People + Strategy Journal

Summer 2021

Learning to Listen

Listening is the first step in creating a strong dialogue with employees around areas of activism. Guided by company values, leaders must follow listening with purposeful action and clear communication.

By Letty Cherry, Microsoft

​The concept of advocating for employees isn’t new, but it has changed in both nature and urgency over the past several years. Employee communications used to mean disseminating information; today, the practice has transformed into a dialogue. Employees are increasingly holding their employers accountable for being good corporate citizens. They’re looking for leaders who engage with the world around them instead of shying away from pressing issues. That poses a unique challenge for companies. 

Gone are the days when walls clearly separated our work lives from everything else. Thanks to the information age and the rise of social media, the outside has rushed in. This newfound connectedness comes with questions, expectations and pressure. Employees are passionate about pressing global issues, and they not only hope that employers will join them—they demand it. This kind of advocacy is uncharted territory for many organizations. 

I’ve learned a lot during my time at Microsoft about engaging in this new dynamic of employee activism. Most importantly, I’ve learned that it starts with listening. 

We must first provide opportunities for employees to voice concerns or feedback, then address what we hear and follow up, even if the topics they raise aren’t directly related to the business itself. Given how fast-moving and sensitive many of the issues usually are, these conversations aren’t always easy. But having them goes a long way toward building a bedrock of trust between leaders and employees, and that’s never been more valuable.

Conversely, the consequences of ignoring some of these demands can be serious. Neglecting to listen and stand alongside your employees when it makes sense to do so will impact more than just retention rates—it will inevitably bleed into other parts of the business, hurting recruiting efforts, worker productivity, and even stock performance and the bottom line. 

The way an organization lives out its values has become inseparable from its brand, and it’s essential that leaders give the topic more than a passing glance. 

When done well, however, this kind of employee engagement can be a powerful unifying force. 

Prioritize, Commit and Stick with It 

Like most things, navigating employee activism is easier said than done. I’ve found it helpful to break the process into three steps.

1. Regularly identify areas that your company can (and should) impact.

There are countless needs and causes, and supporting them all just isn’t feasible. Plus, not every organization has the resources or connections to make a meaningful difference in certain fields. That’s why it’s important to identify what your organization can reasonably and effectively do before doing anything else. It’s critical to make sure any projects you’re considering are connected to your organizational mission and values—otherwise, you risk appearing disingenuous. 

To draw an example from my time at Microsoft, we committed to prioritizing accessibility in our products and services, even in the design of our physical campuses, because it directly maps to the company’s mission: empowering every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Roughly 1 billion people worldwide have some form of disability. If we want to live up to our mission statement, we need to strive to make our products accessible to everyone. To that end, we’ve adopted strict accessibility standards for everything we create. The nature of our products makes this a sensible step for Microsoft, and we’re proud to take it. Whenever there is feedback from our employees or our broader ecosystem about what we’re doing on this topic, we prioritize engaging with it. 

Before your organization jumps into action, take some time to reflect on which issues the company could realistically affect—and whether those issues align with your broader purpose. 

2. Communicate intentions and results.

If you want employees to feel heard, you need to make a habit of speaking with them. Clearly tell them that you’ve heard their requests and feedback, then outline your plan for addressing them. Larger companies could receive thousands of requests from employees to take action, to say something publicly or to otherwise address their concerns, so dialogue can’t always take the form of companywide town halls or all-employee emails. That’s why it’s important for managers to have frequent conversations with their employees. When requests are turned into action, be sure to share that as well. If you can connect the original requests with outcomes, the company’s commitment becomes clear. If you make a long-term commitment to change, don’t just announce it once; provide progress updates over time to ensure that the employees know you’re taking action—even if progress is sometimes hard and slow. 

3. Keep moving forward—thoughtfully.

Employers need to continue addressing causes that are close to their employees’ hearts if they want to show they truly believe in what they’re doing. Dropping an issue after taking it up could come off as performative, so demonstrate your dedication by pressing onward. Ask for feedback, improve your approach over time and keep repeating the first two steps as you go, being careful to choose the right opportunities for involvement. The more you do and share, the more your work will speak for itself. Employees will notice.

As an example of how this all fits together, sustainability is a top priority for Microsoft and plenty of other organizations around the world. Over the past several years, we’ve seen many employees express concern for the environment, ask Microsoft what we’re doing to combat climate change and ask how they can help. Last year, we responded by setting three major goals for 2030: become water positive, carbon negative and waste-free. A cleaner, more habitable planet benefits everyone, so all this ties directly into Microsoft’s mission. As a manufacturer, Microsoft has the capacity to make real headway by minimizing the environmental impact of our operations while maximizing the positive impact of our technology. The strategy also extends beyond Microsoft’s processes, ensuring those changes also benefit the communities in which we operate. 

After making these commitments, Microsoft has followed up with summaries like our 2020 Environmental Sustainability Report. There’s plenty more to be done on this front, of course, but this sustainability effort showcases that structured approach: identifying a key issue, developing a coordinated response, taking decisive action and communicating results. 

