The article was published in Workplace Today Magazine on March 1, 2021

Employee Engagement is key for any organization’s long-term success and the best way to measure it is through communications. How do you know if an employee is happy to be part of your team? How do you know if they feel supported, respected and valued? The answer is that they should be willing to communicate this to you. But the problem is that many employees do not feel safe to speak up.

A 2017 research study conducted among 1,300 employees by Fierce Conversations and Quantum Workplaces showed that about 50 percent of employees don’t always speak their minds at work to coworkers or managers. One way to resolve that fear from employees and get their input is an employee survey. Employees surveys are good ways to gather employee feedback freely and confidentially, and great tools for evaluating employee engagement.

But let’s not forget that another channel of communication is available to HR and managers, not once or twice a year, but daily, as long as HR and managers handle it with wisdom. – This is when an employee comes directly to you to report a labour-relations issue like potential verbal abuse.

With this communication channel, HR or managers can limit the likelihood of having an unexpected turnover due to a lack of communication or support, and avoid employee discontent with media headlines such as in the recent case at Rideau Hall.

On January 27, 2021, the Government of Canada released a report prepared by Quintet Consulting, a company hired after multiple sources brought forward allegations of verbal harassment to the media against former Governor General and her secretary. The report, based on interviews with 92 people, included both current and former employees at Rideau Hall and people categorized in the report as “knowledgeable individuals”. The words used by participants to describe the workplace climate and atmosphere were hostile, negative, toxic and poisoned. Humiliation, disrespect, condescension, a non-inclusive workplace, fear, and terror were also mentioned. Some described their experience as “walking on eggshells.” The report did not establish that the alleged misconduct occurred, but concluded that there is “a serious problem” that demands the Privy Council’s “immediate attention”.

Out of that case, these questions are relevant:

– Why would employees choose to trust the media? The simple answer seems to be that the pressure reached a level of no return and/or employees did not trust the ability of HR, or any other entity at Rideau Hall, to help address their concerns.

– What can we learn from it? In fact, we can learn many things. Here are a few lessons.

1. Never miss an occasion to hear what employees have to say. They are your #1 asset.

When trust between you and your employees disappears, they will go to other sources for help. And if that source is the media, you and/or the organization will be exposed. So, good managers never ignore employees who have the courage and humility to come to their door for private guidance regarding labour-relations issues. Such employees still believe in the objectivity and impartiality of the system which is why they are willing to go beyond their comfort zone with the hope of being heard, understood, supported, and not being fired for what they want to say. We can also assume that these employees are not yet actively disengaged, so how we handle their request will impact their engagement level.

2. Listen to your people objectively.

When employees believe their voices can be heard and you (their HR or People Leader) can be trusted with what they have to say, it is your duty to give them the benefit of the doubt and listen objectively. You can assume that employees do not have a hidden agenda because most people will not risk losing their job or be fired for lying or defamation. There are always two sides to every story, so focus on the facts and do not make any premature and hard conclusion.

3. Remember there is always something you can do.

The story that you hear from your employee might be complex, sensitive, difficult, hard to believe, controversial, or sad. Try to remain calm, use common sense, and follow your internal HR policies and procedures – and other related law-based guides – to address the next step regarding the issue. If the issue cannot be resolved by someone inside the organization, you may have to go outside to an HR firm or employment law firm for support. Keep in mind there is always something you can do, but by all means keep all the parties concerned in the loop.

4. Build a foundation of integrity.

Always have integrity when dealing with people and their concerns. If for any reason you failed to handle an employee case in the past, admit you were wrong for not hearing them, doing nothing about it, or not doing enough. This will help you rebuild trust.

Finally, as a leader remember this quote from Socrates: “One thing only I know is that I know nothing.” So, facilitate a culture where the voice of everyone can be heard. This way you can learn what works and what does not work in your team or organization. This will help your decision-making and positively impact employee engagement.

Carine Lacroix

Carine Lacroix

Carine Lacroix is founder and CEO of Reneshone, an Oakville-based HR company powered by facts and data which focuses on employee engagement for organizations of 5-3,000 employees.