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Is HR inadvertently ‘silencing’ employees?

Employees 'speaking up' are doomed to failure when nothing has been done to address 'listening up'

When organisations think about improving their transparency, so that they become less prone to being tripped up by nasty internal surprises or missed opportunities, they usually start with some sort of ‘speak up’ programme. The intention is to make it easier for people to speak their mind, particularly to HR.

What is clear from the findings of our two-year research study just published, is that this is doomed to failure when nothing has been done to address the challenge of listening-up. If HR don’t pay attention to how they hear, then there is no point in speaking up to them.

When HR people are listening to others, they cannot avoid listening through a thick layer of labels – some self-inflicted and some projected onto them by the person speaking to them. These labels may include ‘Head Office’, ‘Appraiser’, ‘Enforcer’, and ‘Helper’. Each of these labels, and there are many more you can probably think of for yourself, distort what is said to you in the first place, why it is said and what you hear. The weight and force of these labels is in part a function of the power and status that HR has within your organisation.

Sometimes these labels silence.

In some settings, HR may be seen as a route to influencing the CEO’s agenda. This can mean people speak up to you – but what gets said is slanted with political agendas in mind. The unabridged truth remains elusive.

In other places HR may be seen as having relatively little power – and in that case people may not bother sharing what really matters to them with you. They are silenced because they believe it is pointless to speak up.

Elsewhere, HR is the place where difficult conversations, restructuring and firing decisions get made and it therefore gets associated with being an unwelcoming, scary place. Silence abounds because you speak up at your peril.

HR professionals need to be honest about how their profession sits within the power dynamics of the organisation and how these power dynamics influence who says what to who and how it gets heard. You can seek to influence the perceptions of HR and the labels applied, but you will never disappear the use of labels altogether. We are yet to find an organisation where the labels are universally helpful.

If this isn’t complex enough, alongside HR ‘labels’ all HR professionals have to work with the reality of the personal labels and power status which are bestowed upon them as individuals. Given how much of the HR world is occupied by women, part of what gets spoken and heard occurs through a gendered lens. Then of course there are labels such as ‘young’ and ‘old’, ‘tall’ and ‘short’, ‘black’ and ‘white’, all of which convey differing status depending on the context. We can and must consciously work to address the impact and unfairness of these labels, but working with the inevitability of unconscious bias is a lifetime’s work.

We know that many enter the HR profession because they want to work with and help people lead fulfilled work-lives. Somehow along the way labels can get in the way of really connecting with others in order to do this. So being aware and acknowledging the filters through which others speak up to us is the essential first step in being able to help people speak up.

There is no such thing as truth that sits apart from the power, labels and status we carry within ourselves and which others ascribe to us – and there is no point having a ‘speak-up’ culture when the ‘listen-up’ culture stays unconscious of how it influences what is said.

Megan is associate professor of leadership and dialogue at Ashridge. John Higgins is a research associate at Ashridge