We've all been there: Maybe you've contributed an idea at a meeting, and no one acknowledged it. Or you've registered your discomfort with a strategy, and leadership blew past it. Or you've pointed out problems with a database, only to have managers push ahead with the problematic framework anyway — leaving you a mess to clean up later.
But what about when the problem is chronic? In May, workplace think tank The Workforce Institute at UKG conducted a survey of employees in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and India on the topic of not being heard at work. While the overall results were promising — 81% of respondents feel heard in their workplace — Chris Mullen, executive director of The Workforce Institute at UKG, shared some of the insights he and his team gained from the findings.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
HR DIVE: What instigated this survey?
DR. CHRIS MULLEN: A few months ago, it came to light in our discussion as a group that the employee voice is something we don't talk about enough. Folks talk about empowerment, folks talk about engagement, but sometimes that comes down to, from an employee's standpoint, a sense of belonging. If you dig a little deeper, it comes down to, 'Is my voice being heard as an employee?' Everyone got excited about that topic. And then, when you layer the pandemic on top of that, it becomes even more interesting.
I'm curious about this designation of "feeling heard." When people were responding to the survey, was this described in a certain way or left up to interpretation?
From an employee standpoint for those who took the survey, it really comes down to, you know, the idea that whether they're heard or not, they need to feel heard for things to happen. And so it was up to the respondent of the survey to make that distinction about whether or not they felt heard — they could create their own definition of what that looks like. I think that puts the onus a lot of times on the company to help employees define what it means to feel heard.
I don't think companies should be defining it for their employees. It's a really good activity to ask your employees, 'What does it mean to feel heard?' It's a great dialogue, it's two-way communication between the employer and employee and I think it can lead to more trust in that relationship.
While the survey found most people do feel heard, there are many more people (86%) who say that not everybody is heard fairly or equally, which suggests some people who do feel heard are noticing that other people are not being heard. What does that suggest is happening in the workplace?
I think employees are becoming more cognizant of their co-workers and their relationships. So while I may feel heard from my company, I may know that my teammates are not.
There could be a lot of different reasons for that. I thought there was some interesting information that came out of the study — that only 9% of younger workers believe everyone at their workplaces is heard fairly and equally, as opposed to older workers. So there are these segments, these slices that companies should be aware of. We can't broad-brush every employee. We can't personalize it to the individual employee but we can't broad-brush the entire employee population either. It needs to be a good in-between.
One thing that occurred to me as I was looking through the survey: Someone could consider themselves as among those "not being heard" if they make a suggestion and that suggestion is not used, if an employer is not in a position to fulfill an employee's request or desire or use their idea. Is there another way that employers can make them feel heard in that situation?
We're not insinuating that when an employee says something and expresses their voice that [the idea or request] should always be carried out by the employer; that's not what we're suggesting here. What we are suggesting is what you mention — that there should be communication from the employer to the employee about why they can't [fulfill a request] or why that request is being delayed.-
When employers do [workplace] surveys, there are a lot of different results that come from employees, a lot of suggestions, and you can't do them all. But you can communicate back what the results were, you can communicate what is being done, the low-hanging fruit that can be accomplished. You can also communicate what may need some more time or resources. If something can't be done, you can communicate that and the why behind it as well.
Let's talk about a particular workplace situation. How should a meeting ideally be run to ensure that people feel heard?
There should be some time for open dialogue in meetings. For example, if you're talking one-on-one with your manager, does the manager just do a project update or are they being more of a coach, manager and empathetic leader? I ask my team members who report to me, 'What's on your mind?' That allows them to express whatever they're feeling. After they express what's on their mind, I say, 'And what else?' Because there could be some underlying things that they're not saying but they may want to say. You have to have a level of trust for the employee to be honest in that situation.
From a large department perspective, you can do town halls with your leaders and hopefully your C-Suite is there and they're listening in. Sometimes it's about access. It's important that leadership is not just listening, but they're also communicating.
What about shy employees? People who might have something they'd like to get across to their employer but they're hesitant to speak up?
Companies should be worried about that. We found that 34% of employees would rather quit or switch teams than voice their true concerns with management. That's concerning to me. So, I think we should have different modes for employees to respond or express their voice. More anonymous and confidential types of surveys are where you're really going to get what's happening with your employees. You won't know who it is, but boy, that could give you a lot of good information to then jump off of for employee focus groups and things like that.
Intuitively, that makes a lot of sense to me, because there are greater stakes involved with sharing certain things if you're concerned about things like retaliation. Obviously that's illegal, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. So what are ways that employers can create a safe space, for lack of a better term, for employees to really feel like they can share what they're really thinking?
You could do an anonymous or confidential survey, but it's also about not just talking the talk, but walking the walk — showing employees some success stories that have come out of hearing from employees and having employee voices being heard. Some of it comes down to marketing and brand awareness; there have been things that have gone well because employees voiced their opinion or made suggestions. That's a really good time to build trust with your employees.
What results were the biggest surprise for you?
There are so many good ones. You know, the one that I mentioned about the folks who would rather quit or switch teams than voice concerns with management — I think companies should be concerned about that. It's not even just that we're not hearing those folks, we're not hearing them well enough because they don't even want to tell us. To me, that's about some sort of foundational trust.
The other one would be the "sense of belonging" statistic — that employees with a very high sense of belonging and engagement are significantly more likely to feel heard than those with low belonging or engagement. That shows that the more we engage our employees, the more we give them a sense of belonging, the more they'll feel heard and express what their opinions and needs are.