Wouldn't it be nice if your employees would just tell you what's bothering them? Oh, you'll hear about their complaints, problems, frustrations and all kinds of petty grievances all right - but from your other employees, business associates, maybe even customers. Many of these dilemmas could be easy to fix if you only just knew about them.

Upward communication from employees has always been a major concern for contractors. Let's take a look at some of the positive techniques that will keep the channels of communication clear. We'll begin with Chapter 1 of Human Relations 101, or, since we have many unique situations in our great construction industry, I prefer to use the title, "Humaneering 101."

While the list of roadblocks to open communications is long, at the top is the cause for all the rest - fear. What will happen if I say the wrong thing? Am I rat fink for telling what someone is doing wrong that affects me or my job? Will the other employees think I'm a suck-up for trying to help?

You've probably heard plenty of other variations of these sentiments. To help provide a conducive atmosphere for upward communication, consider the following:

  • Post a written chain of command to clearly define your company's communication channels. A vertical line on this written chart establishes over whom you have authority to tell what to do and those other employees that you must ask for their help. Naturally, you retain full responsibility for anyone you have the power to command. There is no limit to the number of employees below you in that written chain, but you can have only one above you.

  • Your entire management team should be trained in communication basics and also good listening skills. We will go into more detail with supervisory dos and don'ts in our next issue, but you need to emphasize and enforce your white collar "wear a smile" policy. A boss's smile creates that ever so critical positive body language that makes it easy for a subordinate to approach and communicate. A frown or deadpan look will discourage or even prevent any upward communication.

  • Always conduct upward communication in one-on-one settings. Group meetings are great for downward communication, that is, after a company decision has been finalized. Feedback - essentially what you are really after in upward communication - works best in private. Whenever possible meet informally at his or her work site rather than in your office to make them feel more comfortable and attract less attention.

  • Such one-on-one sessions should be conducted by the next line supervisor on your organization chart. Other executives may sit in with that immediate supervisor when necessary.

  • Ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no. You need them to talk so that you can listen. Compare this to "reading between the lines." You need to learn how to listen to what they are thinking.

  • Make notes of any promises or commitments that you make and keep them in his or her file until you have "kept their word."

  • Do not share private or personal conversations or information with anyone else. When they talk with you confidentially they expect you to keep it confidential.

  • Always thank them sincerely for their input and invite them to get back to you as often as they wish.

    While the notion may seem old fashioned, also consider using an ongoing suggestion box. Some contractors reward the best idea of each month and accumulate these for the best idea of each year. I have clients who have added a couple lines on their weekly time sheet for each foreman to suggest positive changes. Suggestion boxes were very popular back in the 1940s and 1950s, but died off due to a lack of response from management.

    A new twist on the suggestion box may be today's preference for e-mail. While a personal meeting is best, e-mail does allow the ball to get rolling. At the very least, your employees can now send you their messages without attracting attention from other employees. You must respect their confidentiality, however, to maintain this open channel.

    Finally, I've saved the best for last. Using my Green and Gold mentoring program has many natural advantages when it comes to fostering upward communication. For one thing, there's no fear of retribution when discussing concerns with a mentor. Plus, a certain level of trust has already been established. In addition, senior workers have already experienced plenty of ups and downs working on jobsite after jobsite with all the attendant personal and family joys, problems, frustration and resolutions that someone just starting out is beginning to experience.

    Most of what I've described this month is only the beginning for creating and maintaining effective upward communication. Your employees are your most valuable asset, and you need to hear what they are thinking. Next month, we'll look at opening up this upward communication through your jobsite supervisors.