The Gatehouse Blog

Digging deep to reach UK Coal’s ‘gentlemen’ miners

Nikki Griffiths works for UK Coal, communicating to an audience of second and third generation miners at some of the UK’s largest coal mines. One challenge: some of her audience can’t read.

UK Coal is a fairly traditional company. Until recently, anything that was not directly affecting the production of coal was seen as unnecessary! Obviously, that included internal communications. This meant that our employees would hear pretty much any news via the grapevine – much of which would be incorrect. They’d think they were learning about the company, but actually it was just gossip.

UK Coal is the largest producer of coal in the UK, and a significant supplier of energy to the UK. In total, coal provides the UK with around 40% of its energy needs and helps to keep bills down. We employ around 2,000 people in a wide range of jobs from Mining Engineers to Ecologists, most of them based in Yorkshire and Nottingham.

Previously, I worked for a northern based airline, starting as an executive assistant to one of the directors. They had no internal communication so when I started doing that I was able to create my role from scratch, and when I joined UK Coal it was the same again – I had the opportunity to create the role myself. It was a massive challenge, but also very satisfactory as I was able to put my own stamp on things.

The industry is very male-dominated and unionised. The average age is around 50, but we have quite a few employees in excess of 60 who actually don’t want to give up work! 80% of our employees are 800 metres underground and never in front of a computer, so you have to think outside the box to find ways to get to these people.

When I was looking at jobs, I would always ask: “What’s your main channel?” and everyone would always say ‘Email’. So at UK Coal, I really had an opportunity to do something special. It’s estimated that about 20% of our workforce can’t read and write. This means that if you’re sending out a letter to someone’s home, they’re going to be relying on someone else to read it to them.

In the past, we’ve tried to offer some IT courses, but a lot of the guys are just really happy as they are, and don’t want to change their lifestyle or go to a class. It would put them really outside their comfort zone. You have to respect the fact that these guys have been doing what they do for a long time, they do it well and they really enjoy it.

That’s why they still want to be here, and it is up to you to adapt to their reality.

So over time I naturally became a great believer in face-to-face communication. When the new leadership team joined, I had extensive conversations with senior executives about our biggest challenges and how we could overcome those. I told them that we needed more constant communication from them than the previous team, and they’ve taken that on.

I don’t think anything will ever compare to being looked in the eye by your Chief Exec and told about your company. That’s absolutely priceless.

We hold very basic ‘canteen meetings’. When everyone piles into the canteen, we get one of our senior executives – our Chief Executive, the Chief Operating Officer or the Mine Manager – to give a 30 minute presentation followed by some Q&As. It’s usually a crazy couple of days for the management team because our employees work on shifts, so some of those meetings have to take place at five in the morning. But that really works for us. It gives the guys an opportunity to hear news first hand and then ask questions. The conversations are very open and it can be quite rowdy at times!

We also use notice boards and plasma screens around the mines as that really helps us to get messages to a wider audience.

Our CEO is very well respected because he’s worked his way up from shovelling coal at a power station, so he’s kind of a people’s hero and he’s really open about everything. He’s very intuitive and one of his ways of breaking the barriers was to host a fishing competition!

I help our Chief Operating Officer write a weekly message that goes out on a Monday to everyone. We send it out as a ‘toolbox talk’ as well, so that everyone coming onto shift has it read out to them by their Team Leader. It’s part of the Team Leader’s duty to go through those messages before every shift.

They come back to me with questions and I make sure that we get them answers, so we’ve managed to create this constant feedback loop using very basic channels.

Looking back, I’m really pleased I joined UK Coal. I’ve since spoken to my boss and he said, when we were recruiting for this position, we knew there was only going to be a finite number of people that could actually handle it.

I mean, I work in a mine. When I first joined, I walked into a meeting and someone shouted something like: “Oh, I don’t need to take my Viagra today, then.” You constantly get friendly banter like that.

They’re a really friendly bunch of guys. We do have a laugh, all in a really nice way.

If any of the guys ever realises that they’ve sworn in front of me, they can’t apologise enough. They’re true gentlemen. It’s a really friendly place and they make you feel comfortable. But yeah, you definitely couldn’t work in a mine if you were shy and retiring. No way!

 Biography – Nikki Griffiths

Nikki Griffiths is a Communications Manager at UK Coal, providing both internal and external communications support. Prior to that, she built up internal communications for a northern based airline over five years. She’s a Yorkshire lass living in London and prides herself on living life to the full! Nikki has an infectious enthusiasm for communication and engagement and believes it is pivotal to a successful business.