation as to what was said during a verbal presentation to employees. That documentation can range from an outline of topics discussed to detailed notes taken during the presentation, but it is important to have some written confirmation of what was said with as much detail included as is possible under the circumstances. Additionally, employers should use sign-in sheets or other means of determining which employees are present when verbal presentations are made.
Remember that comments made to the workforce by management representatives — whether verbally in a face-to-face presentation, or documented in some kind of written communication — can form the basis for binding commitments from the employer. Even offhand comments about issues like wage increases or benefit improvements can later come back to haunt an employer under certain circumstances. For that reason, it is important that in both verbal and written communications to the workforce, employer representatives make only those commitments which they have been specifically authorized to make. Any such communication should be carefully planned, approved and executed so as to minimize the possibility for unintended consequences.
Where employer representatives are communicating with employees represented by labor organizations, the limits on what can and cannot be said with regard to employment-related matters are even more stringent. Employers may not engage in “direct dealing” with employees on matters that typically must be negotiated with labor organizations — a very broad spectrum covering a very wide range of topics related to employee wages, hours and working conditions. Employers should exercise great caution in discussing such topics directly with employees if their labor representatives are not involved in the conversation, and should seek additional guidance from their counsel if they have questions about how to navigate these very murky waters.
Supervisors and other lower level management representatives should receive training on whether, when, and how to communicate with employees on employee relations issues. The training should include guidance on the many positive benefits which can accrue from effective communications with the workforce, while also cautioning about the problems which can be encountered where communications are not carried out appropriately.
Make sure that all communications to the workforce on employment related matters are as concise, direct and to the point as they can possibly be. Statements — verbal or written — which are subject to varying interpretations will do little to provide employees with certainty about the specific topic under discussion, and can provide a breeding ground for incorrect understandings which can later cause difficulties for the employer.
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