Valerie AlexanderBy Valerie Alexander (she/her)

A happy face, neutral face, sad face checkbox selection

If you were to check a box, which one you would choose? 

Are you open to asking everyone in your organization, and then doing the hard work of truly listening to what they share?

When an employer (sort of) tries... and fails

Many years ago, I was hired by a large nonprofit to do a Happiness Assessment of their workforce. They were having measurably higher turnover than similarly-sized organizations, so the Executive Director brought me in to figure out why. He knew there was a problem and wanted to solve it.

The first step was that I would interview 100 of their 300 employees over the course of two weeks, self-selected at random. In other words, everyone would be invited to participate, paid for their time (whether they took an hour out of a scheduled day or came in when not on the schedule), and it was first-come first-serve to fill the slots available. Rule #1—everyone has to be invited.

On the first day of interviews, I noticed two things:

  1. Not all the slots were filled, which was highly unusual in my experience of these things, as almost all employees generally want to talk to someone about their workplace, especially if they're getting paid for it, and
  2. A lot of the team members had no idea who I was or why I was there. During my lunch on the first day, I walked the halls in a few of their buildings and stopped people at random and asked them if they were taking part in the Happiness Survey. More than half of them never heard of it.

At the end of the first day, I went to find the Executive Director and told him that Rule #1 had been broken. He called the HR director in charge of the outreach and after being pressed, she admitted she had hand-selected who would be invited. I reminded her that that wasn't the deal and she replied (yes, this is what she actually said...), "But some of these people are such whiners."

Starting to get a picture of the problem? It got worse...

So I shut down the interviews for two days while I personally walked the halls, talked to anyone I came across and encouraged them to sign up and to tell their co-workers to do the same.

The interviews took place and I identified five key areas where employees were frustrated, disengaged, and angry:

  1. Communication from leadership was nearly non-existent. Policies were changing regularly without anyone knowing what was happening or why, and it became a situation of: "I'm not telling you the rules, but break them at your peril."
  2. Leadership had different rules than the staff. They were allowed to wear blue jeans and staff had to be in khakis or slacks. Staff had to be there specific hours and leadership could come and go as they pleased, often causing staff to be unable to get work done, when approvals were required.
  3. There were toxic people in that workplace who leadership loved. They refused to believe that any of those people were the problem. One department had nine employees, six of whom had been there longer than a decade, and when the COO put his personal protégé in charge, over the next six months, five of the long-term associates quit. And he still refused to acknowledge that she was the wrong person for the job.
  4. The wealthy or influential members of the community they served did not always treat the staff well, and leadership never took staff's side. They never rescinded anyone's access, no matter how many problems they caused, and often disciplined staff when it was the community member's fault. 
  5. Pay was not competitive, and not adequate for the wealthy community they were located in, so most staff had to commute greater distances than they wanted to work there, in an area where there was little public transit.

Reporting the findings made it worse...

When I presented my report to the executive leadership team, I explained that I would tell them what was said, I would never say who said it. By the third comment shared on Point #1, I was asked, "Who? Who feels that way?"

I replied, "That's not relevant. I heard it enough that I'm sharing it with you. This is a real issue."

This then devolved into them having a conversation among themselves trying to figure out who had said it and if it was anyone "important" (yep, that actually was discussed). I looked at the ED and asked, "Do you want to put a stop to this or should I leave?"

The response to Point #2 was: "We earned that!"

The response to Point #3 was that people were just jealous of the one who got the promotion, even though I assured them that I talked to several people and her management style was deeply problematic. One specific incident: she snapped her fingers in someone's face to get their attention -- someone who was 18 years her senior and had worked in that department since this new boss was in high school. They thought the person who shared that was being too sensitive. One of them said, "That's what having a boss means."

The response to Point #4 was: "They're just going to have to live with that. That's who pays the bills around here" I pointed out that the bills are a lot lower when you aren't having to replace people who feel undervalued every few months, which costs a lot more than however much the 2-3 problematic members of your organization bring in, but they had no interest in that math.

The response to Point #5 was: "There's nothing we can do about that. We have a limited budget."

I suggested sharing that openly with the staff, and asking for input on what could be done to offset that issue, such as free lunches or commute credits. That was taken seriously and I'd like to think there was some progress. But to be honest, #5 would be far less of a problem if #1 - 4 were adequately addressed.

I got paid a lot for that work. It wasn't worth it. To either side.

The leadership had no interest in making the changes needed -- very simple changes -- to make their workplace happier, and thus reduce turnover (and absenteeism, theft, liability and so many other problems of an unhappy workforce), and I felt defeated and unsuccessful, having put a month of my time into making the assessment and delivering a detailed report on my findings, along with a proposal for a plan for change that would have been so easy to implement.

I shared with the Executive Director just how much excitement there was among the employees that I was there at all. The conversations with them were wonderful! They loved the thought that someone might ask them what needed to be changed and then change it. I tried to explain that if nothing changed after that, it would leave them more demoralized than before. Then they would feel that no one cared.

I can't tell you what happened with that organization after that. Eight months later, I saw on LinkedIn that the Executive Director was working somewhere else.

What a waste!

So I'll ask again...

Are you truly open to hearing what your employees have to say about your culture? Can you truly hear them without getting defensive?

All of the happiness assessments I did led me to create this very accurate definition of a consultant:

A consultant is the person who asks your employees the questions you should have asked them in the first place, then charges you an exorbitant amount of money to tell you what they would have told you for free.

Listen to your people!

They care about your organization.
They want to put their skills to use on work that matters.
They will help you get it right.
You just have to commit to do that... for them.

I promise you, it will go straight to your bottom line.

About the Author

Valerie Alexander (she/her) is committed to expanding happiness and inclusion across all communities. She is a globally-recognized speaker on the topics of happiness in the workplace, the advancement of women, and outsmarting unconscious bias, and her TED Talk, “How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias” has been viewed over 450,000 times. You can sign up for her twice-monthly Workplace Happiness & Inclusion Newsletter and download the free workbook, Five Policies That Outsmart Unconscious Bias in Your Company at

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