Ideas: Talk to Employees

This idea is excerpted from Barbara’s book “Handle with CARE — Motivating and Retaining Employees” (McGraw-Hill 2002).

The Idea:

If a supervisor or manager wants to improve communication and morale, they must be visible and available to talk with employees.

The Idea In Action:

At Armstrong Machine Works, a division of Armstrong International, either the general manager or the controller hands out employee’s paychecks every week, whether they work in the office or in the shop. To do this, the GM or controller must know all the names of over 300 employees. Why do they do this? In his book Managing by Storying Around, David Armstrong says, “We want everybody to have a chance to be heard. While we have an open door policy, not everybody feels comfortable walking into the corner office. By having an officer of the company hand out paychecks, everyone is assured that at least once a week, he’ll have a chance to ask a question, voice a concern, or suggest an idea to one of the people in charge.”

Several organizations I have worked with have what they call “Grapevine sessions” to stop the flow of the rumor mill and to help create more open communication throughout the organization. The company-wide understanding is that any employee can call a grapevine session at any time that he or she feels there are too many rumblings, rumors, and concerns going on simply by going to the president or another officer of the company and requesting it. On that same day, all employees who are able are asked to gather in a large area of the company, and the president or whatever company officer is available addresses their questions and concerns in an informal way. Some organizations schedule these informal communication meetings on a regular basis. Often they are followed by a relaxing, social time sponsored by the company, with the group sharing snacks and a soft drink, and the discussion continues in a more relaxed setting. One of the keys to these sessions working is the commitment by the company officers to be completely open and honest. Even when they can’t give specific information, they CAN honestly explain why and when they will be able to share certain information. Another issue of vital importance in larger organizations is to include offsite personnel by either audio taping or videotaping these sessions and then sending out tapes within 24 hours. It is best to set limits to these meetings–no more than 45 minutes to 1 hour, and to determine an organizational Code of Conduct as to what behaviors are acceptable in these meetings. These grapevine sessions can be implemented in departments or divisions or throughout the whole organization.

Several organizations use breakfasts or lunches as special times for senior management and employees to get to know one another better. Sharing a meal creates an atmosphere that encourages openness and bonding. Iowa Electric Light and Power has a program called “Lunch with Management” At least twice a month officers of the company are available at different locations such as the general office, operations locations, and the power plants, and employees can sign up to share that time with them. At Greenville Utilities Commission employees can fill out a coupon and then they are randomly selected for an informal breakfast or lunch with general management. These informal meetings allow a new level of understanding and communication to permeate the organization.

  • Kenneth Smith, the General Manager of the O’Hare Hilton Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, has a “Meet the Manager” meeting once a month. These informal meetings are held in a neutral room at different times, and he encourages open, off the record discussions of whatever the employees would like to talk about. Ken always shares his philosophy that the employee has the most important job in the company, and his job is least important. This level of communication and respect has won his hotel the award for the outstanding airport hotel in the country! Ken also sends a birthday card to each employee on his or her special day.
  • To better improve communication between him and his employees, a senior manager decided to give each of his direct reports five paper silhouettes of his hand for Christmas each year. Each paper “Helping Hand” represents one hour of his time which the employees can choose to use any way they want during the year. Not only do they have lots of fun teasing him about baby-sitting, mowing their lawns, or walking their dogs, but as he actually does the tasks they choose such as sorting and delivering mail, answering telephones, entering data, and manning the front desk, he not only learns more about them and their work, but he also creates a new spirit of teamwork and communication.
  • The Gymboree Corp. in Burlingame, CA, each year surveys all 7000 employees. They ask how they feel about working there and what they can to to make work a better experience. To make sure that they get at what’s really going on, they ask questions in many different ways. Then they assemble a team to work on what they’ve learned. Many changes have occurred as a result of these surveys. Gary White, the CEO says that keeping employees happy is the key to long-term success. That means keeping the channels of communication open—measuring satisfaction through surveys as well as just by walking around and checking in with people.
  • In their book True Leaders, Bette Price and George Ritcheske share how Jim Nicholson, President and CEO of PVS Chemicals, Inc., Lou Smith, President and CEO of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and Garrett Boone, the Chairman and Co-Founder of The Container Store, creatively communicate with their employees:

Call Jim Day — PVS Chemical’s Jim Nicholson picks one day a quarter and designates it as “Call Jim Day.” “You can call up, you don’t have to identify yourself, it’s just an open direct access for folks to call up and vent or praise or complain,” Nicholson explains. It’s open to employees, their spouses, even their kids—anyone who wants to call. And there are no filters—no secretary who screens the call and says that Nicholson is not available.

