A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 17: Employee Voice

Posted on May 10, 2018 2:01 pm by | Internal | A Model for Employee Communication

A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 17: Employee Voice

This is the latest installment in a series of posts exploring a new model of employee communication, designed to deliver measurable results that demonstrate the impact on the organization in ways that matter to leaders.

Revised Employee Communication Model

The series:
Part 1: Introduction Part 9: Vision/Mission
Part 2: Overview Part 10: Values
Part 3: Alignment Part 11: Practices
Part 4: Listening Part 12: People
Part 5: Consultation Part 13: People
Part 6: Branding Part 14: Engagement
Part 7: Channels Part 15: The Strategic Narrative
Part 8: Culture Part 16: Engaging Managers

The four overlapping circles at the center of the model represent the best opportunities for employee communication to affect an organization on a day-to-day basis. This post explores the third enabler of employee engagement, employee voice.

The Engagement CircleAt the very beginning of this series, I shared my favorite definition of communication: an exchange of knowledge or information. Simply sending an email to the dreaded ALL list is not communication. It’s messaging. To communicate means both parties in the exchange arrive at a common understanding. That often requires tht both parties speak and listen. Ideally, either party can initiate a communication.

The oldest channel for employee voice—at least, the oldest I can think of—is the suggestion box. While I’m certain there were successful suggestion boxes, most were viewed with disdain by employees because ideas went in and nothing ever came out. Employees eventually stopped submitting suggestions as engagement plummeted.

Suggestion BoxYou might think the rise of the internal communication function might solve the problem, but for decades, employee communication was, in most companies, a one-way process that relied on mass media. Even the best early programs (ARCO and Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s and 80s leap to mind) were all about publishing. The ArcoSPARK (a weekly employee newspaper and my first exposure to employee communication) and Measure (a monthly magazine from HP that, if entered in a competition inevitably won that competition) were the cornerstones of their companies’ internal communication programs. Like any publication, they adhered to the basics of print publishing. They were distributed.

One of the characteristics of the SPARK and Measure that distinguished them from a lot of other employee publications was that they offered a rudimentary form of employee voice: letters to the editor. I can’t overstate the limitations of letters to the editor (as awesome as some of them were). Employees almost always wrote letters only about articles they had read in the publication; they weren’t seen as a way to initiate a new conversation. People who didn’t read the publication didn’t write letters; neither did readers who didn’t want take the trouble. There was also no guarantee executives read any of the letters employees took the time and trouble to write.

Is anybody listening?

I need to digress here for a story. The ArcoSPARK ran a front-page story explaining Oklahomaany’s response to President Jimmy Carter’s just-announced energy policy. Shortly after the article appeared, we got a letter from an Oklahoma landman—an employee tasked with monitoring a parcel of company-owned property—taking issue with the company’s opposition to elements of Carter’s policy. You could hear whispers among employees who were certain that anyone who dared contradict the president and the CEO was doomed to lose his job. Instead, the CEO and the president flew that landman to headquarters for lunch. They wanted to hear more about his thinking.

That was a story that got around!

This—back in the late 1970s—was an early example of employee voice. The organization Engage for Success says employees have a voice when their employer “sees its people not as the problem, rather as central to the solution, to be involved, listened to, and invited to contribute their experience, expertise, and ideas.”

Today, there are far better mechanisms for empowering the employee voice. But processes for face-to-face communication and technologies for digital engagement are pointless (and even lead to employee cynicism) unless leaders are committed to listening and managers support and reinforce the behavior.

The concept of the employee voice generally refers to the aggregate voice. That is, nobody should expect that every word shared by every employee will be heard or drive action.

What happens when leaders don’t listen to employees can have far-reaching consequences. Just ask Nike CEO Mark Parker, who had ignored multiple efforts by women working for the company to raise awareness of the company’s unacceptably misogynistic culture. Finally, a group of women banded together to conduct a guerilla survey among many of the company’s female employees, raising awareness not just with the CEO, but with the media, as well, with mainstream news outlets regaling readers with tales of Nike’s mishandling of the situation.