Listen, Then Act Purposefully

Above all, I think a successful response to employee initiatives needs two major components. The first part, as I said, is always listening. It sounds simple, and it’s often overlooked—but it’s absolutely vital for orienting everything that follows. We can’t move forward without open minds and open ears. 

Listening allows companies to be proactive and rise above the cycle of constantly reacting to criticism and feedback. Getting ahead of topics is a great way to demonstrate the authenticity of your commitments as well. On an even more fundamental level, though, listening ensures that the company’s actions align with the hearts and minds of its workforce. If you make a move without fully understanding the issue at hand, you risk using resources on the wrong course of action and appearing out of touch. 

Fortunately, my time at Microsoft has given me plenty of examples for this listening part. We try to respond to employee conversations on Yammer, an internal social network, to understand what’s top of mind for our teams. We send daily pulse surveys to samples of employees to solicit direct feedback on a variety of issues. We also follow news trends so that we understand what’s happening geopolitically. We share what we learn with leadership to figure out the best path forward. 

These listening mechanisms alone don’t offer answers—they’re merely intended to give decision-makers a sense of what might matter to employees at a given moment.

This doesn’t mean that leaders should personally attend to every piece of feedback—that isn’t practical. It simply means that listening mechanisms are helpful for understanding the trends among the feedback. Once you have a clear idea of some of your employees’ concerns, you can start focusing on how to best address them. 

Of course, listening systems can’t catch everything. They’re prone to overlooking issues that communities aren’t as vocal about. Plus, many employees confide in their colleagues instead of expressing their requests or needs more broadly. That’s why it’s important to weave listening into the cultural fabric of an organization. When employees at all levels feel their feedback is valued, they’ll be more inclined to share it. That kind of communication can help reduce blind spots. 

Once you’ve listened thoroughly and identified an issue, the second part of the process begins: determining the company’s course of action. At Microsoft, this usually starts with a team validating the demand we’ve observed. We’ll go out and speak with employees directly to confirm what we’re hearing and make sure we’re on the right path. Afterward, we regroup with leadership and discuss the options. 

Sometimes, the action we settle on is simple. A leader might dedicate time to a topic in the next all-hands presentation, decide we need to reframe or clarify existing communications, or conclude that one-on-one communication with an employee is most effective. But complicated issues sometimes require more nuanced solutions. Our Racial Equity Initiative—a set of company commitments we created to help address systemic racism—is an example of this kind of layered response. 

The murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were horrific and again, illuminated the ongoing violence against African American and Black communities in the United States. Microsoft made three commitments to address racial injustice and make Microsoft more equitable for all: 

  1. increase representation and strengthen our culture of inclusivity, 
  2. engage our ecosystems, and 
  3. empower our communities. 

We backed this up by investing $150 million in diversity and inclusion; pledging to double the number of Black and African American people managers, senior individual contributors and senior leaders in the United States by 2025; re-examining our supply chain and partners; identifying relevant organizations and causes we can support; and affirming our stance from the top down. We continue to share the progress we’re making with our employees at town halls, on a dedicated intranet site we update each quarter and by directly involving our community in the process itself. 

Proceed with Clarity and Consideration

It’s worth noting that the process of acting on feedback doesn’t always unfold smoothly. In the racial equity example above, we were pressed for a swift, thorough action plan from the get-go. Timeliness is important, but so is looking at all the layers of an issue before deciding how to proceed. We opted for the latter, taking a little more time to make sure our response addressed the right gaps and wouldn’t inadvertently make the situation worse. This balance between speed and caution is always tricky to strike, and there’s rarely a right answer.

I also want to emphasize that our priority in all of our communications is clarity—and that isn’t the same thing as concession. It would be wonderful to support everything employees put on our radar but, as I mentioned earlier, that doesn’t always make sense for the organization, and it’s impossible to address every topic. When I reflect on the past year, there are a lot of topics: a national election, navigating an ongoing pandemic, issues of racial injustice, economic uncertainties, the rapid pace of technology and innovation, and many more. We’re always striving to let employees know that we’re listening and to help them understand what informs our decisions, even if there is disagreement.

Our system at Microsoft isn’t perfect, and we’ve had our fair share of missteps along the way. But we always try to learn as we go.

In Summary

Here are some crucial lessons I’ve learned over the past couple of years that may help you avoid some common pitfalls (several of which I’ve fallen into myself). 

  1. Before you do anything else, make sure your organization has principles in place to steer its decisions and commitments. They will be your compass throughout this journey, and you’ll need every directional aid you can get. 
  2. Work on creating a culture that prioritizes listening and clarity. No one can catch everything, and not everything you do catch will warrant action. But when your culture supports this dialogue instead of stifling it, you’ll be better able to make those decisions and explain the basis for them. 
  3. Be ready at all times to adapt. Issues can change by the second, and you need to be prepared to pivot from your plans if you’re going to get involved. 

Finally, I’d like to reiterate that we don’t have all the solutions at Microsoft. Nobody does. What we do have, though, are principles we can live by and experiences we can learn from. We can’t predict the future, but we can root our response to it in empathy—and I think that’s what employee activism is all about.  

Letty Cherry is General Manager, Global Employee and Executive Communications, at Microsoft.