Chats with Lou— Five times a year Lou Smith convenes a group of 30 to 50 associates so he can spend time listening to their ideas, their suggestions, and just about anything they want to talk about. To create an environment conducive to listening, they have built a special room modeled after an Indian Kiva, where tiered seating in a circular design allows everyone to see Smith when he sits on a stool in the middle and also allows him to see each participant. He gives each associate a chance to talk with him, and he is quick to point out that there are audiovisual gadgets in the room—no microphones, no speakers, no projectors, no screens—nothing to distract from the important ability to fully listen. He says, “Create an environment wherein you can hear what is being said and therefore you can be in a position to provide some vision, some leadership, some direction, some substance to what you’ve heard.”

Sharing Information—Talking to people and letting them know what is going on is deeply important to Garrett Boone of The Container Store:

Boone says, “We have staff meetings which are anywhere from two to four times a year with everybody from store managers to sales managers from all of the stores, and sometimes (other) people that the store manager wants to send. Everybody in the corporate office is invited. All the distribution managers and supervisors attend. So, you have this company-wide meeting where everybody talks about everything we are doing—the past, the present, the future—the goals, whether we hit them, what our financial performance is. Then all the information discussed is made up into this magazine and everybody in the company gets a copy of it—part-time people, seasonal people, anybody who is working for us at the time.”

Additionally, every store, every day, gets sales reports that show all 22 stores—not just their store, but every store in the company, every single day. “I think that creates trust,” Boone says. “In most retail organizations, even the store manager probably doesn’t get information about other store’s sales—maybe the district or something—but not the whole company. Most companies are stingier than heck when it comes to praising people and getting our information, “ Boone says. Not The Container Store!

  • Another example of the importance of talking with employees is also shared in True Leaders when David Novak wanted the job as CEO of PepsiCola Company even though he knew nothing about operations. The way he made up for his lack of knowledge was that he went to the people:

“I went to the front line. I went out and met with the sales people, the people in the warehouse, people on the (production) line, and I asked them, ‘What should we do?’ So, I learned from the people who really knew the business what we should do and then I could use my power, my leverage in the organization to, to go back and work on the processes and the tools that would help us to get things done. It was amazing.” Armed with this first-hand information, Novak said he could be in a market for one day, sit down at the end of the day, and rattle off four or five things that needed to be worked out.

  • Michael Bonsignore, chairman and CEO of Honeywell International, known for his ability to mix freely with employees at all levels of the company and elicit their ideas, spends two days a week traveling to Honeywell plants and offices in the US and abroad to meet staff. The trips are time-consuming and often exhausting but are a critical way to keep employees motivated, he believes. When he visited a plant in Freeport, Illinois, he held a general town meeting and then met with 20 “high-potential” employees, asking questions and listening to their thoughts. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, he says, “Since no other executive but me is present at those small meetings, there’s an atmosphere of candor, and a chance to get a unique perspective I would never get if I stayed in my office.”


Barbara Glanz Biography

A member of the prestigious Speaker Hall of Fame and one of fewer than 700 Certified Speaking Professionals worldwide, Barbara Glanz, CSP, CPAE, works with organizations to improve morale, retention and service and with people who want to rediscover the joy in their work and in their lives. She is the first speaker on record to have spoken on all 7 continents and in all 50 states. Known as "the business speaker who speaks to your heart as well as to your head," Barbara is the author of twelve books including The Simple Truths of Service Inspired by Johnny the Bagger®, CARE Packages for the Workplace, and 180 Ways to Spread Contagious Enthusiasm™. Voted "best keynote presenter you have heard or used" by Meetings & Conventions Magazine, Barbara uses her Master’s degree in Adult Learning to design programs that cause behavior change. She lives and breathes her personal motto: “Spreading Contagious Enthusiasm™” and can be reached at and

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