Q: The three of us run a midsize company. Despite the pandemic, we’re doing well and growing in market share. We’re hiring, in part because there’s an increasing need for our services, and in part because we’ve had resignations.
We don’t understand why so many employees have resigned since mid-October. We have a bright future, but sense we have a problem. As we don’t know what it is, we can’t fix it.
It’s not that our employees are choosing unemployment; they’re leaving for jobs in other companies. We’ve tried to exit interview the employees who’ve quit, but only reached two of them. Both said negative things, but when we brought what they’d said up with their former managers, the managers convinced us we’d talked to disgruntled employees who they’d disciplined for performance problems.
We’ve tried an employee survey but learned little. One of our secretaries mentioned to me that the employees didn’t trust the process was confidential and might fear retaliation. How do we get to the truth?
A: Your employees know the truth; ask them, after you make it safe for them to talk.
Conduct confidential skip-level meetings. In skip-level meetings, company leaders connect with employees who report to the managers under them. You invite these employees to share thoughts and concerns, to ask you questions about anything, and you ask them questions.
By conducting regular skip-level meetings, you learn what your employees think about your organization and their managers. You step out of your management bubble and discover what’s going on below the surface. You uncover problems that, while they’re not on your radar, need to be before they fester and cost you productivity or employees. For example, you may learn that a significant number of employees don’t feel your corporate strategy includes them or that your managers are keeping information from you.
Skip-level meetings show you value what your employees think. If you’re wise, you’ll make them a regular part of your leadership strategy.
Implementing skip-level meetings
Start by getting your managers on board. Make clear you don’t want them to say anything that makes employees fear retaliation. Share your intended questions with them and ask if they have other questions to suggest. Although skip-level meetings can make “skipped” managers nervous, if one or more managers gives excessive pushback, it may be a clue.
Email your employees about the meetings, saying:
“We want to make our organization the best it can be and need your help. We have a bright future as a company but realize we might have some problems and want to fix them.
The three of us plan confidential skip-level mutual interviews, which means we’ll interview employees without the managers present. During these meetings, we invite you to ask us any questions you might have and to share with us anything you’d like us to think about. We’ll keep what you say confidential, unless it relates to a legal issue. We’ll also ask you questions, such as:
What do you enjoy about your job and working here?
If you had all the power, what would you change in our organization?
What’s one thing we should start, stop or continue doing as a company?
What’s the best part of working with your manager?
What do you wish your manager would change or do more or less of?
What do you think is leading other employees to resign?
What can I or our leadership team do to make your career here more satisfying?
How do you feel about where our company is headed?”
The meeting itself
Begin the meeting by saying, “We realize this mutual interview might feel uncomfortable or even intimidating to you and you might hesitate to say something you think we won’t like. We assure you we’re open to whatever you say. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t schedule these meetings.”
Keep your tone warm, friendly, and inviting and say, “We know we have problems but don’t know what they are and want to fix them. We’ve always thought it’s not the conversations we have that create problems, but the ones we don’t have. Please know that we’ll keep what you say confidential, and absolutely no retaliation will take place as a result of these interviews.”
Then ask, “Are there concerns you have to share with me or any questions you have for me or the other two senior leaders?” Whatever your employees say, listen without defensiveness or argument. If you don’t understand something or want more information, ask questions. Take notes; doing so shows that you value your employee’s input and take their thoughts seriously. If your employee asks questions, answer them. Then ask your questions. After that, again ask if your employee has questions or anything to share with you.
At the end, thank your employee for his/her candor and ask what you may share with their manager. Reassure your employee that other than what s/he says you can share; you’ll keep the remainder confidential. After the meeting, send a follow-up email thanking them.
Then meet with your fellow senior managers. Based on what you now know, fix the problems you’ve uncovered.