Corporate Cultures

Employee Communication:
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine"

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

June 98 Casino Executive"Most 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  The typical company newsletter, according to the majority of employees, is outdated, boring, and self-serving for management.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 the planning). 

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.)