Information Flow & Employee Engagement: Interview With Amy Haran of USANA

Amy Haran is Executive Director of Communications of USANA Health Sciences. Profiled last year in Utah Business magazine’s “Forty under 40,” she oversees communications for USANA’s 400,000 independent distributors and 1,500 employees around the world.

JATHAN JANOVE: American business leaders have been criticized for doing a poor job of sharing information with their employees. Why is this practice so prevalent?

AMY HARAN: The two most common reasons I see for leaders not sharing information with their teams are, 1) simply overlooking the responsibility of good information flow, and 2) a misguided notion that challenging news will scare employees.

The most common mistake leaders make is assuming that sharing information is someone else’s responsibility. They attend meetings where they are updated on key details, and they make bad assumptions that employees will somehow hear about it. They don’t aim to withhold information; they’re simply focused on their own to-do lists and forget that communicating with their employees should be a top priority.

The second information-sharing breakdown I most commonly see is when details are sensitive or even negative. Certainly some information needs to be kept confidential at times, but many executives and managers stay quiet out of fear of employees’ reactions to bad news. But by holding their cards too close to the chest, leaders create a vacuum that employees fill with gossip and speculation. Often the gossip is worse than reality. In the majority of cases, employees should be part of the conversation, whether it’s a challenging discussion or not.

JANOVE: Can you give an example?

HARAN: USANA has grown from a small, regional company to one with 20 international markets. To do so, we’ve had to be highly focused on getting information out to our distributors, who are both our customers and salesforce. At times, we’d be in such a rush to communicate with distributors that we’d forget about employees; and those employees would then learn about important information from the very people they were supposed to assist. Not surprisingly, both employees and distributors would feel frustration. We’ve spent the past few years working on communication and training processes to ensure employees are first to hear about key information.

JANOVE: Why is sharing information with employees so important?

HARAN: There are so many benefits to great employee communication.

As I just mentioned, a knowledgeable employee is always going to provide better customer service than an employee who is kept in the dark.

Good information flow provides great cost savings. Think about how much time gets wasted when people can’t find actionable information or have to piece together details themselves. Lack of information can make a high-priority project come to a standstill.

Knowing not only what’s expected but also why creates buy-in from employees. You will get more discretionary effort, energy and enthusiasm from an informed team. I’ve seen this at work with my own team. When our CEO has an urgent request on a Friday afternoon, the communication staff is going to feel better about the assignment and do a better job if they understand the actual business need behind the assignment.

Employees feel trusted and respected when they are kept informed, and they give trust, respect and feedback in return. Two-way communication like this impacts performance and retention.

Finally, your projects become stronger through employee discussions. Withholding information on key initiatives means you miss out on valuable (and timely) feedback. This can waste time and money, and rob you of the perspective of those who best know your business and customers.

JANOVE: What do you recommend to organization leaders who desire good information flow in their workplaces?

HARAN:

  1. Your HR or internal communication group should offer regular training—and reminders—to managers about good team communication. Although all managers should understand that communication is their responsibility, remember that sharing information doesn’t necessarily come naturally to everyone. For example, if you hold a meeting for all VPs or managers, end the meeting by stating that you want them to talk to their team. Give them a “cheat sheet” of the points you want employees to hear and suggestions for ways to share the information.
  2. Include questions about information flow in your employee surveys. Ask if employees have the information necessary to be effective at their job. Find out if they know the “big picture” behind what they do, and if they are comfortable going to management with critical information.
  3. Assign someone to oversee internal communications on major projects or initiatives. This person will not only share updates about the team’s progress but also actively seek out and encourage feedback. Most importantly, they can look for communication breakdowns before they stall a project.

JANOVE: Do you have a “best practice” to share?

HARAN: We’ve had great success with a project that was conceived by our communication manager, Sarah Searle. Approximately nine times per year, we schedule “Lunch With Executives.” We host around 15 employees (who sign up on a first-come, first-served basis) for 90-minute lunches hosted by two company executives. There’s no agenda and no limitation on who can sign up or what is discussed. We’ve been surprised by the wide mix of employees—across departments and job functions—who have attended. Even better has been the varied questions asked of our executives, including, “What’s the future of my department?” “Who is your mentor and how did you establish the relationship?” “Is it worth getting an MBA today?” or “What’s happening with our China operations?”

JANOVE: What have been the results?

HARAN: We have received exceptionally positive feedback from employees that they valued the opportunity to have a casual, round-table discussion with our top leaders. They’ve also said they found a bonus in getting to know employees from different parts of the company. Our executives have said the lunches help them stay connected and gain valuable feedback. Also, since highly engaged employees tend to sign up, these lunches serve as investment in our top talent.

JANOVE: Do you believe efforts like the ones you’ve described contribute to the business bottom line?

HARAN: There is no question that information-sharing contributes directly to positive business results. In 2015, USANA’s sales increased over 16.2% to more than $918 million. We’ve also won multiple honors for being an outstanding workplace, including Best Places to Work by Outside magazine (seven consecutive years since 2009) and Best Companies to Work For by Utah Business magazine (seven times since 2002). Informed employees are engaged employees. And engaged employees are key to our company’s success.