September 28, 2018

Listen Up: The Value of Employee Feedback

by Brigid E. Heid, Eastman & Smith Ltd.

“It takes a great [employer] to be a good listener.”1
― Calvin Coolidge

Most of us can relate to the disappointment of being part of a dysfunctional organization. Whether we’ve worked for a failing business, played on a struggling sports team or served on a board with an ineffective chair, we can relate to the frustration of an organization not firing on all cylinders. In contrast, the experience of being part of a successful organization that routinely achieves its goals, isn’t afraid of failure and where members are working at peak performance is inspirational and rewarding.

What sets the dysfunctional organization apart from the high achiever? I believe it starts with listening to what its team members have to say. The skill of actively listening is vital to anyone in charge of managing people. Before an employee comes forward to raise a concern or to point out an opportunity for improvement, the employee needs to feel confident they will be heard and not be summarily dismissed or, worse, face negative consequences for speaking up. We beat the drum to our kids: “See something. Say something.” Why should it be different with adults in the workplace? It shouldn’t.

As business owners we must expect the same of our employees. We tell our employees to report suspected acts of discrimination, harassment, violence (or threats of violence) in the workplace, bullying, safety violations, fraud or theft. But what happens when our employees do come forward? Do we truly listen to what they have to say? If the #MeToo Movement has taught us anything, it has (I hope) taught us that when an employee comes forward, we should take the report seriously, let the employee talk without judgment or interruption and actively listen to what the employee has to say. Unfortunately, most of us could do better: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” (Stephen Covey, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”)

I am not proposing, by the way, that an employer should let its employees do all the talking. I am saying, however, that an employer should encourage employees to speak up while the employer listens. In difficult coaching sessions or disciplinary meetings, employers should give employees the opportunity to explain the situation. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask if anything is happening with the employee to lead to the performance issues. Then be quiet and listen. The employee can decide how much information to share. Likewise, when an employee with a mental or physical disability comes forward to request an accommodation, it’s up to the employer to explore what the employee may need to do their job. The law calls this the “interactive process.” I call it conversation.

Encouraging employee feedback and listening to what they have to say when they do speak up is imperative to improving the company’s bottom line and reducing legal risk.

1. “Man” changed to “employer” by author.