Voice of Employee Programs Go Nowhere Without Trust
Voice of Employee programs go nowhere without trust.
A workplace can only improve through feedback from the people who work there. Surveys can be helpful, but they lack the data leaders need to improve their organization.
According to the Academy of Management, 50% of employees keep quiet at work because they are hesitant to air complaints or speak out against things that trouble them.
Since many feel too afraid to speak up, leaders must give employees a safe space to express their concerns and share both what is and isn’t supporting them.
But doing this isn’t always easy.
Take a Multi-Pronged Approach
GridFern Strategic HR Founder and Principal Ingrid Wilson said a successful Voice of Employee (VoE) program must impact the employer-employee relationship — positively or negatively — but the process requires planning and multiple design methods to gather information from everyone.
“Some employers include the exit interview in VoE programs with the understanding that it is just as important to know what impacts could have led to the employee's departure,” she said. “They may also add the new hire/onboarding survey.”
Either way, she explained, all of these surveys offer some form of anonymity, delivered through a variety of stand-alone technology or technology attached to HRIS (human resource information systems).
Yet, while surveys are beneficial, Wilson said employers can’t rely on just one type of feedback or data collection method. She recommends a mix of cultural assessments, focus groups and facilitated listening sessions as a start. Some organizations also collect feedback from employees posting on professional social media sites like Glassdoor or LinkedIn.
Benjamin Granger, chief workplace psychologist at Qualtrics, said organizations with strong EX programs typically expand their listening strategies to gather continuous, unstructured feedback from internal forums as well. Intranets and messaging platforms, for instance, can provide as much insight as social media.
No matter where you get your data, your VoE program should gather as much information as possible to capture the full perspective of employees in the workspace.
Related Article: How to Build a Modern, Holistic Employee Listening Strategy
Interpret Feedback With a Grain of Salt
It’s natural to feel good about positive feedback, but Granger warns HR and VoE leaders to be wary of high employee satisfaction scores.
Score-chasing organizations tend to receive higher overall ratings than companies that don’t, he said. This can lead to a false sense of security because companies that are more concerned with numbers than actually improving the workplace often fail to drive positive organizational behaviors.
“Astronomically high scores and response rates (>95%) can serve as a potential warning sign that organizations may be unintentionally encouraging poor behavior among front-line managers,” he said. One example of this in a VoE program would be managers who prod employees to respond to surveys and provide higher scores.
Meanwhile, he said, extremely low response rates (< 50%) are often a sign of lack of trust.
For organizations trying to buck this trend, Granger recommends removing the focus on survey scores and emphasizing the behaviors of leaders instead. If companies put more emphasis on getting raw, real feedback instead of prioritizing a high score percentage, they will foster better communication with their workers.
A high score is a great thing to have, but being more obsessed with numbers over authentic feedback inhibits trust. By putting in the extra effort (even if that means you have to forgo a higher score), employees will eventually see the change they need to make and begin to trust the feedback process more, thus providing more candid, actionable responses.
Leaders must also remember that bad scores aren’t inherently a bad thing. They often mean employees feel safe enough to provide their honest feedback. In other words, they trust you enough to be honest without feeling like their job is on the line. This can be an encouraging sign, whereas silence and perfect scores can hide or lead to problems.
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Don’t Scare Your Employees Into Silence
Various studies and research have shown that ineffective employee communication stunts workplace culture and inhibits successful employee-to-manager communication.
Adi Gaskell, future of work expert and Reworked contributor, wrote in an article for Forbes that silence is common at work when employees are afraid of taking interpersonal risks or being shunned by higher-ups. Employees need to trust the process and the program, which starts with an organizational culture that values the voices of employees.
Wilson said a clear indication that trust is lacking in an organization is when employees are reluctant to provide authentic feedback for fear of repercussion or because they do not see their employer take action to address their concerns.
“Ensuring that the feedback can be provided on an anonymous basis or provided to an external and objective third party, for focus groups and facilitated discussions, will also provide opportunities for honest feedback,” she said.
Related Article: 11 Ways to Doom Your Voice of the Employee Program Before It Even Starts
Final Takeaway: Listen and Act
Building on Wilson’s point above, Granger insists that one of the biggest downfalls of VoE programs is failing to act on the feedback being shared.
Humans have a fundamental desire to be heard, and ignoring what employees tell their leaders — especially after being explicitly asked to share — implies that their voices and perspectives don’t matter.
“In order for employees to feel comfortable sharing their honest thoughts and feelings, leaders should take the initiative to explain how employees’ feedback will be gathered,” Granger said.
And even when they do listen, leaders often still struggle to communicate back to employees how they’re implementing their feedback.
To curb this, Granger suggests following a 3x3 model: communicating action at least three times through three different channels. This can help companies measure the effectiveness of their actions and communications over time by including survey items like “How confident are you that action will be taken as a result of this survey?”
“Being clear on confidentiality — and how it will be leveraged — is key to building a culture of trust and psychological safety.”
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