If listening is half of communicating, it should be half of what employee communicators do

Listening to employees should be an internal communications responsibility

An employee at an A&W root beer stand near the airport in Washington, D.C. noticed something interesting. Some customers were dropping the meals and snacks they bought into their carry-ons. The behavior increased over time. The employee told his boss about it and his boss listened, adding a new service: delivering boxed lunches to planes on the tarmac. That led American Airlines to start ordering the prepackaged lunches for 22 flights daily. Since then, the service has expanded to more than 100 airports, bringing revenue to the franchise root beer stand it might never have seen had it not been for an observant employee and a boss willing to listen.

That a frontline worker recognized the opportunity is hardly surprising. People who do the work day in and day out are the most likely to see where those opportunities lie. Such tales aren’t hard to find. For the most part, though, they’re reported because they’re the exception. Companies do a terrible job of listening to their workers.

A survey from the Medallia Institute found that 60% of employees don’t think anyone is listening to their ideas about how to improve the customer experience (CX) despite the fact that 78% say their leaders have told them CX is a priority. Those employees reported having ideas on how to delight customers, improve processes and practices, improve training and development, and reduce company costs.

How to improve the business isn’t the only thing employees can contribute if only the company would listen. They are also one of the most influential groups when it comes to companies deciding to take sides on social issues. A Public Affairs Council study found that employees rank behind only senior management when it comes to wielding the influences that lead to engagement in social issues. Customers trailed employees by 19 full points when it came to influence and led advocacy groups by 31 points.

Employees are the source of influence for companies taking sides on social issues

Imagine how much easier it would be for companies to decide how to approach social issues if they sought out employees’ views rather than wait for employees to weigh in.

Listening is hard work

It’s crazy that companies aren’t more actively listening to employees. But then again, the history of employee relations is littered with half-assed efforts to let those toiling on the front line contribute ideas generally deemed the province of executives.Isn’t that why senior leaders paid the big bucks? (As an aside, I remember listening maybe 20 years ago to the CEO of Avon explain that he had to make sure he walked a production floor and spoke to front-line employees at least once a month lest he fall into the trap of viewing those workers as children who can’t understand complex issues or take bad news. By engaging personally with them, he was reminded that they were all adults.)

Suggestion boxSuggestion boxes are still a thing (a company called Global Industrial will sell you one for $44.95). They don’t work for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the push for employees to share their suggestions tends to be short-term. Then there’s the failure to follow up with employees who make suggestions; if there’s no recognition or reward for making a suggestion, what’s the point? In most organizations, there isn’t even a process for acting on suggestions.

For a while, it seemed the digital workplace would produce a better version of the suggestion box. Salesforce introduced the Ideas platform close to a decade ago, employing a Reddit-like promote/demote concept for customer ideas. Dell was one of the companies to adopt it (Dell’s Ideastorm is still going strong). Dell introduced an internal version called Employee Storm that, for a while, seemed like it could revolutionize the mining of employee ideas. Ultimately, though, Dell dropped the tool because employee behavior shifted in favor of the company’s enterprise social network. I haven’t heard much about how effectively Dell extracts and implements suggestions from the ESN, though.

You can’t find the Ideas product on the Salesforce website anymore (though the company continues to use it to solicit customer input). There are, however, dozens of “idea management” software products (like these), but they’re used almost entirely for customer input.

Who is responsible for listening?

As any report should, Medallia’s offers some remedies that pretty much anybody could list, like soliciting regular feedback and guaranteeing confidentiality. The problem is, until listening becomes systemic, it will always be hit-and-miss. Right now, in most organizations, you cannot find the box on the org chart where responsibility for listening resides.

Employee Communications departments should assume responsibility for listening to employees. One of the simplest definitions of communications, the exchange of information, requires listening. Communication is also generally viewed as a two-way activity. Sometimes you’re talking; sometimes you’re listening. An internal communications department that doesn’t listen is nothing more than a content distributor.

An annual survey doesn’t cut it. The best employee communication departments solicit feedback constantly. In a recent FIR podcast interview, Peter Vogt (BBVA’s global head of employee communications) said his department gathers employee feedback on a weekly news video quarterly. HP Inc.‘s internal communication team includes one staff member dedicated entirely to the ESN, extracting insights and passing them along to whoever needs to see it. Intel applied sentiment analysis software usually used for external audiences to internal comments to figure out why some employees weren’t happy with a new program (and then addressed the issue).

Cisco System's Social Media Listening CenterIf communication is half listening, more internal comms departments need to follow these examples and incorporate listening into their day-to-day activities. I’m not talking about getting feedback on how employees like the content the department produces. I’m talking about developing and maintaining mechanisms for employees to share their ideas (and the processes for acting on those ideas, including recognizing those employees whose ideas are put into action and notifying those whose ideas are rejected so they at least know that somebody paid attention). I’m talking about monitoring ESNs and other collaborative channels to identify areas of concern, ideas, and insights so the company can act on them (just like companies monitor external social media today).

If internal communications departments facilitate the communication between the company and employees, they should fully embrace all of communication—not just the talking bit—and listen on behalf of the organization.

If we do, stories (and business outcomes) like that of the A&W employee will be much less remarkable and much more common.