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The Suggestion Box

March 17, 2010

Tonight my students presented their final projects for the PR class I teach at Miami International University of Art & Design, and among them was an employee communications campaign focused on regaining trust after a poorly handled pay cut that was done in hopes of averting layoffs. The scenario was actually a real one that one of my students is facing at work, and I’m looking forward to reading through the research report of the in-depth interviews the team conducted with managers to see how they see the whole situation.

As the students were presenting their solutions, one idea they tacked on to the end of their strategy was to implement a suggestion box and have the president of the company read all the suggestions in the box at a company meeting once a month.

I was immediately reminded of the “Performance Review” episode of the Office (which doesn’t seem to be available online or I’d include it here), where Michael did pretty much just that.

Most of my students’ ideas were great, but I have to say that a suggestion box is just not one that I think will work. When is the last time you actually put a suggestion into a suggestion box? What did you expect to happen, if anything?

As I started asking them questions, they began back-pedalling, saying that they wouldn’t read all of the suggestions aloud, especially not the negative ones. I was glad their protective instincts were in gear, but we talked through why this would likely backfire nearly as badly as the original problem with the warningless pay cut had.

In the age beyond email and intranets – the age of Twitter, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook and all of the other social media built on sharing opinions – whether to solicit input from employees is no longer the question. The question is how. We know that with the stroke of a few keys an unhappy employee can become a major internal and even external crisis. At the same time, an happy employee can become a powerful brand ambassador and sales, service and recruitment powerhouse.

The sealed, anonymous suggestion box is the perfect metaphor for the controlled approach to communications that has always been an illusion. The locked suggestion box makes it appear that someone somewhere is securely soliciting ideas, but it offers no promise that those ideas are ever reviewed, considered and responded to by anyone anywhere.

It creates the belief that control – of the message, of the situation, of the organization – lies in the hands of the person with the key to the box, when in fact the real power is in the conversations happening as employees pass by the box over and over again without even considering it as an option for sharing their ideas or complaints.

The key to gaining or regaining trust is in developing real, transparent mechanisms for gathering and responding to feedback from employees. This sometimes requires a radical shift in culture and always entails the willingness to accept a certain degree of risk.

It is also the only hope for meaningful engagement and lasting change.

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