If HR talked to employees….

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer September 5, 2022
Here’s a summary of what happens when employers and HR get ‘surprised’ and why this happens so frequently these days. It turns out there’s an underwhelming amount of listening to employees/jobseekers and too few executives with the time or skill to do it well. Here are some key points and to-dos.


It’s amazing how many employers were ‘surprised’ by the Great Resignation.  And now, a recent article indicates that employers are also being ‘surprised’ by recently resigned employees wanting to return to their old employer.

And, the surprises don’t stop there. You’ll hear HR and other executives lament how jobseekers they’ve made offers to, suddenly ‘ghost’ the employer and never show up for the job. Similarly, employers/HR are getting surprised when employees suddenly and without warning announce their imminent departure from the firm (aka quiet quitting).

And, I could continue. But the real issue isn’t why all of these mysteries are occurring but why are executives, HR and operations, getting caught off-guard, unprepared and clueless. Yes, that’s the real issue.


And if firms don’t get better at communicating with (not ‘to’) employees, the bottom line will (continue to) suffer.

The real issue

Executives and HR leaders are getting surprised because too few of them talk to employees in a meaningful, frequent and substantial way. These leaders, wrongly, assume that today’s employees will be just like prior employees. They aren’t. These leaders also assume that many of these employees or jobseekers are just like themselves. That’s not true, either. And, even more critical, many executives are really bad at ‘reading’ people. They don’t really know who’s telling the truth, who’s misdirecting their employer, etc.

Just this week, I heard a back-office hiring manager describe how she has been unable to fill a key accounting position for seven months now. It seems that no applicants are responding to her job postings. Why? She has done a number of calls with others to learn that the postings indicate that the position requires the worker be in-office several days a week. Other firms are allowing the position to be 100% virtual. In this tight labor market, in-office or hybrid accounting work is undesirable and this executive’s HR team isn’t listening.

This hiring manager has had no luck getting HR or the CFO to listen to what she’s learned. Worse, even when she’s seen some movement in their thinking about work from home, these executives only want to permit the new hire to work virtually when the existing employees are not given this option. This is compounding the listening problem as these executives will soon face a slew of employees threatening to quit if they aren’t permitted to work remotely, too. The potential for massive job losses is definitely there.  Not listening has consequences and bigger ones may follow soon.

So, is today’s listening challenge a skills, time, people or process issue? It appears to be all of the above.


A famous ERP analyst colleague and I were comparing notes at a software user conference just before the pandemic shut these events down. A top discussion item of ours was the CHRO (Chief HR Officer) of this software company. While each of us had our own 1-on-1 meeting with this executive, we both came away with an adverse opinion of her.

Neither of us thought she was really that interested in the company’s workforce but instead was way too interested in her own career advancement. In my interactions with her, I asked about the numerous flights she was taking to visit the company’s leadership at various offices globally. I wanted to know if she ever flew with any other firm personnel? Did she try to sit with these people and learn about them, their career aspirations/challenges, their lives, etc.?  Nope. She could not care less about her firm’s people or anyone whose pay grade was lower than hers. What she did want to discuss was the new color for their corporate logo and how the new logo was going to change the company’s culture.

Frankly, I couldn’t then and still don’t know now how a new logo color can change a culture. But, I can definitely see how an indifferent executive can create an adverse employment brand, recruiting brand and culture attributes.

Now, I can report that in less than four  years, this executive has been a CHRO of three different firms. She likes doing things to employees, not listening to them.

People might listen to others but not really pick up on anything. In contrast, some individuals can be surprisingly astute in detecting even the subtlest clues from others. And then there are executives who just doesn’t have (or make) the time to speak with other employees. Executives have to make the time to speak with jobseekers and employees if they want to understand what’s driving changes in today’s workforce.

Looking at this from a different perspective, the best listeners may be those executives with a reasonable I.Q. (intelligence quotient) and a great E.Q. (emotional quotient). They also need the time and opportunity to do the listening.

I had the luxury of growing up with a number of extended family members. Playing cards with them was challenging as we had card counters, table talkers, bluffers and more. These folks were pros at knowing what was in your hand and how you were likely going to play things while not seeing your cards. They could read you and the entire table.  Not only that, but they could signal to their teammates in the most subtle ways – ways that were undetectable to most any others.

To win in those games, you had to learn to read people. You had to pick up on the cues, tells, tics, etc. You had to understand what options they had and which ones they were cut off from. The best card players in this family were always the ones who excelled at reading others and telegraphing their strategies to teammates. And, in doing so, they played their hands to maximum advantage while stymieing their opponents.

The best CHROs and other executives might be those who can both read people and make the time to do so frequently. (I’ll cover specific things they can do below). Doing one without the other is simply a waste.


The nature of work today is often grim. Whether you’re in the office or working from home, employers expect you to be focused exclusively on your highest priority tasks 24/7. They leave no opportunity for employees or executives to check out new technologies/innovations, ideate new process designs, or, talk to those who work for them. There is simply no line item in the budget for people to discuss career or other items with HR or their boss.  And I’ve yet to encounter the performance metrics, MBO line items or compensation plan that addresses the need for an executive to spend time listening to employees. No, the time is all spoken for on other matters and there’s no monetary upside to an executive for spending time with jobseekers or employees. (If it doesn’t get measured, it doesn’t get done!)

The communication between executives and employees is mostly infrequent, one-way and thin on insights.

Is this your firm?

  • Major communication with your boss/executive is mostly limited to an annual performance review.
  • Informal communication with your boss/executive is rare, and, if it ever happens, is limited in scope to a current customer/supplier/financial issue.
  • The last time most people got to speak about their career needs or plans was when they were being recruited.
  • The only time most employees see a top executive is when a tour is being conducted at their facility.
  • Employees do not bring job or career concerns up with bosses/executives as they fear the executive’s potential reaction.

