Corporate Attitudes: When Speak Up Means Keep Quiet

As parents we all have been through the following scenario – we encourage our children to communicate and voice their concerns and to learn to articulate, reason and understand perspectives.  So, our kids start to speak up and we listen, patiently, but at some point, our patience wears thin, and we are not as interested or willing to listen.  Our children begin to question our commitment to our speak up and listening commitment.

This lesson applies with equal force in the corporate context.  It is unfortunate but true that a company’s expressed commitment to addressing employee concerns can be tested and eventually limited by its own actions and disregard of employee concerns.

I have witnessed this phenomenon.  An employee will raise a concern directly with a company’s audit committee chair, and the audit committee initiates its response procedures.  A designated contact person reaches out to the employee, assures the employee that the company will investigate the matter, and requests relevant information from the employee.

At this preliminary stage, the employee is exhilarated that he/she will be heard and provides detailed information to the designated audit committee contact.  After reviewing the information, the contact reaches out to the employee to schedule a meeting.

The employee trusts the company’s system and is convinced that he/she is being heard.  The employee meets with the audit committee chair and continues to provide information concerning his/her issue of concern.  The employee is satisfied that the concern will be addressed.

It is here where the positive interactions often break down.  How?

Two common scenarios occur.

First, the audit committee representative goes dark – no contact, no feedback, and no communication.  The employee follows up and still hears nothing but crickets from the audit committee designate.  What happened?

Second, the audit committee designate sends an email to the employee requesting specific answers to a series of follow up questions.  Unfortunately, the questions are drafted in a manner to reflect an inherent bias against the employee’s specific concerns.  The questions reflect a desire to tilt the inquiry in the company’s favor.  The employee fears, at this point, that his/her concerns were not heard but more importantly that the system is “rigged” against the employee.  The employee loses trust in the system and will look for alternatives.  What happened?

Both of these scenarios reflect a common problem.  A company’s expressed desire to listen is not backed up by a real commitment to listen, reflect, analyze and resolve.  The company has no real commitment to objectivity – instead, the company has committed to one thing only – to go through the motions to defuse employee concerns without maintaining its credibility to listening and responding appropriately to the employee’s concern.

Many companies operate at this level and are reluctant to acknowledge employee concerns’ and the need to make changes.  A culture that ignores its employees is just as likely to ignore its partners, its customers, its shareholders and other key stakeholders.  It is a disease that can infect other areas of corporate operations and eventually undermine a company’s ability to inspire trust and integrity.

We all know about the importance of active listening.  It is an art and skill that successful individuals are able to employ in their careers and life relationships.  A company, like any individual, has to commit to active listening – meaning understanding the employee’s concern, considering the employee’s point from the employee’s perspective and responding with a positive and open attitude.  When a company is able to implement such a perspective, employees will trust the system and raise additional concerns, many of which may be valuable and lead to significant improvements.

When a company encourages employees to raise concerns and then fails to follow through, the company has not only lost an opportunity to hear and implement meaningful changes, but the company actively harms its employees by destroying any chance of trust that may occur in the process.  Companies have to inject mindfulness into the process for listening and responding to employee concerns.  Perhaps companies should consider the lessons learned from parenting when we were children communicating to our parents or better yet, when we were parents and listening to our children.

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