Why Employee Voice Matters

We live in a Yelp world where the proliferation of third party rating sites and social media has democratized the bully pulpit. The voice of the consumer has the power to make or break even the largest companies.

Guess what, those consumers are also employees and they have found their voice has power too. Sites like Glassdoor, Vault, and Memo along with the social media giants Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) have given a voice to employees similar to that of consumers.

The challenge for today’s managers and executives is figuring out how to best listen to and leverage this voice for positive gain. I had the opportunity to speak to some experts from the world of industrial and organizational psychology about how to best harness the power of employee voice.

Listen with Purpose

When it comes to listening to employees, companies have traditionally relied on annual “census” style surveys to gage satisfaction and engagement. Unfortunately, these surveys often end-up as check-the-box activities as opposed genuine listening tools.

According to Dr. Jay Dorio, Director of the IBM Kenexa Employee Voice Program (NYSE:IBM), if you are going to listen “you have to listen with purpose.” Dorio goes on to explain that when developing a listening strategy always ask yourself “why are we listening?” as this will drive how you listen and the types of tools you use. Just as with any business strategy you have to start with a clear purpose.

Dr. Jonathan Levine, Lead Organizational Psychologist for Stop & Shop, agrees. Levine points out that regardless of the style or frequency of the survey you must agree on the purpose first and “only include things in the survey the company can feasibly act upon.” If you don’t plan on giving out raises and bonuses why would you ask about these things.

Understand What Really Matters

According to Dr. Angela Pratt, HR Director, Kellog’s Frozen Foods and North America Marketing (NYSE:K), we need to move away from “talking at them vs. listening to them.” Often times there is a divide between what matters to management and what matters to the employees on the ground. She explains that “one of the mistakes we make in business is that we sit around the table nodding in agreement” with what our executives believe instead of actually listening to what our people are saying.

Levine points out that one of the common challenges with the top down approach is that employees are rarely involved in the creation of the content, which means the questions being asked aren’t always the ones most relevant to them.

To combat this Dorio explains that “we need to evolve the way companies engage their employees” by focusing more on having continual conversations that tap the specific issues that matter to employees at every level. This starts with empowering employees to drive voice.

Empower Employees to Drive Voice 

Dorio notes that one of the most important elements of any listening program is fostering “employee driven voice.” The act of listening can often be one-sided because far too many engagement surveys are comprised of a list of old questions that may or may not be relevant to the current audience. He believes we should look for unique ways to draw themes out of our employees by using a mix of open-ended questioning, pulse surveys, and discussion forums.

In order to tap employee driven voice Pratt believes you must “create more intimate less formal environments.” She notes that Kellog’s uses settings like fireside chats and coffee talks to create more intimate environments where employees can drive the conversation. When it comes to facilitating these more intimate settings Pratt notes that “softening the power cues can go a long way in creating a more comfortable environment” where employees feel safe in openly sharing their concerns with leaders. To accomplish this, she advises dressing down and keeping the setting casual. Keep in mind it’s a conversation not an interrogation.

Act Quickly and Decisively:

Whenever you listen you must be prepared to act! Pratt explains that “closing the loop” on any listening activity is critical. When genuine concerns are raised be ready to respond and act. Even if it doesn’t seem meaningful to you as a manager or executive, jeans day, uniform requirements, and parking lot challenges may matter to your folks out there on the front lines.

Both Dorio and Levine note that you have to be ready to filter out the inevitable noise that comes with open listening. Some folks will complain for the sake of it and do so in a loud and often selfish way. Make sure they don’t hog the spotlight. Pratt advises getting to know the champions out there who genuinely speak for their peers as opposed to those just speaking for themselves.  

Dorio points out the fact that we are now in a world where more and more employees are demanding the same level of real-time interaction they experience in their personal lives. Technology has fundamentally changed the way we interact, which means the expectations of employees have changed as well. He explains that employers need to move more towards tapping real-time employee driven concerns and be ready to act on those concerns quickly and decisively.