Article: What if employers actually talked to employees?

Employee Engagement

What if employers actually talked to employees?

It's always a shock when employees quit without notice or when new hires don’t show up for the first day of work. But why are such surprises so commonplace today?
What if employers actually talked to employees?

Imagine a marriage where the two people involved do not communicate with each other or rarely do so on anything but the most task intensive matters. Would any of us be surprised that one or both leave?

Well, some employees believe their relationship with their boss is akin to two strangers coexisting under the same roof. How do two individuals have a ‘relationship’ if they only have one meaningful conversation in an entire year (aka the annual performance review)? Employees are human beings. As such, they crave, in differing degrees, contact with others, feedback about their efforts, praise when it is warranted, coaching when it is needed, etc. Noncommunicative or overtaxed bosses create a suboptimal or undesirable work environment. And we should be no more surprised when employees leave that.

We can see the evidence of this inattention everywhere in the modern workforce. So many people are discreetly seeking a new employer and planning their exit that the term quiet quitting has become part of today’s workforce vocabulary. The sheer quantity of people leaving their employers is even being described as The Great Resignation. And these trends extend beyond just current employees, with a rash of recently hired individuals who fail to show up to work - the phenomenon known as ghosting. 

Some employers choose to blame these activities on a new generation of workers. But any quick verification effort shows that this is a multigenerational set of issues. No, we must dig deeper to find out what’s really going on.

The stakes are high

If your executives really knew and understood your workforce, they might have been able to:

  • Have avoided some of the worst aspects of the great recession
  • Made better decisions regarding the return to the office mandate
  • Reduce the workload that HR must deal with
  • Improve operational results
  • Improve morale and subsequent employee engagement levels
  • And, of course, have fewer unfilled positions today.

Ignoring what your employees could tell you is a costly luxury that few companies can afford. Managers who will not make the time to really know and understand their employees may be some of the most costliest individuals within the firm. These managers may be creating some of the worst morale, employment brand and operational results your firm has ever experienced. Can your firm really afford this?

Believe it or not, the most important job of a manager/executive/boss is to create a work environment that makes employees stay possibly years longer than they otherwise would have.

Stop and reread that sentence a couple of times. Great bosses don’t have to throw tons of money at people to get them to stay. No, they need to listen to people, find out what each individual wants and needs and then craft policies, work schedules and other job attributes and accoutrements into a pleasing mélange.

Any idiot can bark out commands, create (unworkable or unpleasant) policies, and ignore employees. But to be a great leader, a boss must take time to meet with their team and discuss the matters that will impact productivity, career advancement and retention whether these be strictly professional or possibly personal matters. For example, a boss that merely assumes all of his or her employees are strictly job-seekers and not career focused may be creating a big retention problem especially if it the career seekers are the high potential and high-performing employees. Likewise, schedule concerns can be a major driver of attrition especially in retail and nursing occupations. Waiting until a worker has completed a full year of employment to discover that they have some specific personal needs is too late. A one-year wait is also an indictment of a manager’s lack of training, empathy or understanding of what it takes to be a successful leader.

The Listening Skill

Some leaders simply do not know how to listen to people. There are bosses that:

Only listen to what their own superiors have to say. They deem any communication from subordinates to be unimportant. Trust me, no one wants to work for someone like this. 

Lack empathy. They simply can’t imagine what it must be like to stand in the shoes of any of their employees. Maybe they lack context in their life as they’ve never had, for example, children of their own. But a lack of empathy often implies that the only voice they hear is their own rattling round in their brain. Be wary of managers with a high IQ but a low EQ. 

Lack the time to listen. A supervisor who has dozens or hundreds of direct reports simply may lack the time to give any individual any one-on-one, quality time with them. If your firm has large spans of control and has not assessed whether these leaders are making time to meet with individuals on a frequent basis, then your firm is failing its workforce in a material way.

Will not make the time to listen to subordinates. This type of manager can give you 100 reasons why they aren’t meeting with their staff but rather are preparing reports, meeting with company leaders/customer/suppliers, buried in bureaucracy, etc. This is a person who is not trained well for a role in management. However, most of this is a correctable issue if the firm has mentors and others who can coach this manager into a better performing state.

Care only about their own career and not about those of subordinates. This is often a nasty, politically oriented and self-serving manager. Personally, I believe every company needs to rid itself of these soul sucking and wealth destroying parasites.

Create the listening opportunities

Listening to one’s employees need not be painful for either the worker or the supervisor. It need not be constrained to the annual performance review.

The best managers communicate with employees all the time.

They take a bit of interest in each person’s work and personal life (to the extent that the employee wants to share). Great managers find ways to meet with each employee in informal and formal settings. 

For example, whether sharing a cab ride to the train station or sitting next to a coworker on a flight, a manager has a golden opportunity to converse at length with this person on a variety of subjects. When not concerned about an immediate annual performance review dangling over their head, an employee might share a number of items including: career aspirations, continuing education needs, insights about difficult clients/customers, etc. In these conversations, a smart leader should be thinking one thought: “What can I do to address one of these concerns and greatly improve this person’s job performance or career outlook?” 

Likewise, if you require your workers to return to the office, then you should make the effort to have lunch with a different employee every single day, if possible. Sitting across a table and sharing a meal can do wonders for breaking down communication barriers.

Be mindful that different employees have different levels of comfort in discussing items with management. No one in a leadership role should be expected to thoroughly know and understand each and every employee working for them. Some employees will always be very private individuals.

Nonetheless, managers should strive to create a multitude of ways for employees to express themselves and be heard. They should have some time allotted for employees to interact with them, whether through an open-door policy or some other means.

What you should/should not do now 

Harvard Business Review had a great article in September encouraging firms to make mentoring mandatory. Mentoring triggers a large number of semiformal interactions between workers and leaders within a firm and mentor programmes put structure around this communication activity and help ensure that it will take place.

What businesses should not do is acquire technology to spy on its workers. A recent Wall Street Journal article told of how firms are using surveillance technology to spy on its quiet quitting workers. The story states:

“Over the past 2½ years, more companies have started to spy on their employees, despite patchy evidence that use of workplace monitoring tech increases productivity.”

Just imagine what happens to your firm’s employment brand when word gets out (and it will!) that you spy on your workforce. No one wants to work for a company that is that paranoid and distrustful of its own employees. I would opine that these technologies actually exacerbate the quiet quitting phenomenon and other problems in today’s workforce instead of helping solve it.

Instead of spying on workers, wouldn’t just talking to them be more humane and enlightening? Even if these people are working from home, all it takes is for a manager to pick up the phone and call this person to speak with them directly. Spying on employees says you do not trust them. And without trust there can be no relationship nor any sharing of information. If you use these sorts of tools, do not be surprised at what you will reap from them.

All this is to say that great firms and great managers should not be surprised by recent workforce trends.

Why? Because great leaders are always talking to workers and potential jobseekers. They are quite aware and cosmopolitan when it comes to these matters. They’ve known about subtle changes in the workforce for some time and have been crafting appropriate measures to deal with these all along.

Great leaders also create the kind of work environment that respects the individual and helps them achieve a win-win situation with their employer. This sounds incredibly simple to state but is a continuous process for managers and how they craft a winning employment brand that triggers outsized retention.

The challenges for CHROs and operational leaders may be mostly focused on ensuring they have the right kinds of leaders within the firm. Don’t wait until the next annual performance review cycle to determine if certain individuals in managerial positions are not fully up to the requirements of running a modern firm. Get the people who know how to truly listen to workers and hopefully your great resignation, quiet quitting and other adverse HR trends du jour will go away.


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Topics: Employee Engagement

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