7 Best Practices To Improve Employee Listening Efforts and Build Trust

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Best Workplaces High-trust leadership Listening

Great Place To Work research shows that robust listening efforts can lead to important business outcomes, from stronger recruitment and retention to higher stock market returns.

For companies looking to improve their workplace culture, there’s no better place to start than the nine high-trust leadership behaviors.

Great Place To Work® identified these actions as the most effective ways for companies to build trust with employees — the most important factor in creating a great workplace culture and rising up the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® List.

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Creating a great workplace culture isn’t a vanity project, either. High-trust workplaces have higher retention rates, lower levels of employee burnout, more productivity, and higher stock market returns.

Of the nine behaviors that help leaders build trust, listening is the most important — and often the most misunderstood.

While most companies having listening programs of one kind or another, how you listen makes a big difference.

“Listening is not just making sure you’ve accurately heard the words coming out of someone’s mouth,” says Michael C. Bush, CEO of Great Place To Work. “It’s also not just waiting for someone to stop talking so you can speak. It is choosing to empty your mind and set aside your opinions while someone else is talking.”

What great listening looks like

Here are seven best practices that Best Workplaces™ follow to get feedback from employees:

1. Make employee listening its own job with dedicated resources

If listening has a measurable and meaningful impact on your bottom line (retention, productivity, and stock market returns), then it makes sense to have a dedicated business unit for employee listening.

At Wegmans Food Markets, No. 4 on the 2023 Fortune 100 Best list, every store location has an employee advocate, a role that provides confidential and dedicated support to both frontline employees and managers.

“They offer an objective point of view and provide a safe space for our people to seek guidance to find resources and development opportunities, resolve personal and professional issues, access benefits, and more,” shares Peggy Riley, vice president of employee communications and engagement.

The advocates are crucial resources that ensure employees can build a one-on-one relationship with a support staffer outside the chain of command for their role.

“Rather than reporting to a store manager or anyone in the employee’s chain of command, advocates report to a HR director, who in turn reports to our vice president of store operations HR,” Riley says.

Other companies have dedicated business units focused on engaging employees on the employee experience and crucial areas of growth and transformation. Atlassian, No. 7 on the 2023 100 Best list, has its “Team Anywhere” — a dedicated group that supports its distributed workforce with team members not required to report to an office. Salesforce, No. 8 on the 100 Best list, has launched an Office of Transformation, which it says is “driven by employees, for our employees.” The new function is focused on using artificial intelligence (AI) to optimize processes while safeguarding against errors and involving more employees in the transformation coming with new AI tools.

By creating dedicated business units, Salesforce and Atlassian ensure that listening is built into core business operations, with more employees generating fresh ideas and contributing to important changes across the organization.

2. Ensure CEO listening sessions include unfamiliar faces

It can be extremely valuable for the CEO to have skip-level meetings with employees of all roles and functions.

At Vertex Pharmaceuticals, No. 84 on the 100 Best in 2023, CEO Reshma Kewalramani hosts a meeting called “Lemonade and Pretzels,” where a small group of Vertexians can join her for a conversation about their work. She asks questions, but also encourages participants to ask questions of her, ensuring the conversation goes both ways.

Synchrony, No. 20 on the 2023 100 Best list, holds “ask us anything” meetings with senior leaders, including CEO Brian Doubles, answering questions on a variety of topics. Open to 20,000 employees, leaders sit on the call until there are no more questions from the audience.

Synchrony also holds one-hour sessions with smaller groups of 15 to 20 employees, with just one question on the agenda: “What’s not working?”

“If you are listening to your employees … that is where we get our best ideas,” says Doubles. “You’re not going to get it sitting around the table with the executive leadership team trying to come up with programs to support employees. It really has to be co-created, co-developed with them.”

3. Use listening to drive innovation

When asking employees to change how they work, it’s important to include their feedback in the decision-making process. When Adobe launched a new testing program around its new AI tool Firefly, it wanted to get employees together to work through their concerns.

A non-mandatory all-hands session was offered to talk through ethical considerations related to generative AI. Open to all employees, attendees were invited to ask questions and share their concerns, with 4,000 employees participating.

Make sure employees are recognized for their contributions to new systems and products when bringing everyone together for innovation sessions. Employees won’t feel heard if they can’t see how their contributions affected your final decision.

4. Scale listening with service committees and ambassadors

A dedicated committee of employee representatives can help surface issues that might otherwise go unspoken. Employee representatives can offer anonymity by sharing the perspective of their colleagues, and offer invaluable resources for leaders to take the pulse of employees.

Vertex Pharmaceuticals runs a “manager sounding board,” a group of 30 managers that represent various departments and locations. The group comes together four times a year to share ideas and experiences, and members serve as ambassadors for HR initiatives.

Dow, No. 89 on the 2023 100 Best, brings together people leaders and influential individual contributors on a group call after every quarterly earnings call with investors. “You get away from this telephone game,” says Alveda Williams, chief inclusion officer at Dow.

“It’s an opportunity for people to get clear direction.” 

5. Tap into your employee resource groups

Another way that employees that can provide crucial feedback to leaders are through employee resource groups (ERGs), cohorts of employees that have come together based on a shared affinity or personal background.

Ally Financial, No. 71 on the 2023 100 Best, asks its eight resource groups to facilitate discussions and feedback to given to executive leaders about the employee experience at the bank. Ally credits its ERGs with having a direct impact on policies, programs, and business operations.

Reggie Willis, chief diversity officer, also credits these groups with supporting psychological safety so that people feel seen and respected. “People feel safe and heard and can learn in an environment that’s low risk,” Willis says.

Companies can also create a “super ERG” — a group with members from all your different ERGs that can serve as a resource for high-level feedback on hot topics affecting your employees.

6. Meet frontline employees where they are

For Panda Restaurant Group, No. 89 on the 2023 100 Best, the My Voice Matters program offers associates a dedicated hotline they can call to talk to HR reps to raise concerns anonymously.

Each restaurant location has informational posters with key contact information listed, and the program supports communication in several different languages.  

Associates are also given a pulse survey consisting of four questions at the end of every shift. If a worker shares a bad experience in that survey, an HR rep follows up with them to investigate.

7. Regularly survey to build participation and engagement

To get a holistic picture of the workforce, there’s no substitute for an employee survey. Great Place To Work’s Trust Index™ Survey has 60 statements that have been tested and refined over 30 years to identify crucial experiences that lead to better outcomes for workers and for businesses.

Companies on the 100 Best list form a benchmark that can be sued to measure your employee experience. And companies that regularly survey with Great Place To Work, or with other tools, can build up impressive participation rates.

American Express, No. 3 on the 100 Best list in 2023, had more than 57,000 employees take its colleague experience survey. CEO Steve Squeri explained to his people why a high participation rate is a badge of honor:

“Our high participation is a testament to how much you care about our workplace and each other. You’re playing an active role in enhancing our culture and making our company a place where every colleague feels seen and heard.”

For every survey given to employees, make sure you follow up with action items based on the feedback you receive. If employees feel that their feedback is being ignored, participation rates for your employee survey will drop.

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Ted Kitterman