Are You Listening, Really Listening, to Your Employees?

Many, if not most, organizations have methods in place to gather input from employees—suggestion boxes, hotlines, focus groups, engagement surveys, etc. But, are these organizations actually using this input strategically?

Recent media reports about employee protestswalkouts and even government mandates to give employees the right to speak out on their beliefs suggest that, at a minimum, there is opportunity for improvement. These incidents should represent a wake-up call for organizations that may be taking their communication methods and channels for granted.

The High Cost of Poor Communication

Organizations can’t risk the high costs of disengaged employees, says Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers, an employee engagement company. Baumgartner notes that disengaged employees have:

  • 37% higher absenteeism;
  • 18% lower productivity; and
  • 15% lower profitability.

These are costs that are likely affecting the majority of US employers. Kimble Applications’ The Boss Barometer report, based on responses from more than 1000 full-time US employees, indicates that 83% of employees “wish that their boss or manager would ask for their opinion or input more often.” Many employees are eager to help, eager to jump in and take on more responsibility but, unfortunately, believe that their potential to contribute is being stymied.

Even worse, according to the report, 33% “say that their boss or manager has taken credit for their work or contributions.” Another 29% don’t feel they’re given adequate credit for the work they do.

These are the kinds of perceptions—lack of opportunity for input and lack of recognition—that can lead to disgruntled employees whose frustrations can quickly skyrocket. In addition, today’s employees are increasingly very socially aware and expect their employers to be too. Knowing where they stand can be tough, but effective listening can help.

Opening Channels and Really Listening

While many companies have made efforts to better listen to employees, says Baumgartner, “few place as much emphasis on it as today’s employees demand of them.” It’s not enough, she says, to simply conduct annual engagement surveys.

“Employee engagement is fluid and dynamic, changing daily—if not hour by hour,” she says. What employers need is a channel for “continuous listening.” That continuous input, says Baumgartner, “can be achieved through a technological solution, via an open-door policy, or by way of a call for feedback.”

Continuous listening, Baumgartner adds, “is an always-on feedback loop between employees and leadership. It’s a set of tools that empower employees to give feedback at any time on what’s working in an organization and what’s not.” This ongoing input, she says, “gives leaders an in-the-moment understanding of issues facing employees, which allows them to foster a culture that inspires, rather than isolates, employees.”

Without this type of real-time feedback, Baumgartner says, organizations miss out on the opportunity to really move the needle on engagement.

Creating a Climate of Trust

Of course, it takes more than making tools available for input to create an environment in which employees truly feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas—especially constructive input about things they feel could be improved. It takes trust.

One critical component for creating a climate of trust that will ensure open and honest feedback is demonstrating the willingness to listen, really listen, especially to negative input.

“The organizations we work with that don’t shy away from asking the tough questions that allow for the—sometimes brutal—truth to be shared by employees and that are brave enough to be honest and forthright in return, cement the allegiance of their employee body,” says Baumgartner. When this occurs, she notes, employees don’t “feel the need to act in a way that can be detrimental to their organization.”

But, how can organizations create this type of climate and what role should HR professionals play in the process? Here are some important steps to take to create a culture that fosters trust, engagement and commitment.

Conduct a Communication Audit

As a first step, suggests Nicole Alvino, co-founder and chief strategy office at SocialChorus, “HR should evaluate their current communications channels to see what’s working and what isn’t.”

  • What tools are used to get critical information to the workforce?
  • On what channels and at what time does the most engagement and interaction occur?

This should be an ongoing process, not just an annual event.

Having measurement tools in place is important to continually monitor the effectiveness of communications. “Measurement tools can also help HR shape how they approach the employee experience and better understand the shifts in today’s workforce,” says Alvino.

For instance, tools that measure morale and employee sentiment, “can give HR deeper insights into areas of improvement or how they can ensure greater alignment and support for all employees,” she says. In addition, this type of measurement “can help organizations control the spread of misinformation in the era of social media where the push of a button can impact organizational reputation.”

Practice Transparency

Transparency leads to trust, something that many organizations today are sorely lacking. Frequent communication can help. This might include sharing regular updates or addressing tough issues over video each week.

Alvino says, “As employees continue to voice their opinions, employers should evaluate how they disseminate information and strive to provide a single source of truth when addressing concerns.”

Regardless of the level of trust and transparency in your organization, it’s a best practice to offer both direct and anonymous means for employees to provide feedback—positive or constructive, says Karen Oakey, director of human resources at Fracture. She notes that this can be accomplished in a number of ways, including:

  • A physical suggestion box;
  • An online survey form;
  • Grassroots meetings;
  • Town hall meetings;
  • 1:1 meetings with your manager;
  • General open-door policies; or a
  • Vendor-managed hotline.

Take Action!

You’ve invited input and employees are speaking loud and clear—perhaps even in a very unified voice. But, what are you doing about what you’ve heard? This, of course, is where the rubber meets the road.

“Action must be taken on all things brought forth,” advises Oakey. Sometimes changes can be made, or solutions implemented. Even when they can’t though, “providing a response summary, including the input and ‘business why’—don’t B.S. or make up a hokey response—will defend the logic of not being able to address the issue,” she says. Finally, make sure to close the loop. “The No. 1 way to lose credibility is to not handle inputs in a timely or appropriate manner, which includes not closing [employees] out.”

In an XpertHR webinar earlier this year, How to Retain Your A-List Talent, employee engagement expert David Lee noted that too many organizations lose valuable contributors because employees feel like their input doesn’t matter.

In an environment where disgruntled employees have the opportunity to be heard not just internally, but around the world, HR managers have not only an opportunity, but an obligation to take steps to ensure that employees are heard, and responded to, on an ongoing basis within an environment of transparency and trust.


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