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17 Mar. 2016 | Comments (0)

The reality show Undercover Boss has become a TV hit by disguising CEO’s and having them work incognito on the frontlines alongside their company’s hard-working and dedicated employees. In addition to experiencing often heart-warming and heart-rending encounters, what these CEO’s discover is that workers typically have great first-hand insights into how to save money, increase productivity and improve communication. If you’re a leader who’s interested in doing a better job of generating employee feedback, there are easier ways than getting made-up and getting your hands dirty trying to perform the day-in and day-out labors of the people who work for you. The following are some tips about the best ways to do that.

1. Conduct annual employee surveys

Periodic employee surveys conducted either internally or by an independent company such as Gallup, Gantz Wiley or Valtera are a time-tested way to find out what employees are really thinking. The advantage of using an external vendor is that employees have a higher confidence level that their responses will be kept confidential and anonymous. Employee surveys do have several drawbacks. First, they tend to be expensive. Second, they are designed to measure a point in time and only over a period of years is it possible to determine whether the company is doing better or worse against the qualities being measured. And finally, companies often find it difficult to communicate the results back to the organization. Indeed, this is a frequent irritant to employees who have taken the time to participate in the exercise, and the all too common result is a decrease in employee participation. Hint: If you want to get some spontaneous feedback, you can provide employees with a toll-free number they can use to call and talk about the survey itself or any additional topics they want to comment on. This can be a source of some great ideas.

2. Hold open employee meetings

Many executives enjoy the opportunity to interact with employees on a semi-formal basis and the best way to do that is to schedule departmental or facility meetings where employees can ask questions and offer suggestions. The challenge at such meetings is to get employees to speak-up. Between the presence of their bosses and their peers, there’s an inherent reluctance to raise something that might be considered controversial or critical of management. Hint: The best way to get around employee reservations of expressing themselves in an open forum is to give them an opportunity ahead of the meeting to submit their questions and concerns anonymously via email or telephone. The added benefit of this approach is that there’s an opportunity for management to research the questions and develop a good response.

3. Participate in small group meetings

A more intimate and personal way to obtain employee insights about what is and isn’t working is to host breakfasts or lunches for randomly selected workers or even better, just plunk yourself down at a table in the lunchroom. This option also poses a level of discomfort – not just for the participating employees, but also for executives who sometimes aren’t comfortable mingling with common folk. Hint: One way to level the playing field a bit is to hold the meetings offsite at a breakfast or lunch place where the invited guests might feel more comfortable.

4. Employee exit interviews

Providing employees with an opportunity to provide feedback about their experiences working for the company either at the time they leave or a short time thereafter is a relatively widespread method of gaining insight into organizational issues. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to catch employees before they’re out the door and many individuals are cautious about “burning their bridges” by saying something negative. In addition, a large percentage of the survey tools are designed to generate benchmark data rather than actionable ideas. Arguably the most effective technique is to hire an outside resource to conduct the exit interviews on the company’s behalf. These enterprises typically use trained interviewers to contact the former employees and lead them through a series of company approved questions. The comments documented are not matched with the names of the interviewees, so individuals feel more empowered to say what’s really on their minds. Similar feedback can be generated via web-based submission systems. Hint: An unexpected and highly useful question to consider using in your surveys is, “If you could sit down face-to-face with our company’s CEO, what would you tell him or her?”

5. Use an electronic suggestion box

The tried, albeit not necessarily true, practice of offering employees an opportunity to submit their ideas via a wooden box nailed to wall has been replaced by a much more user-friendly and effective alternative. Instead of contending with worries about co-workers seeing them drop a note into a slot or having their handwriting recognized, there are now companies that provide a service employees can use to pick up a phone, dial a toll-free number around the clock and simply record what it is they want to say. Their messages get transcribed verbatim and the messages are sent where the sponsoring company wants them to go. If the caller doesn’t want to identify himself or herself, they don’t have to. And because the messages go through an independent company, no one in the company can hear their voice or trace the phone number of the call through caller ID or accounting records. There are also email, live call answering and web-based variations of this approach. Setting up a program is easy and the cost is modest. Hint: The most effective way to get these programs used is to post samples of messages received and the company’s response to them in internal publications or on company intranets, Employees enjoy reading what their peers have been asking about and equally so how the company is responding.


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  • About the Author:Peter Lilienthal

    Peter Lilienthal

    Before founding In Touch in 1991, Peter Lilienthal built a 25-year career as a senior finance, strategic planning and administration executive for organizations like The Toro Company, Jostens, To…

    Full Bio | More from Peter Lilienthal


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