Most Employers Fail to Engage Workers in Decision-Making

Even though almost all believe it’s a good idea

By Daniel Weintraub Jan 11, 2016

Anyone who’s ever dreaded answering an annual employee survey—or tabulating the results of one— can probably appreciate the irony of the questions Waggl Inc. posed to about 600 HR professionals recently.

First, the Sausalito, Calif.-based online feedback specialist asked, “Do you think it’s a good idea to engage your workforce on issues facing the company?” Not surprisingly, the response was overwhelmingly positive: 97 percent said yes.

The second question was tougher: “Do you think your firm is doing a good job getting feedback from your employees?” Just 38 percent answered in the affirmative.

That’s a serious disconnect. Almost all employers say they want to engage their employees in decision-making, but most employers admit that they’re not doing so.

One reason for that failure might be that much-maligned annual employee survey, or any similar unpopular questionnaire that many employees view as a waste of time.

Too often, experts say, the survey questions are vague or irrelevant, the results take too long to tabulate, and the employees who answer the questions never see the results or any meaningful reaction from management.

And the problem can extend beyond written surveys. Town hall meetings, popular at some companies, can suffer from another, related malady: Employees aren't honest because they fear their candor will be used against them.

If these time-honored methods aren't working, what can be done to reach out to employees in a credible way and effectively tap into their knowledge of what is working or not working at a company?

One answer may be found in the kind of web-based application that Waggl and other firms, including Glint, CultureAmp and Officevibe, have been rolling out.

The tools engage employees in real-time, game-like feedback sessions. Employers ask a question or two, workers respond and everyone immediately sees the answers as they come in, whether they are yes/no questions or short responses. 

And if short responses are requested, employees can be asked immediately to vote on which ones they like best, pushing the most popular answers to the top of the list.

Michael Papay, a Waggl founder and its CEO, said that tools for getting worthwhile employee feedback need to be transparent and authentic, and used frequently.

“People are used to transparency,” he said. “When you go to a restaurant, you look at a Yelp review. When you buy a product, you look at CNET or Amazon. Every major decision you make in life, transparency is now part of it.”

Even when people look for a job, they can use to see what a company’s employees think of the workplace they are considering entering.

“Executives are now saying, 'If you can pull up our company and see what people think of our CEO, we’d better get ahead of that,’ ” Papay said.

Courtney Harrison, a Denver-based human resources consultant, said that online engagement tools are becoming increasingly popular with the firms she advises.

An example: One client with whom Harrison worked recently asked its employees if they were confident that the firm was going to meet its quarterly projections. Seventy percent said yes, but 30 percent said no. So the CEO asked a follow-up question: “What's the one thing I should be focused on to make sure nothing gets in the way of our successful execution of our goals?”

One response rose to the top: Manufacturing was running behind and would possibly not be able to get the shipments out the door on time.

“Everyone is seeing this answer,” Harrison said, recalling the conversation. “Everyone knows what the problem is. There's no hiding it.” The CEO responded immediately and offered a plan of action.

Given experiences like that, Harrison says it’s a misnomer to call these online, web-based exchanges “surveys” because they have so little in common with the questionnaires of the past. The new method is more of a dialogue.

“It's so much more than just a survey,” she said. “It's such a new and different tool and a different way of communicating.”

Papay said that online communication tools can also be used to create better face-to-face encounters. Executives who like to hold group meetings with their employees often find that workers seem reluctant to speak their minds. But letting employees answer questions anonymously online these meetings can become far more valuable.

“Performance conversations need to be far more frequent than once a year,” Papay said. “And checking in with your employees, asking, ‘What’s your sentiment, how are we doing?’ — that’s not a once-a-year activity, either. It needs to be in real time, in the moment.”

Daniel Weintraub is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, Calif.


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