Employees Have Ideas. Is Anyone Listening?

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 25, 2010
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People age 55 and older, women and HR professionals are among employees who make workplace suggestions more often than others, according to findings released Feb. 23, 2010.

Right Management, a subsidiary of Manpower employment services, conducted the online survey Jan. 20-Feb. 15, 2010, through LinkedIn.

“We find that employees really want to be heard,” Right Management’s senior vice president of global solutions, Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier, said in a news release. “Making suggestions signals they are thinking about the performance of the organization and want to contribute over and beyond the requirements of the job. And this can be seen as a great opportunity by employers—if they know how to take advantage of it.”

Among the findings:

  • 57 percent of persons surveyed make workplace suggestions regularly; 27 percent claim to make more than 20 suggestions annually.
  • 30 percent of employees made more than 10 suggestions but fewer than 20.
  • Women were more likely than men to make more than 10 workplace suggestions annually (61 percent and 46 percent, respectively).
  • Workers age 55 and older were more likely than those age 25 to 34 to make 10 or more suggestions (76 percent and 51 percent, respectively).
  • Salespeople and HR professionals tend to make the most suggestions (50 percent and 28 percent, respectively).
  • Management and C-level executives were most likely to offer more than 20 suggestions per year.
  • 6 percent offer no workplace suggestions.
  • The number of suggestions made does not vary by company size.

There is little evidence, though, that employers truly listen to employee suggestions or try to benefit from their enthusiasm and perspective, according to Schroeder-Saulnier.

Granted, some suggestions can be over the top—such as bikini Friday, adding beer to the vending machines, adding a tanning bed and allowing an employee to replace a desk with a futon.

However, Right Management’s research shows that feeling valued by senior leaders and having their opinions count are two top drivers of employee engagement, Schroeder-Saulnier said.

“Listening to workers is especially important, because more and more people want to feel they are playing an active part in what happens in the organization,” she noted.

The best way to implement and handle a workplace suggestion system is among topics Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) members raise on SHRM’s HR Talk, an online bulletin board.

“The biggest issue is that [if] you ask, you better be prepared to respond, otherwise the program does more harm than good,” one SHRM member wrote in a posting. “We had a coordinator [who] forwarded suggestions to the appropriate manager/VP, who then was supposed to respond within 30 days. Eventually, the suggestions got backlogged into months and the program died off.”

Ideas that saved his employer money did not go through the suggestion program. Instead, they tended to be more project-oriented, with the respective manager or department employees implementing ideas without going through the organization’s more formal suggestion program.

High-level support is important, though, he pointed out.

“All that said, if top management supports it and you have someone to devote the time to making it work, it’ll be a good thing.”

Another person noted the importance of acknowledging every idea and explaining why it was or was not used.

“Nothing people hate more than taking the time to make a suggestion and then never hearing about it again.”

One SHRM member’s organization put an icon on employee desktops to make it easier to submit ideas for the company’s fall 2009 Cost Save initiative. Ideas submitted via the icon were linked to a database, and an administrator tracked and updated submissions.

“Someone has to own the project, though, and be ready for feedback,” that person wrote. Persons whose ideas were used received verbal recognition.

For another HR professional, semantics matter when it comes to encouraging employee voices.

“I don’t want to hear anyone’s suggestions, I want to hear solutions,” wrote this person, who advocates using a “solution” rather than a “suggestion” box.

Taking ownership of ideas is important, according to Schroeder-Saulnier.

“Be sure employees feel heard and have the chance not just to share ideas,” she said, “but to make them happen.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

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