The Basics of Workplace Communication

Communication problems are common in the workplace. However, diagnosing this problem is easier than fixing it.

Every workplace is comprised of a series of relationships, including those between employees, employees and supervisors, supervisors and other managers, employees and the organization itself, and, in a unionized workplace, the relationship between a union and management.

When asked to assist with strengthening relationships in a workplace, I always begin by conducting assessments of existing relationships. Through interviews or facilitated conversations with both employees and managers, I ask about problems between individuals and groups.

In the hundreds of sessions that I have conducted over the years, every single group has raised one common complaint: a lack of effective communication. However, diagnosing a communication problem is much easier than fixing one.

The Cure for a Common Problem

In almost every area of life, the most common cure prescribed for relationship problems is better communication. According to this wisdom, there would be fewer divorces and household disputes if spouses and family members could just talk to one another. Entire wars could have been averted if nation-states would have sat down at the same table to discuss their differences.

Almost everyone recognizes that communication is essential for relationships, yet while most of us recognize that a lack of effective communication will lead to relationship breakdowns or break-ups, we also tend to blame the other party when we experience a communication failure. In reality, all participants play a part in communication problems and therefore, all participants must assume active roles in improving communication.

The Modern Workplace

The modern workplace is not always an office where everyone works together. Today’s office is just as likely to be an employee’s home many miles from the duty station of the employee. An employee’s interaction with his/her boss and fellow employees, in this environment, is most likely by telephone, email or Zoom or similar platform. More and more work is being done by employees who telework. 

The current work station of many employees at his/her job is no longer a private office but instead a cubicle or open space concept. To increase energy sustainability, employers have lowered or eliminated walls so natural sun light can be used to the maximum.

To foster a collaborative environment, some employers have adopted an open space environment where employees do not sit at prescribed desk locations but gather, as needed, at tables and chairs spread around the workplace.

Acquiring and sharing information through the use of technology is a significant aspect of communication in the modern workplace. The design of work space is often for the purpose of fostering greater interaction between employees.

With such abundant access to information and available means to share information, are we better communicators? Has open space and lowered walls increased our success in communicating in the work place? When working miles apart and in many cases alone, are we maintaining our ability to successfully communicate with each other? More importantly, are we communicating in ways that build trust?

Supervisor-Employee Communication

One of the most important relationships in the workplace is between an employee and his or her direct supervisor.

Communication in a supervisor-employee relationship is always a two-way street, and both the supervisor and the employee have responsibilities to communicate. The employee must understand that he or she has just as much responsibility to communicate with the supervisor, as the supervisor has to communicate to the employee.

In return, the supervisor must encourage employees to communicate and provide the means and processes for such communication.

The Supervisor’s Communication Responsibilities 

Within the normal supervisor-employee relationship, the supervisor must be prepared to effectively communicate to the employee:

  • Directions about what work is to be performed, and how;
  • Expectations about how much work is to be completed, to what standards, and when; and
  • Corrections to the employee’s performance and conduct.

The Employee’s Communication Responsibilities

As part of the same relationship, an employee must be able to communicate:

  • When directions are not understood or certain tasks cannot be performed;
  • When expectations are not understood or cannot be met; and
  • When personal or other problems affect performance or conduct.

Unfortunately, in some supervisor-employee relationships, the only time communication takes place is when it is absolutely required as part of a performance management or disciplinary process. Every employee and supervisor should regularly ask himself or herself how much of their communication actually takes place outside of these formal processes.

While these processes specify minimal communication requirements expected of supervisors and employees, often these minimal requirements are not even met. However, as will be explained, there are additional opportunities for communication that can both enrich and strengthen supervisor-employee relationships.

Supervisor-Manager Communication

Much time is spent looking at supervisor-employee communication. Frequently, a very important relationship is overlooked – that between supervisors and managers.

How well do supervisors and managers communicate with each other? Much of what is said about communication between supervisors and employees can also apply to the supervisor-manager relationship. It is just as important that the supervisor-manager relationship have effective communication and trust as it is for the supervisor and employee relationship. Unfortunately, in many organizations improving this key relationship is overlooked. 

Labor-Management Communication

As specified by statute or agreed upon during collective bargaining, there are minimum requirements for communication between union representatives and management. These requirements generally relate to notice of meetings or changes in working conditions subject to collective bargaining.

Frequently even the notices required to be given are the subject of much dispute as to their meaning, timeliness and adequacy.

Beyond the notices themselves, how effectively labor and management communicate during the meetings or in collective bargaining is directly related to the level of trust they have for each other. The quality of the relationships between labor and management is not solely determined by fulfilling these minimum requirements, but will be affected by the extent to which they communicate in addition to any minimal contractual or legal requirements. The more opportunities the parties to a labor management relationship have to communicate, the more opportunities to fix misunderstandings or misperceptions. 

Case Study: How Assumptions Affect Communication

Early one afternoon, Eric receives an email from Nina, his direct supervisor, asking him to complete a particular task “ASAP”.

Based on his previous experiences with Nina, Eric does not question the meaning of “as soon as possible” and assumes that this must be an emergency.

Although he is currently working on a weekly report to be submitted to headquarters later that day, he puts it aside in order to prioritize Nina’s task. As a result, when the weekly report is turned in late, headquarters reprimands Nina and the entire branch office. 

Nina is angry that Eric did not complete the weekly report on time. She believes that he should have understood that the emailed task was not nearly as important. When Nina tells Eric how unhappy she is, he explains that he thought that she had needed the “ASAP task” immediately.

Nina calls HR to take a disciplinary action against Eric for not completing the weekly report on time. When HR asks Nina what “ASAP” meant, she replies, “Eric should have known that it did not mean handing in the weekly report late.”

Although Eric has always understood the importance of submitting work to headquarters on time, he believes that he followed instructions by giving the “ASAP task” priority over the weekly report. Long ago, when he had asked Nina which tasks should be done first, Nina had told Eric that someone at his pay level should be “able to figure out” how to prioritize his tasks. He should not need to talk to her each time a task is assigned. 


In this situation, both parties made assumptions, but neither attempted to confirm whether or not those assumptions were correct. Because making assumptions is often easier than addressing issues, some people will rely on their own assumptions about other people’s wants, needs, and motivations. Unfortunately, many times these assumptions are incorrect and actually create disputes in the workplace. Things that start as misunderstandings can escalate into a serious problem between supervisors and employees. 

On the surface, Nina and Eric’s situation appears to be a simple misunderstanding resulting from two communication issues: the failure of the supervisor to define her expectations and the failure of the employee to seek clarity.

When the HR manager confronts Nina about the unclear phrasing in her email, Nina blames Eric and responds, “He should have known what I meant! He knows when the weekly report must be submitted, and I don’t have time to explain every task I assign.” Eric, when asked why he failed to seek clarity from Nina, replies, “I tried that out once. Based on her reaction, I know not to do that again!” 

Despite these differences in opinion, Nina and Eric can resolve their misunderstanding by simply agreeing to meet and discuss how they can work to avoid a similar situation in the future.

In a successful meeting of this type, both the supervisor and the employee commit to developing better processes of communication. The supervisor promises the employee that he or she will communicate specific, clear directions and expectations in the future. Likewise, the employee agrees to ask for more information if he or she does not fully understand.

In order to continue strengthening communication in this relationship, both parties must be willing to engage in meaningful discussions soon after disputes arise in the future.

Unfortunately, not all people possess the ability or willingness to implement collaborative solutions. By assessing the quality of communication in your workplace relationships, you will be able to determine which strategies will be most effective for improving the workplace.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.