Five ways to encourage people to speak out

This blog is based on research by Hult Ashridge, ‘Speaking Truth to Power’.

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 wrongdoing, would they feel ‘safe’ enough to blow the whistle?

raise hand speak out

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

Meet people on their own turf

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. If you want to encourage an open conversation or get to the bottom of an issue, try to find neutral territory or offer to meet people on their own turf.

If your employees are working from home due to COVID-19, meeting someone on their own turf might mean being flexible about meeting times, and letting them choose the medium of communication: video call, phone call, email etc.

Be aware of the labels people attach to you

It would be nice to think that employees feel that HR is ‘on their side’, but the truth is that as an HR person, people will attach additional labels to you. 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 employees may feel like 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. And with the uncertainties everyone has faced over the last year, people may be even more risk-adverse than normal out of heightened concerns for job security.

It’s important to recognise that the personal stakes for an employee when they speak up 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’.

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. Having a clear HR policy on how sensitive issues/complaints are handled might help allay some of your employees’ concerns.

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. And don’t forget to give people options for reaching you when they’re not working in the office – if you’re happy for homeworking employees to call you, say so. Or set up a calendar with appointment times that people can select if you’d prefer a more organised approach.

Make it a dialogue

How much does 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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