Interview with Professor Malcolm Higgs

Professor Malcolm Higgs of Henley Management College is adamant that the use of line management to foster face-to-face exchanges is vital, and picking the right medium for an audience will add punch to employers’ messages, says Amanda Wilkinson

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Employers may spend a small fortune on fancy pamphlets, sophisticated intranets and slick posters that convey the benefits package on offer to employees but, as any hardened marketer will tell you, one of the most powerful communications tools is word of mouth.

This is the method of communication favoured by Professor Malcolm Higgs, director of the School of Leadership, Change and HR and a director of research at Henley Management College, who believes that line managers can play a crucial part in disseminating the right messages about benefits to employees across an organisation. “The line manager’s role is vital.

If you try and communicate only by printed media, email, the intranet and things like that it’s difficult to really get the message across. You can communicate factually through those routes, but one of the important things if you want a benefit to be really valued by people is that they have got to understand its value to them.

So there’s a kind of emotional engagement as well as factual.” If provided with sufficient knowledge and support, line managers can be coached to convey any changes to the benefits package – whether positive or negative – with simple key messages so that staff are able to fully understand how these may relate to them.

This can later be backed up with a more detailed communication strategy. “I’m not advocating turning all line managers into experts on the structure of perks, but actually giving them a clear briefing about the message you want them to get over,” explains Higgs. Employers need to identify what it is they want their staff to understand about any changes to the benefits they receive and the rationale behind those.

If the package is being enhanced or a flexible benefits scheme is being rolled out allowing individuals a degree of choice about their perks, then this is essentially good news and that message needs to come across, says Higgs. The same principle applies even where there is a negative aspect to the changes, for example, a move from a final salary defined benefit pension scheme to one linked to career average earnings.

Although pensions changes are a complex area, line managers can be used to introduce a briefing session, but they must have a clear message, which sets out the background, provides a credible reason and can be clearly understood. “You are going to compete with the story that comes from the bottom and the papers. So you really do need a good compelling story in the sense that it is reasonable and people can understand it and not just think that you are trying to con [them]. So if you have got bad news to communicate you need the line managers on board, but your challenge is that they must be effective as well,” says Higgs.

This will entail ensuring that they receive sufficient financial education to help them with their task and that financial advisers are on hand to deal with the details. “You need to invest quite heavily in a lot of face-to-face communication of benefits, I believe. Too many organisations rely on benefits communications coming out of HR, or it is outsourced or it comes out of the marketing area.

You actually do need face-to-face communication. And the best way is if you can do it through the line at some level, ” adds Higgs. Apart from conveying messages, line managers can also be used as a testing ground or sounding board by HR before any changes to perks are rolled out.

Their comments and questions may unearth problems with the perk or that the fact that staff may be able to take advantage of it. “Before a scheme or benefit launches, test it. I know that there is always the issue that if it doesn’t work then rumours spread. It’s a judgement call. In general terms, if you have tested it and made it simple, you get line managers who are advocates if it’s a positive change, and at least, explainers in a rationale sense if it’s not positive, because that’s where the conversation is going to happen.

People aren’t necessarily going to queue up to go to HR,” says Higgs. The unions are another group with which HR may want to discuss any changes to the benefits package. By keeping them in the loop, organisations have a better chance of making sure that the unions understand the changes and of ironing out any potential problems through question and answer sessions. But organisations should not rely on the unions to communicate to staff for them. “As a broad principle, if you have a union then talk to them, but don’t do what a lot of organisations have done in the past and hand over the communication [completely] to them. What you need to do is to make sure you have input in to their story. In a unionised organisation, the union story is often more powerful than the organisation’s story so you do need to try and get in there,” explains Higgs.

But the real focus should be the end audience – employees. However, they can’t all be treated alike. As individuals, they tend to have different concerns and needs. And some are more open to certain methods of communication than others, either due to circumstances in the workplace or their own capabilities. Furthermore, they won’t all be entitled to the same benefits. These varying factors can be used to segment employees into different groups for the purposes of communication. “Doing some background work on segmenting your communication is very important. For a group which doesn’t have access to PCs, then you have to find an alternative route to communicate to them.

The level of literacy in some organisations may not be great so you need to reflect on that. To feel that just because you have sent out a letter, memo [or] brochure to everyone, they have ‘got it’ is kind of wrong,” says Higgs.

Face-to-face and verbal communication can overcome many of these hurdles. Open days at key sites where benefits providers present their wares can generate interest and be informative. However, where employees can’t get to these, line managers again can prove useful in conveying the right messages provided that they have been properly briefed.

Modern technology also means that some organisations, such as retailers, are making use of shop-linked radio or television networks to deliver key messages to staff. Where that technology does not exist or staff are not computer literate employers can record video footage featuring examples of how a particular perk has benefited a member of staff which can be distributed to sites and individuals by video or DVD.

Higgs suggests that HR directors can even make themselves available to answer questions raised by employees in real-time through a webcast. This is more appropriate for organisations with computer-literate employees, as are devices such as pensions modellers to help staff calculate the impact of different levels of contributions. “With technology, new possibilities are opening up. But you have to be careful. If you are in an industry where the average age of the workforce is in their early 40s, I wouldn’t bet the house on getting the message across through a podcast. This is where you have to know your organisation,” adds Higgs.

But he warns that there is more to communication than just choosing the relevant medium. “I tend to think that the medium you use for communication is an aid to getting across what you want. You still have to think solidly about what the key messages [are]. How do we need to differentiate those messages for different audiences? How much information do different audiences need? So, segmenting your market for communication purposes I think is critical. Getting the right message, thinking through the message, thinking through the implications and also engaging the personal voice whether it’s through the union or whether it’s the line manager, these are the important parts of the communication strategy.”


Professor Malcolm Higgs is the director of the School of Leadership, Change and HR and a director of research at Henley Management College. He was previously principal partner at Tower’s Perrin’s Londonm Human Resource Management practice.

In this role, he was responsible for organisation and management development, assessment, leadership development and training projects for clients, and developing programmes and strategies for human resources and change management. He has also published a range of papers on the topics of leadership and team development, and executive assessment.

Higgs believes that benefits communication is often underestimated and that the way an organisation chooses to convey messages to staff says a lot about its approach to employee engagement. “That’s why I have a great preference for communicating through the line, face-to-face because that says you recognise people as people.”

Communication: Top tips

Work out what key messages you want to convey. If you are implementing a flexible benefits scheme, for example, then the fact that it enhances employee choice should be put across.

Choose the most appropriate methods of communication for your employees. Do not forget the power of the personal touch that communicating via line managers can offer.