Self-censorship is the biggest issue your company is avoiding

Half of employees withhold critical feedback. Not measuring voice efficacy? It might be time to start.

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Recently I began opening my peer feedback events with a new icebreaker:

“What’s one concern you never, ever shared with your employer, past or present?”

The answers range from the banal to the unspeakable, but one thing never changes: everyone has a story of holding their tongue at work.

“You can't manage what you can't measure” is at once a terrible cliché and very good advice. Hundreds of thought-leadership blog posts and vanity-press manuscripts have been ghostwritten about precisely what, how, and when to measure.

And since the mid-’90s, when the New York Times introduced engagement metrics with the frothy headline “Employee Surveys Put Boorish Bosses on Notice,” HR has been thirsting for more, better, more actionable data.

But for all the focus on employee feedback, no one seems to know how much they’re holding back.

Employees withhold more feedback than you think

No one, that is, except James Detert. A business professor at UVA, Detert researches voice efficacy: the reasons employees avoid speaking up. (Love reading dense research? Start with Silenced by fear: The nature, sources, and consequences of fear at work.)

And there are a lot of reasons! Everything from evolutionary instinct to childhood trauma and an amorphous, visceral distrust of HR.

The problem has been made even worse by the global pandemic and the resulting upheaval at work. As one study of Norwegian state agencies found, big changes like layoffs, reorgs, and C-suite shakeups steadily erode employees’ willingness to speak up. (Hate reading dense research? This one has a video explainer.)

So how do you measure self-censorship on a team that’s self-censoring?

Here’s the question I’m encouraging HR teams to add to their surveys:

In the past year, how often have you avoided raising a concern?

1 - Almost never
2 - Rarely
3 - Sometimes
4 - Often
5 - Very often

In surveys I reviewed at high-growth startups last year, about half of employees answered “sometimes” or “often.” This lines up closely with Detert’s findings at a “large multinational corporation” in the study this question was based on.

Note the subtle difference from similar “rate your agreement” questions:

  • At [Company], there is open and honest two-way communication.

  • At [Company], my opinions seem to be valued.

While these ask for vague affirmations of voice efficacy, they don’t dig into what really matters: how often are employees self-censoring?

How to start addressing employee silence

Employee silence is nearly impossible for HR teams to fix alone; after all, distrust of HR is the root of the problem.

Remember how your company brought in an external diversity and inclusion consultant to interview employees last summer? (They did, right?) It needs to do that more often. Confidential, qualitative employee interviews are the shortest route to finding out what employees really need from your company.

Of course, your leadership might not love the idea of hiring an outsider to listen to employees complain. But they’ll like the alternatives even less: as one VC at a tier 1 firm shared with me, the first time most employees speak up, it’s usually to a worried investor—or a reporter.

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