It’s bad enough if you work for an executive (or have a CHRO) who won’t make time to speak with you. Worse still is the executive who just doesn’t make people a priority. In either situation, these executives will be ‘surprised’ when you and others leave.

Businesses need executives who use BOTH formal and informal methods of learning about their ever-changing workforce. Those methods are discussed next.


By now, if you are a CHRO, you’re itching to point out that your firm does an annual survey of its employees. You might even have some sort of periodic temperament surveys (e.g., the smartphone mood ring app) to see how ‘engaged’ an employee is.

From what employees tell me, these tools are awful on three levels:

  • Employees game these tools because no matter how strongly management insists that the results are anonymous, they aren’t.
  • Employers often ask the wrong questions on these surveys. The questions often reflect the kinds of results management wants and not collect the kinds of information that executives really need.
  • The tools don’t do anything to stem voluntary attrition.

So, what does make a difference?

It seems people more often leave their boss instead of their employer. Think about it.  If you work for someone who has no interest in you, you’ll leave. If you work for a psychopath, you’ll leave. If you work for someone who has no time to mentor, coach or guide your career (or just listen to you vent every once in a while), you’ll leave.

The first big process problem is that bosses and HR don’t make the time to just talk to employees. They don’t know how to have a conversation where pay grades, raises, skills development, etc. aren’t clogging up the agenda. They can’t just talk to people about what’s really of importance to them and others like them.

Here’s how bad this gets:

  • Do your top executives ever interview new school graduates? How can these executives know what drives a Gen Z worker if they haven’t met a number of them?
  • Do you outsource your recruiting? This activity further distances your HR and management from getting to know the newest members of your workforce.
  • Do you consciously expose top executives to your youngest or most diverse employees?
  • Does your firm encourage informal meetings (e.g., lunches) between staff and managers or is it strictly limited to formal interactions?

And yet, what’s often the most broken part of these processes is that employees don’t have a strong enough and trusting relationship with their superior or HR. No one is going to share meaningful job or career issues with a superior if that executive is not well known and/or doesn’t possess a trustworthy background. For example, I had one employee in my career who only saw me as a “person who can fire me” and wasn’t ever going to share anything personal with me. I was something that she wanted to keep things from not share them with me. Yes, we could talk about current job responsibilities or client work but that’s usually where it ended. Thankfully, once she realized that I could be trusted, those barriers fell away.

The moral in that anecdote is that it can take time to create the true sharing relationship needed where both parties feel they can openly, freely communicate with one another.

But, there’s more to this. Leaders need these frequent and varied interactions as they allow them a chance to ‘read’ their team members. It’s in the reading that they can either validate or reject what an employee or multiple employees are telling them. This is critical in assessing the true state of the workforce.  You won’t get that in an annual survey and may not pick this up in an annual performance review if the discussion is mostly oriented around salary matters.


And this leads us to ‘Skills’.  Not everyone is skilled at listening. Likewise, some people don’t know what questions to ask. Some aren’t great at reading the person in front of them. Others can’t tell when they’re being misdirected or misinformed.

It takes skills, practice, empathy and interest. Not everyone can develop these skills and some elude them for the entirety of their life. For example, I’ve known a great technical team leader for three decades. This person has a Masters in Engineering. Unfortunately, his egoism and lack of empathy towards others makes him a challenging choice for a managerial role. Yes, he is quite brilliant technically but, like the Sheldon character in The Big Bang Theory, he’s unable to detect sarcasm or understand how his words can adversely affect others.

Not all of these shortcomings can be cured via a course or coaching. I’m sorry to report that some people won’t change, won’t try, or, can’t change. But, that doesn’t mean we should give up on turning them into better executives or better listeners.

The Executive/CHRO game plan

You can’t just tell people to be better listeners and then expect miracle results will ensue. That’s a pipe dream.


Several simple things can make a big difference, though (see graphic). Just making time to share a bite with an employee can be highly illuminating and could help stop some of the ‘surprises’.  (Note: Work from home (WFH) arrangements can make this more challenging.)  Sitting next to a colleague on a flight can be a great way to learn about workers. A few minutes of extra travel planning time and you’ve got a captive audience to learn from. Getting top executives to assist in campus recruiting, job days, etc. is also an eye-opener for many leaders. So, too, is pairing up an executive with an intern. The common theme in all of this is to make different generations collide for a time. Getting people to mix with others outside of their generational cohorts should trigger new levels of understanding and awareness.

I recently saw an ingenious technique used by HR analytics vendor Visier . Visier developed a great report on what Gen Z workers want but they also created a powerful 6-minute video that showcased Gen Z workers answering questions about work, careers and more. The method Visier employed in the video was genius. Each Gen Z’er had a small white board tablet with a marker. An off-screen interviewer would ask them a question and each worker would write down their response. The format, while resembling a television game show format, is brilliant in helping older executives get a fast but insightful look into a new generation of worker (check out the video here).  More companies should do this to better socialize to their managers the changing workforce and its wants & needs.

Finally, readers should check out the recent Harvard Business Review piece titled “Why Your Mentoring Program Should be Mandatory”.  While there are numerous benefits to a mentoring program for both mentors and mentees, a mandatory program forces more interaction between HR, leadership and employees.  It’s possibly one of the best antidotes to the ‘listening’ problem today.

Is your firm ready to limit some of the surprises it’s encountering? Then get busy with changing the frequency and content of employee interactions. And, figure out which leaders are great at reading today’s workforce. Those are the executives that will make more of difference to your firm than any number of operational improvements.

Good luck!


(This article is based on the author's keynote at TechHR Singapore.)

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