Communication blunders in the workplace are more common than you may realize. They can range from something as simple as misplacing an email to sending messages containing inappropriate content. Not only can these mishaps cause embarrassment and sometimes conflict among co-workers, but they can also cost millions.
A workplace survey conducted by Tollfreeforwarding.com interviewed 1,000 U.S. employees and found that 56 percent of respondents had sent a communication to the wrong person at some point in their working lives. Furthermore, almost a quarter of office workers admitted to accidentally sending confidential information, either of a personal or business nature. Plus, more than a quarter of the people surveyed confessed to sending insulting comments about a colleague to another person at work.
For businesses to minimize problems of communication, it’s important to understand where, when and how these incidents occur, what can be done to mitigate these instances, and how to prevent them from happening in the first place.
Understanding where and when communication errors happen
Communication errors can happen at any time, and it may not be surprising that more than half of the workers interviewed have experienced major miscommunication due to accidental messaging.
Breaking down the 56 percent of employees who had experienced this in the survey, email was found to be the most common medium for communication mishaps, with 34 percent of workers having emailed an unintended recipient, and 22 percent having incorrectly sent text or instant messages on their phone.
The survey also revealed a big difference in the number of communication errors reported by men to the number of communication errors reported by women. These figures tell us that men are far more likely to have communication mishaps at work.
Per the results of the study, one in 10 men have sent sexual content to the wrong person at work (compared to one in 20 for women). Twenty-six percent of men have sent insulting comments about a colleague to someone they weren’t intended for (compared to 7 percent for women), and 35 percent of men have accidentally sent confidential information (compared to 18 percent for women).
In some cases, the stats for men are more than double for women, meaning that focused training and a tailored approach to managing communications may be required for the male workforce.
The cost of communication problems for businesses
Miscommunication can have costly consequences for companies. This is due to loss of time and resources, the cost of handling HR issues between colleagues, the misinterpretation of company policies and business processes, or employees misunderstanding their job function.
The Independent Directors Council (IDC) commissioned a study to quantify just how much revenue was lost each year from miscommunication errors at work. The study, conducted by Cognisco, gathered data from 400 companies in the U.S., and found an average of loss of US$624 per employee.
On a very large scale, businesses employing more than 100,000 people would lose an average of US$62 million per year due to miscommunication problems. But it’s the smaller companies that are most affected by the loss of hours.
One of the biggest cost impacts can be seen with the time it takes to mediate when these incidents take place. Handling workplace conflicts costs US$359 billion in paid hours in the U.S., according to the CPC Workplace Conflict Report. And with more than half of the U.S. workforce sending insults, inappropriate content or confidential data, we can make an educated assumption that workplace communication mishaps directly contribute to these pressures.
How to improve communication and avoid email blunders
It’s not always possible to prevent communication accidents via email, instant messaging or text when the communication devices are in the hands of employees. Advancements in technology are mostly positive for businesses, allowing workers to stay in touch more effectively throughout the day. Business mobiles, tablets and laptops can save time, speed up reporting and replace face-to-face meetings, while promoting the remote working environments of the future. But technology also has its downside when not managed correctly.
What can be done is training for the use of such devices, providing clear guidelines for communications between colleagues, and setting strict boundaries to inhibit personal use. Some teams could also benefit from using business communication platforms (like Slack, Yammer or Google Hangouts) as an alternative to email and phone. This could help to streamline communication, while also preventing confidential information from being leaked to external parties.
Preventing communication errors also needs to start from much higher up in the chain if companies want to make a real change.
Jason O’Brien, COO of TollFreeForwarding.com, said of his company’s survey findings: “It’s important business leaders and employees are taking steps to reduce miscommunication in the office, as it can often be damaging to the careers of the employee, or finances of the business if information finds its way into the wrong hands.”
So what can business leaders do to help their staff members avoid embarrassing or detrimental blunders?
Creating a safe and open workplace where managers can encourage honest discussion is a good way of preventing conflict and poor employee relations from manifesting in the first place. This calls for not only a change in the way we handle problems at work, but also a change in the culture within our organizations.
Why company culture needs to change
Improving workplace communication begins with improving office culture. According to Tracey Julien, vice president of marketing at Guided Choice, it can be as simple as ensuring that managers and team leaders are approachable.
Talking about the problems everyday workers face, she said: “Many employees feel intimidated and even too embarrassed to ask their manager a question in order to clarify what is being asked of them. This is probably one of the easiest issues to combat and yet it still occurs time and again.”
For businesses looking to improve both employee relations and co-worker relations, there needs to be a space or platform where staff can voice their thoughts, opinions, problems and complaints openly, regardless of their role or position in the company.
Group feedback sessions, suggestion boxes, inter-department collaborations and team bonding days can be a great way of helping employees open up. Referring back to the original survey by Tollfreeforwarding.com, more than a quarter of men have sent email or text insults about another colleague, and 7 percent of women have done the same. By providing an outlet to resolve issues at the source, we can help to build happier workplaces where grievances are minimized.
If we can cultivate an environment where workplace relationships are healthy, we can improve communication not only internally, but with customers, clients, suppliers and stakeholders.
Improving company culture positively affects all areas of business, and therefore can only be a good thing.