Four Ways to Stop Pretending You Know Your Workforce

Most leaders think they know their employees. When CEOs, CHROs and executives describe their company's culture they usually launch into a laundry list of descriptors: innovative, energetic, committed, supportive.  Recently,  I asked a leading HR executive how she knew her culture was this way. Without a beat, she pointed to data: employee opinion and engagement surveys.

Then, she fell into the trap most executives do:

"I've also been with the company for a long time and seen and heard a lot through town halls, employee events and walking the hallways. In fact, my executive team and I just redid our values and we're about to roll them out."

And herein lies the problem. The average Fortune 100 CEO is 57 years old, makes $11 million and is highly likely to have a graduate degree (65% do). Think your average employee is anything like this? Or that they're ready and comfortable to open up to leaders and CEOs? Not so much. 

When we say we know our workforce--whether to embark on a culture exercise or values refresh--as leaders we're really just relying on our assumptions. Employee engagement data gives us a barometer, but doesn't let us dive into feelings and emotions. And can our leadership teams really understand and relate to the average employee--even if many of the team members themselves started on the front lines?

Executives and leadership teams need to stop pretending they know their workforces. Here's how:

1) Start with the demographics
To truly understand your employees, you have to understand the population you're working with. Pull detailed demographics on gender, age, ethnicity, geography, salary, years of experience, education--anything you track with rigor. Cut the data by function, level and geography and test your leadership team. Do they know who they're leading exactly? Help them understand the reality of their audience (guess what--they're not alike in many ways).

2) Study existing employee feedback channels
Look at how accessible they are, completion rates (by the same demographics above) and whether anonymity exists.  Do you dig into qualitative comments and code them for patterns like researchers do? Take a state of the union on your existing channels and what you actually do with the data and results to see if it's an exercise in futility or real action.

3) Provide third-party options to share feedback
Most employees won't be completely honest if they know the company is administering a survey and if they have to discuss it in front of their manager afterwards. And managers are rarely (if ever) trained on how to probe for more information and really understand the heart of the problem. Third-party researchers (like consumer marketers use) can get much more rich and useful data, catered the to company's specific needs (and not some global benchmark).

4) Pit employees versus leaders
Ask your leaders (independently) to describe the culture in three words. Ask your employees to do the same. Are there trends? Gaps? 100% of the time I do this exercise with clients, the gaps are tremendous. And highlighting them shows the danger of making assumptions about culture.

Employees are unique human beings--they come to work with their own DNA, skill set and set of characteristics. You cannot assume you understand. The only way to find what they commonly believe and how they feel in is to dig in, ask, listen and act.

Susan LaMotte is the founder of exaqueo, a workforce consultancy that helps  companies build cultures, employer brands and talent strategies. Contact exaqueo to learn more about how we can help you build a workforce that’s aligned with your company culture and develop an employer brand that will allow your business to scale the right way.

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