Five ways to encourage people to speak out

As an HR person, how confident are you that people are telling you the things you really need to hear?

If there was a problem with bullying or discrimination in a particular department, would employees speak up or would they remain silent? If an employee suspected their manager of some serious wrong-doing, would they feel ‘safe’ enough to blow the whistle?

Research from Ashridge Executive Education suggests the answer to these questions is probably no – and almost certainly not as much as you would like. A recent study found that most leaders are blind to the fact that people cannot speak up to them. And as a result are missing out on vital intelligence which could affect their company’s success or indeed survival.

The research suggests that people in positions of authority often have an inflated idea of how easy it is for others to talk to them. They naively assume that ‘speak up’ initiatives or phrases like ‘my door is always open’ will encourage employees to come forward. What they fail to recognise, however, is that truth and power are inextricably linked. No matter how approachable they try to be, employees will always monitor what they say and only disclose what they think is ‘safe’ or politically acceptable.

There are some important messages in the findings for HR, who need to look at their own ability to have meaningful dialogue, as well as at what’s happening in the wider organisation. Is the culture inhibiting employee’s willingness to voice their views? Do managers across the business have the self-awareness and skills they need to enable others to speak out?

speak out

Here are five ways you can help to overcome some of the barriers there may be in your business to speaking out:

Meet people on their own territory

It’s easy to assume that by saying ‘my door is always open’, people will be comfortable walking through it with their issues, ideas and information. Phrases like this, however, send out a subtle message about your level of power as opposed to theirs, and may well put people off. Being summoned to HR can be enough to fill employees with fear and trepidation. If you want to encourage an open conversation or get to the bottom of an issue, try and find neutral territory or offer to meet people on their own turf.

Be aware of the labels people attach to you

We all have labels that are attached to us (male, female, young old, tall, short) – but there is an extra layer of complexity for HR people. It would be nice to think that employees feel you are ‘on their side’, but the truth is that as an HR person, people will attach other labels to you as well. They may see you as ‘management’, for example, rather than a friendly neutral ear. Or they might regard HR as the ‘corporate police’, intent on rigidly applying rules and processes, rather than listening with an open mind. And of course, employees will be very aware that you can make or break their career. HR is, after all, where the hiring and firing happens. Be aware of these labels and try to make sure they don’t get in the way of the conversations you need to have.

Understand how risky it is for others to speak up to you

Before people decide whether to speak up, they will assess the level of risk involved. It’s important to recognise that the personal stakes for an employee can be high – say if, for example, they decide to expose some kind of wrongdoing by people in the organisation more senior to them. Sometimes people are also reluctant to challenge the status quo for fear it will make it seem that they don’t ‘fit’. The VW emissions scandal and revelations of doping at the IAAF are prime examples of employees knowing what was happening, but choosing not to speak up, presumably because they felt the personal risk was too high. People need to know they can trust you and that their information or comments will not be misused or turned against them before they will speak out.

Set the scene

Does the culture in the HR team encourage people to speak up or does it put barriers in their way? Is the overriding style directive or authoritative? Is speaking to HR something that only ever happens as part of a formal process or do conversations happen casually? If you want people to speak up, you need to create the right conditions. Make it less of a big deal for people to speak to you. Make an effort to connect with people on a personal level across the business so they can see the human face of HR.

Make it a dialogue

How much do your team or you as an HR person genuinely want to hear? How open are you to changing your mind? Make sure that conversations with you are a dialogue and not a diatribe. Be curious about what people have to say and accept that there are always going to be different views about how things should be done – and that your view is not necessarily right. Be open to discussion rather than shutting the conversation down immediately if you don’t agree. Notice what you do in the conversation that allows others to open up, and equally, what you do that shuts them down.

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