At Nike, the problem wasn’t a dearth of channels for employees to raise concerns. It was a failure to listen.

Channels for Employee Voice

Ideally, your employees have ample opportunities to be heard in face-to-face settings. These include…

Town Hall

  • Town hall meetings with plenty of time for employee questions and observations
  • Breakfast or lunch with leaders, in which a small group of employees dine with the CEO, president, or other member of the leadership team. I like these especially when the participants are front-line workers who have been nominated by the peers or submitted a request to attend. When I managed one of these programs, I sat in and took notes, then published the questions and answers so everybody could take advantage of the issues the employees raised.
  • Cisco Systems used to hold a session every month with former CEO John Chambers and any employee at headquarters having a birthday that month. It was informal, presenting employees with the chance to talk candidly with the company’s leader.
  • At two of my former employers, I conducted monthly focus groups with employees selected at random, just to keep my ear to the ground and identify any issues that may have been brewing.
  • After holding its annual all-hands meeting where the new strategic plan was unveiled, my current employer sent executives on the road to visit every company location so they could get feedback about what employees thought of the plan and what questions they had. Employee input was recorded and aggregated, presenting management with an overview of what was working and where more effort was required to communicate the plan. Leaders plan to hit the road for return engagements at the six-month mark.
  • Management by Wandering Around (MBWA) is another great way for leaders to hear from employees—as long as they are genuine in their listening and do something with what they hear.
  • I love the idea of a reverse town hall, where employees present and leaders listen. One company held a competition for teams to submit presentations, with the top five winners delivering their presentations in an all-hands meeting with the leadership team sitting up front and speaking only to ask questions after each presentation.

Supplementing face-to-face

Today, the channels available for employees to speak up are legion. The trick isn’t finding one (or more); it’s finding ones that fit with your organization’s culture, that are accessible by your deskless employees, and that management can follow and respond to.

Among the options available are…

  • Internal social networks and collaboration tools like Yammer, Chatter, and dozens of others. (Our Yammer network here where I work includes a group called, “Ask Jes.” Jes is the CEO.) At another company, the communications team sends leadership a weekly summary of Yammer posts that could benefit from a leadership response.
  • Existing internal social media can also be brought to bear, from paying attention to comments left to posts (and aggregating them to share with leadership) to conducting sentiment analysis using AI software that absorbs everything employees write, from blog posts to emails.
  • Enterprise messaging apps like Slack and HipChat can include channels specifically dedicated to employee ideas and concerns.
  • Similarly, employee communication platforms like Dynamic Signal and SocialChorus can be configured so employees can submit content, even videos.
  • Idea software lets employees submit ideas that other employees can comment and vote on. Most also include the process for managing ideas.
  • Telephone hotlines are still useful tools; everyone has a phone.

Formal feedback

Formal feedback mechanisms—like surveys—are fully legitimate means of obtaining input from employees and giving them a voice. So are pulse polls and other means of requesting and obtaining responses to specific questions or topics.

I have even seen companies set up video recording booths in lobbies or lunch rooms, inviting employees to pop in and record a question or statement based on a theme. Financial services company HSBC created an app that lets employees record videos that are automatically available for other employees to see. Each month, a different theme is introduced and employees share their thoughts on it. The communications team then edits the responses down to a manageable four or five minutes.

This is not a comprehensive list, of course. There are affinity groups and employee councils, the ability for employees to author articles for the intranet or newsletter, and even employee takeovers of internal social media accounts—and we’re still just scratching the surface. I would love to hear how employees speak up in your organization. Please share by leaving a comment.

Up next is a closer look at organizational integrity, the absence of a say-do gap between the values leaders proclaim and those they display in their behaviors.

The graphics for this series were created by Brian O’Mara-Croft.

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  • 1.Hey Shel - Thanks for the company shout out!

    Felicia Shiu | May 2018 | Hong Kong

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