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Fostering Positive Work Cultures Begins With Candid Employee Conversations

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Sean Sullivan

Chief Human Resources Officer, Society for Human Resource Management

It’s not surprising that one in five employees says they have quit or wanted to quit their jobs because of workplace culture. I’m certain that ratio is much higher. 

Who hasn’t felt the stress of wondering, ”is this place is right for me?” When we consider that adults spend half their waking hours at work, it’s clear how connected our workplace experiences are to our wellbeing and outlook in the world.  

An unhealthy workplace culture can mean many different things: a toxic environment, poor management, feeling overworked or unappreciated as reflected in benefits and compensation, or simply being unchallenged. While every person’s workplace experience is unique, all are ongoing journeys, with expectations and challenges that evolve in steap with a changing world.

Crucial conversations

From the organization’s viewpoint, how does management know if someone is having a good experience? Simply enough: by asking them. 

People managers, HR professionals and other business leaders must engage in critical, one-on-one conversations about workplace culture with employees. Through these candid discussions, with honesty and trust on the table, we can discover what employees actually experience versus what they think or want those experiences to be. With that awareness, employers can create a strong statement of purpose that fits their people and business practices, and put it into practice from top to bottom. We can hire for culture, promote for it, and fully inhabit it.

Data are important too. Today, measuring employee engagement is standard practice, but that should shift to include the quality of their experiences at work, too. We measure the quality of our products, services, and customer experience; we must do that for the employee experience, gaining a competitive advantage from constant improvement of our culture. And by weaving in what we hear from candid discussions, we gain context to what we see in the measures of employee experience.

The manager factor

Managers are the critical touchpoint for the employee experience. Yet many are promoted to management simply because they are good at their jobs, and it’s “their turn.” Too many companies fail to provide rigorous management training, focusing instead on processes and procedures, like writing performance reviews or approving business expenses. It’s no wonder half of workers who quit their jobs say it was because of their managers, according to a 2017 Gallup survey.

It is clear we need to explore the individual manager’s experience also. Almost two-thirds of American workers believe managers contribute most to workplace culture. Diligent, purposeful attention to developing effective managers is an investment in better cultures. In this issue of Employee Benefits, you’ll read many perspectives on the employee experience and how it affects health, wellbeing, and the business bottom line. But the most important takeaway should be the need for employers to explore and value these experiences as part of creating better workplaces.

By maintaining honest, open communication with employees and improving the manager experience, we are on the road to understand, measure, and improve the way people “live” their jobs every day.

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