Regardless of where and how you work, effective communication and collaboration is an important part of how things get done in your organization. When it works, you waste less time; you and your team are more productive. When it doesn’t, it’s harder to do quality work and achieve your goals as an employee. Read on for some ideas about things to consider in your workplace communication and collaboration!
Professional communication can be a challenge in any environment.
Standards you may feel are fine, may feel too informal to your colleagues. Additionally, we’re using an ever-growing body of collaboration tools—text messaging, video chats, emails, social media—to keep in touch with people near and far. When teams include members of different backgrounds, customs, experiences, geographic locations and languages, these factors add to the challenge of coming across professionally in your communication. And let’s not forget legal and ethical considerations, which add another layer of complexity to what and how people communicate in a business setting.
What, then, are the standards of professional communication? There is no one right answer. Business communication comes across as professional, or not, depending on a number of factors. These include:
- Industry and organizational norms
- Communication methods and tools
- Individual vs. team needs, styles and expectations
- Legal considerations
Industry or organizational norms
Every industry has a set of expectations in terms of operating style, legal or ethical parameters, and so forth. These overarching expectations can influence what is appropriate in terms of professional communication. For example, people who work in the legal profession (lawyers, law clerks, court officers, etc.) have strict guidelines on what information they can share, and with whom. Also, because their language, written or otherwise, has to be clear and precise (think about when you’ve read a contract, or have seen an attorney present a case in court),it tends to be more formal.
Organizational norms can also determine what types of communications are considered professional. I’ve spent most of my career in the fashion retail industry. In comparison to the legal profession, communication styles tend to be a bit looser in retail, as that reflects that industry’s target audience, which is young customers.
That said, different organizations within a particular industry may still have different professional communication expectations. One retailer I worked for had a set of explicit guidelines for email use for store-based staff, for example. They covered:
- Appropriate subject line use;
- How long the body of the email should be;
- Who should be included in what forms of communication (e.g., who should and should not be in the cc: line);
- Proper timeframe in which to respond to an email, based on the seniority of the sender, importance of the message and other factors.
This retailer was a large organization that was well known for its customer brand. For them, ensuring consistency in employee communications was no different than how it approached consistency in its marketing. It was intended to help staff stay on message with the brand. And everyone was held to these standards.
Communication methods and collaboration tools
Organizations vary in how they employ communication methods and tools. Some organizations provide all hardware and software (a cell phone or computer, for example). Some may have a “bring your own device” policy in place. Regardless, most organizations will have policies and expectations on appropriate use of communication devices. Ideally, these are spelled out and adhered to throughout an employee’s time with a company, from recruitment through exit. Some are simply the business’s preferences, whereas others are determined by legal considerations. For example, I have a client that’s an educational facility. For privacy reasons, staff members are trained to not use their personal devices to take photos of the students. They can only use company-issued devices. Having collaboration tools from one supplier helps to maintain compliance and adhere to regulations.
Keep in mind that what’s considered professional or unprofessional may change over time. As a human-resources professional many years ago, I wrote social media policies for the companies I worked for, where those platforms were considered completely unprofessional. Now, numerous HR practitioners, and companies in general, use social media to engage their audience, discuss topics of importance and attract clients. While social media still comes with legal and ethical concerns, most people do not view social media platforms as off-limits.
Individual vs teams
Even if they’re using different devices, or have different communication styles, it’s important that everyone be in agreement on the organization’s mission and values. This creates a cohesiveness between individuals and teams that transcends personal preferences. The mission will also provide clues into what communication behaviour is considered unacceptable.
It’s also important to know what communication methods people prefer. I’ve worked with people who don’t like to talk on the phone. But if you send them a text message, they’ll respond quickly and at length. For others, text messaging is unprofessional, no matter how grammatically-correct your messages may be. Again, the important thing companies should provide their employees is collaboration tools with rich features and which offer the flexibility to call, email, text, share screen or files from one application, whether that is on a desktop or a mobile phone.
In 2013 I started working with a client, a small not-for-profit organization with approximately 250 staff and contract members across two work sites. When I began, I asked the executives and supervisors, “What’s the best way to get in touch with you?” This knowledge forced me to adapt my communication style to accommodate their needs. For example, one director made it clear that, once he leaves work, he does not check emails or phone messages.
These conversations also helped me to understand what they, as individuals, considered appropriate professional conduct, including communication. They also helped me to create better human resources services for them. For example, for administrative communications (e.g., staff notifications concerning compliance deadlines), I would use means such as email or auto-generated messaging services. When it came to sensitive personal matters, I made sure to have a face-to-face or phone conversation. Staff members appreciated being able to talk directly with me about their private concerns. As a result, I was able to establish the HR department as competent and trustworthy, which helped improve morale.
Another example: I don’t take formal vacations very often. But when I do, I will not check emails! I consider it unprofessional and hypocritical when companies claim that they want people to be happy at work, yet when staff are away from it on their personal time, they’re interrupted. That said, I do recognize that emergencies can happen. So when I’m away, I inform my clients they should text me if a critical issue occurs. This way, I know it’s important and will respond as needed.
When it comes to legal and ethical parameters, a number of elements must be considered and implemented within an organization, or between employees. For one, what are the legal boundaries on different forms of speech?
Here in the United States, people often point to the first amendment of to the U.S. Constitution, which states, amongst other things, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Sometimes, individuals believe this means that if they say something that may be seen as offensive, an employer can’t take action against them. That’s false! Freedom of speech as outlined in the U.S. Constitution only protects a citizen’s speech against government interference. Private employers can discipline or fire an employee for the following types of communication in the workplace, or in a work-related setting:
- Offensive speech
- Violent or threatening speech
- Harassing speech, sexual or otherwise
- Sharing confidential information
- Sharing inappropriate or offensive materials
Another thing to consider is what can be used in a legal proceeding. For example, if an organization or individual is accused of one of the above violations, they can be subpoenaed. A subpoena is a request for documents (such as emails or recorded conversations), or a request to appear in court or at another legal proceeding. A person or organization that is subpoenaed and does not comply may be subject to civil or criminal penalties, such as fines or jail time.
When communicating with colleagues or clients, or using company communication equipment, use your professional judgement. If what you’re transmitting is something you’d rather not have revealed in court, then it’s probably not appropriate.
Communicate about how to communicate!
To establish and maintain a high quality of professional communication in the workplace, an organization must understand the norms and expectations of the environments in which it operates, and be clear in their understanding of what works for them. What tools and behaviours are acceptable? What language is off-limits? What are the legal and ethical minefields to avoid? Companies must define these answers and share them within the organization (employees and managers) and outside it (vendors, clients).
As an employee, if you’re not sure whether your communication will be perceived as professional, take a conservative approach. Look to your leadership team to set the tone. Official company documents can provide guidance, such as an employee handbook or employment contract. Even with all of that, don’t assume that the way in which you communicate is professional. Sometimes the only way to know is to ask! Check in directly with your colleagues if you’re unsure about whether your style or methods are working for them, or ask your boss if they have any feedback for you. Alternately, you could speak with a knowledgeable human resources professional or legal counsel, if available. A little care here will show your good intentions, so even if you’ve made a blunder, your concern may smooth things out.
To sum it up, when it comes to workplace communications and collaboration, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
It's his ongoing mission to help organizations build systems that value people for who they are, along with what they can do.