by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine"
of the time I feel like a mushroom."
This comment from a dealer in a large Midwestern casino typifies the
way many employees feel about communication in gaming operations where
the authors have conducted research. The dealer explained that mushrooms
are kept in the dark and occasionally covered with manure. Many other
employees interviewed complained about not knowing what's going on most
of the time, and when they do hear from top management, it tends to be
ivory tower pronouncements from on high.
Employee communication in gaming companies is, more often than not,
rated as poor by employees. It typically consists of a newsletter,
an occasional employee meeting, and pounds and pounds of memos with numbing
operational details that few employees read and fewer still comprehend.
One mid-level manager interviewed pointed to a pile of papers on his desk
and said, "I've got a four-inch stack of memos here, and I still don't
know what's going on." The typical company newsletter, according
to the majority of employees, is outdated, boring, and self-serving for
management. Most say they don't read the company newsletter at all
or certainly not cover-to-cover.
Employees below the upper management level almost invariably name The
Grapevine the informal word-of-mouth communication network present in
all large organizations as their most vital and dependable information
source. The 60s pop hit "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" accurately
describes the dominant state of employee communication in most casino operations.
By its nature, the grapevine is an unsupervised, undocumented, and unverified
rumor mill. That makes it a superconductor for negatively-charged
news. Bad news travels fast. In this flash channel, word of
perceived ill deeds by the company spreads like a virus all through the
culture within the space of three shifts. A legitimate disciplinary
action against an employee for a regulatory infraction, for example, can
and does get amplified and distorted into a major atrocity committed by
the company against a poor, defenseless individual. The corporate
culture becomes defined by the grapevine rather than by visionary design.
The absence of effective and informative employee communication leaves
the field open for anyone with a beef like unions, for example.
Unions are adept at using the grapevine as a powerful communication channel
to stir resentment against the company.
Effective, positive employee communication doesn't happen by accident.
It must be managed and disciplined.
Casino executives can borrow principles from the advertising world to
construct an employee communication system based on reach and frequency.
"Reach" refers to the percentage of the target audience that is exposed
to the desired message. "Frequency" means the number of times they
hear the message (once is never enough; studies by advertisers show it
takes a minimum of eight exposures to make a message stick).
Employee communication should be as carefully strategized as your advertising
and marketing programs. What to say, when, how, and how much should
be mapped out by the highest level management; this is not a task to be
delegated to a third-tier manager (the execution can be delegated but not
Advertisers use a media mix of television, radio, outdoor, newspaper,
direct mail, and other means to hammer their message across time and time
again until it penetrates the clutter and becomes familiar to the consumer.
The same concept can be applied to employee communication in gaming cultures.
A management team should be assigned to develop a media plan for employee
communication, using all available channels to reach the employees.
Direct mail to employee homes, audiocassettes they can play in the car
to and from work, signs in high-traffic employee areas, doorhangers, flyers,
lapel buttons, computer screensavers, table tents in the employee cafeteria
and break rooms, payroll stuffers, informal get-togethers with management,
"management by walking around," even the grapevine itself these are only
a smattering of the possible communication contact media available in a
casino. If necessary, invent new ones to add to the media mix.
Advertisers also pay great attention to the content of the message,
creatively packaging it in the most appealing form possible. If you
look closely at a can of Coca-Cola, you'll see that it contains phosphoric
acid, caramel coloring, carbonated water, and some other ingredients.
That's the actual content. But what the company presents to the consumer
is a bright, refreshing, wholesome lifestyle imagery that speaks to consumers
in terms of their desires. Casino management should try to get inside
the minds of employees and creatively package communication that makes
clear what's in it for them.
Above all, employee communication should be consistent in its message
to get maximum impact and minimize confusion. If employees hear one
thing from one source and something contradictory from another source,
not only do they not know exactly what to believe, but it leaves them with
the impression that management doesn't know what it's doing (and sometimes
they're right). Consistency builds familiarity and confidence in
the validity of the communications. It also constantly reinforces
the message, implanting it deeper into the culture.
Casino executives most often give only passing notice to employee communication,
being more interested and preoccupied with meeting financial goals.
Yet positive, active management of employee communication can play a big
role in improving bottom-line performance. Employees who are well-informed
and who feel management cares about them and trusts them are more likely
to show up for work, be on time, stay on the job longer, be more loyal
to the company, and be better equipped to answer customer questions about
the casino and its attractions and activities.
Keeping employees "in the loop" makes them feel more like insiders,
part of an inner circle. It makes them feel important and needed.
These are fundamental human motivations present in all cultures.
Fear of the unknown, of being left out, is what drives employees who
feel "like a mushroom" to turn to the grapevine as their primary source
of information in a gaming company. Smart casino executives will
give them an alternative they can trust.
(This article appeared in the June 1998 issue.)