Q: I’ve just been nominated to represent my fellow colleagues in a departmental capacity before management. I have never done something like this but I am very good with people. What techniques do you recommend to help me represent my colleagues well in this committee?

A: Congratulations on your “promotion”! You referenced the current recession – your new designation as department, or team, representative in meetings and discussions with management can be a pivotal one, for both employees in your area and for you professionally. You will have the opportunity to showcase the people skills you alluded to, as well as stress your business acumen when it comes to keeping your leadership apprised of departmental progress on meeting key goals.

There are many kinds of committees in the workplace. Some are of more of an ad hoc nature, organized by the owner or leader to help manage employee reward and recognition initiatives (seeSmartPak, the Massachusetts-based company led by 2006 Winning Workplaces Best Boss Paal Gisholt, and their SMARTER Awards committee). The win-win here is stuff (employees) and increased morale and productivity (employer).

Other committees are organized by leadership – and in some cases in more progressive firms, by employees themselves – to bring voice to workers and, often, enable them to effect change when it comes to issues like professional development and communication. Such is the case at 2007 Top Small Workplace Phelps County Bank in Missouri. As they told attendees at our 2008 Top Small Workplaces Conference, employees participate in one or more committees that address job empowerment, involvement in the bank and their community, and communication – the latter of which covers how the bank is doing compared with the overall marketplace.

The committee you are describing sounds a lot like an employee forum. We have a Tool Kit on employee forums, which we define as “a regularly scheduled meeting between employee representatives of work groups throughout the organization and members of the management team.” This forum serves as “an opportunity for employees to voice their opinions on what is working in the organization and what needs improvement. It is also is a chance for management to ask employees what they think about issues that have come to their attention.”

As the representative from your department, you may be called upon to set (or help set if there are representatives from other departments) the agenda for your meetings with management. Your agenda is shaped by the goal progress and issues your department brings to you.

Note that the last two pages of the above link show a sample report after a committee meeting with management. It may also be your task – or, again, your task shared with your counterparts in other committees, if you have more than one – to maintain the “minutes” of your committee meetings. You can use the format presented here as a starting place to shape your reports. Better yet: Show it to management before your committee first meets and use it as a template to decide together how your committee reports will look.

While you’ve got management’s ear regarding how committee meetings will work, try to get a sense from them about how much authority you, and the members of your department, have to resolve your own issues. This question will not only show management that you value your role as a voice for your coworkers, but its premise will be viewed as a positive for them if it means your efforts will result in more time that they can focus on the business.

Speaking of business results, if your committee is less a forum for employee concerns and more a regular update on individual or group goals, you should check with the member of the management team who is the “numbers” point person (for instance, the accountant or CFO) on how management would like their reports from your department formatted. Often this is in Excel. Will you need some additional training to do this? If so, can professional development dollars be used to cover the associated costs?

Finally and to recap, here are some tips when running or just participating in the committee:

  • Be clear on your own role in the committee and the role and expectations of the overall committee. Make sure you clarify this with management.
  • Communicate the committee’s role and expectations clearly and consistently to your fellow colleagues.
  • Make sure you have a plan on how you are going to engage and get feedback from your fellow colleagues.
  • Spend more time listening and asking question than giving your own opinions.
  • Follow through on what you say you are going to do.
  • Delegate tasks to colleagues as appropriate – it helps to engage them.
  • Prepare ahead of time – don’t just wing it. It shows.