Leaders of large organizations inevitably face instances of organizational upheaval and confusion where they fear they’ve lost touch with the feelings of the staff. Such instances might include significant organizational restructuring or the start of new management initiatives or productivity improvement programs. Changes like these affect broad swaths of an organization’s staff. How staff respond to these big changes could make or break the success of the change. If a major initiative is not embraced (or worse, if it’s actively undermined) by employees, failure is virtually assured. To head off potential failure, senior managers often want to know how staff are reacting to the change before the latest performance indicators make it clear to everyone.
In the age of the corporate intranet, one of the most obvious methods for taking the temperature of the staff is the online comment forum or discussion board. It is precisely because the solution seems so obvious that the decision to adopt it is usually made without a thoughtful consideration of the potential consequences. The manager who wants that employee feedback may get more than she bargained for.
Why are you doing this?
The first thing to consider when deciding to solicit employee feedback via an online forum is why. Does management believe that employees are afraid to speak up at public meetings? Do employees need a “safe” forum where they won’t feel intimidated by peer pressure? Perhaps managers are simply not getting any feedback at all through the usual channels and are casting about for another alternative, a new channel of interaction. Whatever the answer, knowing exactly why an online forum seems like a good idea and what you hope to get out of it will increase the odds that the forum will deliver data that’s useful for informing decisions. Save yourself some time and be honest about the desire for feedback. Is management ready for criticism–quite possibly directed at individual managers or their programs? Are managers prepared to avoid the temptation to dig for the identity of staff who deliver bad reviews? If the answer is no, the time’s probably not right for an online forum.
Should anonymous posting be allowed?
The next thing to consider when deciding to solicit employee feedback via an online forum is whether or not employees will be permitted to make posts anonymously.
PRO: Allowing anonymity encourages honesty and open dialogue. Forcing forum users to self-identify dramatically decreases the likelihood that the system will be used. Users of the service will be more likely to offer honest, unvarnished feedback on sensitive topics where the expression of contrary opinions might adversely affect their job prospects. Most managers would want to know that a major change initiative is failing (or that employees at least perceive that it’s failing); it might provide an opportunity to change course before it’s too late.
CON: On the other hand, online anonymity has the well-documented tendency to bring out the worst in people, encouraging them to say things in a rude or deliberately provocative manner that’s completely inconsistent with their face-to-face demeanor. Collecting a long sheet of gripes or ad hominem attacks is a time wasting activity that does little to provide insights for constructive decision making. If the forum becomes overwhelmingly negative in tone, it could actually make matters worse by contributing to a downturn in employee morale.
Should the forum be moderated?
A common method for controlling the outbreak of hostilities on an anonymous forum is to build in a moderation function in which a trusted broker reviews each comment for appropriateness and explicitly approves or rejects it. What constitutes “appropriateness” depends on the established and public ground rules of the forum. Some general rules might include forbidding personal attacks, profanity, and non-constructive or overtly snide comments.
PRO: Moderation guarantees that comments which run afoul of the appropriateness guidelines or rules are not posted.
CON: Moderation introduces an inevitable delay between the time an individual submits a comment and when it appears online. From the submitter’s standpoint, their comment vanishes into the ether, with no indication of its status until approval. If the comment is rejected without explanation, the individual may make accusations of censorship, damaging the reputation of the forum as a safe channel for honest feedback. Also, the designated moderator may feel uncomfortable making the final call on comment approvals if the rules for acceptability are unclear or ambiguous. Even with well-defined rules, some comments will be difficult to judge with respect to acceptability. The moderator needs sufficient support from management to know that they won’t incur their wrath if they decide to accept a comment whose suitability is later second-guessed. Lastly, there’s a time investment made on the part of the moderator. It’s a mistake to think that there will be no impact to their work schedule. A well-trafficked forum virtually demands quick turn-around times on the decision to approve or reject comments.
Obligated to respond
Online feedback can place managers in a position of “be careful what you wish for.” If employees post serious and penetrating questions that go unanswered, the interpretation may be that management is uncomfortable responding, unwilling to respond or simply doesn’t know how to respond. One or all of these perceptions may, in fact, be true! Before going forward with an online forum be certain that all parties that could be placed in a position of responding understand what their obligations are. Crafting a public response that’s agreeable to all managers involved is often a time-consuming task requiring multiple drafts, reviews, and revisions. Depending on how nimble the respondents are, the lag time between a posted question or comment and its response could be days or even weeks. The longer the delay, the less credibility the forum has. If commenters should have no expectation of a public management response, this should be stated up front in the forum’s ground rules.
While modern electronic communications tools have made it possible to quickly gauge attitudes or crowd-source solutions to organizational problems, these tools should not be used without carefully considering the consequences. Ask the following questions. What do you want from your online feedback? What will you do with it once you collect it? What are your “ground rules” for accepting comments? What kind of feedback are you willing (or unwilling) to accept? In order to increase the likelihood of participation, are you comfortable allowing anonymous commenting and dealing with the more heated responses that it tends to generate? Will you pre-screen comments by moderating them? Are you prepared to publicly respond to uncomfortable or sensitive issues when someone raises them?
Having clear answers to these questions will help ensure that your online comment forum produces results that are useful to the parties asking for the forum as well as to the parties responsible for overseeing its operation.