The Voice of the Employee is a Battle of the Bands

— October 15, 2018

Last time we looked at the rather muddled ownership of the voice of the customer (VOC) in most organizations. This important part of understanding what customers want, how they feel and what’s on their minds is claimed by many in the organization, but properly owned by nobody. Sadly, the same can be said for the voice of the employee (VotE). Very cool acronym (VCA).

As with the voice of the customer, the VotE is an important part of making decent decisions, engaging the workforce, aligning the operations and hitting the targets. There are all kinds of groups in the organization that really ought to be listening and aren’t, and claim to be listening but don’t do it well.

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The obvious place to start with owning the VotE is the HR department. You know, the ones who are forever clapping on about culture and inclusion and diversity. Them. Sure, they may oversee the annual employee engagement survey, and they certainly get dragged into it when a given employee’s voice is saying things the organization doesn’t necessarily want to hear. But where is their official mandate to be in charge of the VotE?

CEOs Can’t Hear the Voice of the Employee

It could be argued that the VotE is far too important to leave to one department and it should be the centre point of every chief executive’s world. After all, it’s rarely the CHRO who holds those tedious town halls with all the employees a few times a year; it’s the CEO. He or she will tell you how critical it is to be snout to snout with the front line. They’ll go on about how listening, really listening, yields the insights and ideas that keep organizations innovative and nimble and whatever else is popular just now. All well and good and perfectly true, but how many employee voices can one CEO possibly hear in a giant room where they, not the employees, are doing 90 percent of the talking?

Ah, well, that’s why we do Breakfast with Bob or Lunch with Laurie or whatever your company calls the 60-minute hostage event where CEOs bond with regular folks over some tasty burritos. Surely, in the span of an hour of quality time your CEO can gauge sentiment, pick up actionable ideas, celebrate the heck out of someone’s 25th year of service and generally just chill and riff. In theory, that’s fantastic; in reality, the local office spent hours hand-picking the participants, precisely for their ability to smile, nod, ask insightful, but not uncomfortable questions, and not dribble salsa down their fronts while they do it. Loading up a room full of Tigger employees is just a big, happy bubble of confirmation bias.

Okay, so the CEO only gets to hear the voices that are more or less agreeing with her vision-du-jour, so nothing helpful there. How about that terrific Bright Ideas initiative you kicked off last year. You know the one: you used Slack or Slick or Slime or whatever that’s called to build a nifty online collaboration platform where employees could put up their best ideas, debate, discuss and blow each others’ minds with the sheer untapped brilliance inside the organization. Didn’t you hand out sunglasses when you launched it? You know, cuz the future’s so bright and all that?

Your innovation program may or may not be humming along. I hope it is, it’s a good idea and offers the VotE a place to go be heard. The truth is most of these ideas fizzle within the first few quarters, due mostly to neglect, but that’s a rant for another day. Even if your idea program is working, it’s probably not giving you a whole lot in the way of sentiment, actionable feedback or burning platform stuff; it’s giving you a slice of the VotE, in the form of ideas for products or efficiencies. All good data, but far from complete.

In larger organizations, the Overlords will quite logically concede they can’t actually hear the VotE over the noise of the boardroom projector fan, and they will suggest that it’s the business unit leaders who really need to step up and do some active listening. Which is perfectly right. In fact, I suggest that if you want to make someone accountable for the VotE, then your unit leaders are the ones. But for the reasons noted above, these people are not exactly getting that whole Truth-to-Power goodness either. They’re busy, they’re intimidating, and they likely aren’t that good at shooting the breeze with the rank and file (shhhh, don’t tell them; they just finished that book on authentic leadership, so they’re pretty sure they have it nailed).

Supervisors Can’t Not Hear the Voice of the Employee

So let’s pin the accountability on them for having some idea what their employees are talking about, but let’s get to the people who actually hear the VotE. That’s right: frontline managers and supervisors. They hear the VotE every day, all day. The whinging about the time and attendance software; the quiet anxiety about looming cutbacks; the frustrated people who are not getting promoted; the terrified people who are getting promoted; the new hires who are flailing, the burnouts who are self-medicating; the person with the fantastic idea who is too timid to share it, even though they totally loved the sunglasses and so on.

So we’ve finally cornered the VotE owner but we have the added problem that we now have many small groups of people all shouting to be heard. Where the voice of the customer can be thought of as a choir, when we’re looking at employee groups, it’s basically the Battle of the Bands as each jockeys to have more presence, more organizational face time and, let’s face it, more success than the other groups in getting through to the next round.

So what we’re left with is a lot of noise but no signal. This is where we need a bit of focus on process. Our frontline managers need to have a way to push the VotE up the organization. And no, I don’t mean some dreadful page on the intranet. What we need here is a repeatable, scalable process for frontline managers to constructively feed all that goodness into the organizational conversation.

If you’re genuinely interested in the voices of your workforce, it’s problematic to trust platforms over people. It may be as simple as ensuring that all manager one-on-ones include the question, “what’s your team talking about?”. If that question is asked once a month of everyone who manages people all the way up the organization, imagine what our collective conversations can sound like.

If that’s too structured or unenforceable, maybe the HR business partners need to be checking in now and again themselves with these people managers.

Perhaps it could be as simple as sending your frontline managers a survey few times a year to see what their teams are saying. Surveys may be a particularly good strategy where Speaking Truth to Power is widely perceived as Walking Self to Outplacement.

Frontline manager feedback is by no means the express ticket to the VotE, but if it’s prioritized over the townhalls, lunches, engagement surveys, ideas portals and suggestion boxes, we end up with a lot more bands on the stage.

Regardless of how it’s done, a deliberate strategy to hear the voices of the workforce should be on the executive team’s priority list for 2019.

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Author: Elizabeth Williams

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