We’ve all seen or at least heard of the Emmy winning TV series Undercover Boss. If not, it’s a show where high-level executives leave the comfort of their office and secretly take lower-level jobs within their organization to find out how employees truly feel about them and their company. What often happens is that the high-ranking executive is caught off guard by what they experience; both in terms of operational efficiency and company sentiment.
I’ll admit that even I found the first few episodes I watched to be engaging and surprisingly emotional as the execs spoke to each employee they were paired with and revealed who they truly were. However, the more episodes I watched, the more I kept asking myself the same question: how is this show a thing?
Hear me out. I’m a huge proponent of organizational leaders being in tune with their employees, but how is it that in the day and age of ‘always-on’ communication, leaders need to take such drastic measures to understand how their employees truly feel? To answer that question, we need to look at it from two perspectives: the organization’s and the employee’s.
The Organization Perspective...
First let's look at how most organizations engage with their employees today, if they do so at all. Common answers I hear when speaking with organizational or department leaders are conducting annual employee satisfaction surveys, holding weekly in-person one-on-one meetings, or simply having an ‘open door’ policy where managers are always available and willing to talk to their employees.
If an organization does have a process in place to engage with employees, the next question they ask should be, “Is our approach working?” The Wall Street Journal reported a few months ago that 40% of all employees in the US are miserable and are contemplating leaving their current jobs. In addition, Bloomberg recently reported that bosses are clueless that workers are miserable and planning to leave their jobs. Not only are recent studies showing that current methods aren’t effective, but they also highlight how out-of-touch managers are when it comes to these approaches.
The Employee Perspective
Next, we’ll look at the employee perspective and how it relates to each of the common methods. Annual employee satisfaction surveys are good in theory, but when applied within a real organization, they prove to be too infrequent, and any adjustments made may be too little too late.
If an employee fills out the annual survey, and only 54% of employees actually do, it’s a great representation of their views and sentiment at that specific point in time, but emotions and sentiment can change by the week, day or even hour.
So all the data you collected is most likely out of date by the time the survey results have been viewed. Weekly one-on-ones and open-door policies both experience the same deterrents, and those are lack of trust and fear of repercussions.
Most employees are simply too nervous to speak the truth. This could be for any number of reasons, but put simply, there’s no trusted way for employees to voice their opinions without fear of repercussions.
- Run Frequent Pulse Checks: Unlike surveys, pulses are short, lightweight, and easy to not only administer from the organization or team level, but also to respond to from the employee level. They generally aren’t any longer than 3 questions and are meant to be administered on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis. Pulses allow organizations to know how their employees are feeling at any given time and provide an ongoing sentiment analysis rather than a snapshot. Here at IMI, it’s a simple message that Rhonda sends out every Friday via SMS, email or our mobile app, asking how our week went on a scale of 1-5.
- Offer Anonymity: Since employees are scared to speak the truth, provide them with a channel to do so while protecting their identity. Every Pulse or Survey shouldn’t be anonymous, because you want to help employees who need assistance and can’t do so if their names are never attached to the feedback. But, deploying an anonymous pulse every now and then will give you a clear, unfiltered view of how your team truly feels about their work. If the results of anonymous pulses are vastly different from normal ones, that will highlight the lack of trust employees may have with management.
- Provide Bi-Directional Communication: Most internal engagement programs have the ‘top down’ approach where managers will deploy a survey and employees respond, rinse and repeat. The issue? Managers only collect this information when it’s convenient for them. To help build trust and develop a clear sentiment reading of your team, you must allow employees to provide feedback at any point in time.
- Keep Leaders Accountable: Data is only as valuable as the steps taken with it. If an employee reports being unhappy or has an issue that needs to be addressed, their manager needs to be instantly made aware and clear steps need to be taken to resolve the situation. The worst thing that can happen is having an employee be vulnerable and share how they really feel and have nothing come of it. This will sever the trust the employee has with the organization and stop them from being honest and open again in the future. At IMI, if an employee reports their week was a 1 or 2, which internally means they’re not happy, their manager is instantly notified, and it’s expected that action is taken within 24 hours.