Words matter

There can be few more emotive, more visceral expressions uttered recently in the global media than President Trump’s threat to North Korea around ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen before’. Apparently, Trump ad-libbed the specific wording whilst communicating a pre-agreed overall message.

Time will tell whether his speech plays a part in cowing North Korea into downscaling its weapons testing or has the opposite effect. His words are to few people’s tastes – certainly not Kim Jong-un’s – but equally, it’s hard to make the case that they aren’t the President’s own words. Bombastic, inflammatory and possessing but a loose relationship with English grammar. But with Trump, there’s little nuance, little ambiguity – the words are his own.

And that seems to have been exactly the challenge encountered by scientists and engineers at Facebook. The company had been experimenting with two AI chatbots, trying to understand how they would interact and communicate with each other in a scenario involving the exchange of and negotiation around hats, balls and books.

Instead of conducting the negotiation in English, the two chatbots began to devise their own, apparently more efficient, version of the language. Facebook shut down the programme, not because of a fear of a dystopian robotic takeover, but because the objective of the programme – enhancing communications with Facebook’s human audience – wasn’t being achieved.

But to what extent do organisations have their own voice? And is this a voice that employees feel they can articulate freely?

Not so at Sports Direct, it would appear. Never an organisation far from a PR own goal, the retailer was recently in the press, particularly the Welsh press, as a result of a staff notice. The notice instructed all employees that ‘they must speak in English at all times when they are at work’.

This attracted the attention of the Welsh Language Commissioner – the store in question was located in Bangor, which boasts a high proportion of Welsh language speakers – who is making a formal complaint to Sports Direct. With the retailer already accused of Dickensian work practices, dictating what language an employee can speak feels restrictive and un-empowering, at best.

It’s not clear, however, which language CEO Mike Ashley resorts to after one of his 12-pint executive drinking competitions.

By far the most significant example of employees feeling empowered to use their own words within the workplace emanates this month from Google. Now ex software engineer, James Damore, published a ten-page document largely criticising Google’s diversity efforts. However, across the course of his tirade, Damore also succeeded, in the words of CEO Sundar Pichai’s subsequent all-staff email, in violating the Google code of conduct and advancing harmful gender stereotypes across the workplace.

The subject heading of the email from Pichai – ‘Our words matter’.

Indeed, they do.

The issue is very unlikely to rest there. Damore, now looking for alternative employment, less than 24 hours after his note was published, is already filing a labour complaint. Online polls amongst the tech community appear to side with Damore – perhaps not surprisingly, given the gender split of such talent pools.

There’s a lot to dislike in Damore’s 3,300 word rant, however, Sundar Pichai’s response is fundamental in ‘the support of the right of Googlers to express themselves…People must be free to express dissent’.

Damore might well question the extent of such support given that he was brushing up his CV just a day later.

The worst case scenario for Google is that they have exacerbated the, not entirely undeserved, feelings of misogyny, inequality and sexism within the organisation, whilst being seen to clamp down on freedom of expression and the capacity of Googlers to use their own words.

Uber were also in the press last week as a result of some of their drivers apparently gaming the system. In order to push up pricing, many drivers would effectively register themselves as being off duty by prior arrangement. With few drivers then apparently available, the Uber price would go up as demand surged, prompted by the absence of driver supply.

Such activity is now the subject of university research from the likes of New York University and Warwick Business School. Interestingly, Uber’s ‘management by algorithm’ is seen as the source of such actions. Drivers know little about what Uber is doing and where it is going and the organisation’s strategy ‘is not at all transparent’.

Communications between management and drivers are scant and there is little or no evidence that drivers have their own voice or much of a platform from which to articulate.

We might think that providing a common voice across an organisation and empowering employees to communicate accordingly isn’t rocket science. However, it is NASA which gets this right.

Nine year old Jack David recently applied for the $187,000 Planetary Protection Officer job with the organisation. Young Jack felt he was uniquely qualified for the gig because ‘my sister thinks I’m an alien…and I am young, so I can learn to think like an alien’.

Rather than ignore the approach, NASA wrote back to Master David. ‘Our Planetary Protection Officer position is really cool and is very important work…We hope to see you here at NASA one of these days!’ In addition, Jack was called by NASA’s research director thanking him for his interest in the role. Apart from some unashamed publicity, NASA’s motivation is to create boosts for such individuals, encouraging them to do well and to apply themselves.

And they achieve this through language which is open, empathetic and non-patronising.

An organisation’s tone of voice shouldn’t be seen as a lexicographical strait jacket. It should help carry organisational strategy and employer brand alike. It should have the inherent flexibility and consistency to be both recognisable and to impart great news, letters to the likes of Jack David and to communicate real challenges, as Sundar Pichai has attempted.

But it’s equally a tone of voice that employees should feel free and empowered to use themselves. They should feel as though they can use their own words when communicating around and about the organisation.

Words do matter. They shape the culture, the behaviours and the interactions between employees and between the organisation and its people.

That’s why talent acquisition messages should share common ground with the communications an individual is exposed to once they join the organisation. If they’ve been attracted by the openness and transparency communicated through an employer brand, this should be the essence and tone of the employee communications they encounter around their new workplace.