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Off the Record: Speak up!

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I’ve never really had a problem voicing my opinions in the office. In a previous life as a young reporter fresh out of university, I told one of my bosses that his expectation for us to show up at 8.30am on the dot (and not a minute later) was ridiculous, considering many of us clocked up hours of overtime each week.

Unfortunately, I chose the lunchroom as the place to air my grievance, and learned quickly that attacking your boss over his leftover lasagna really won’t get you anywhere.

In another job at a newspaper, the environment was one where everyone in the office could, and did, pipe up about anything, at anytime. It was not uncommon for managers to scream at staff in front of the entire office, or for junior staff to tell the editor to shove his coffee up his a** when he complained it was cold (true story). In other words, it was like any other high pressure, bustling newsroom.

But again, it wasn’t the easiest place in which to try and raise a serious issue or tell your boss you were unhappy about something.

I’m not having a go at any of my previous places of employment – they were mostly great places to work – but I do wish the industry I work in had taken a stronger line back then in regards to town hall meetings.

Thankfully this year at Lighthouse Independent Media, we are. Last week marked the first of many regular town hall meetings in our Singapore office, where a number of points were brought to the top management’s attention at a group gathering at the back of the office (beers included – always preferable for an informal setting).

Granted, some suggestions – popped into a suggestion box anonymously over previous weeks – garnered a few giggles, but all requests were taken into consideration and reasons for and against them were voiced clearly by management.

In Asia particularly, I have found it can be difficult for some employees to speak their mind. Some are afraid their suggestions or concerns will be met with indifference, while others are afraid any issues raised will imply their bosses are doing something wrong, and they don’t want to offend.

Difficulty in speaking up can be addressed by implementing an anonymous avenue for staff to vent (hence the drop box) and, over time, hopefully many will see that suggestions are taken seriously, and their voices are being heard.

For businesses, town hall meetings are a win-win situation. By implementing a regular gathering when employees feel comfortable talking with senior management, leaders are able to become more engaged with their staff and help align them with the overall business goals.

For larger organisations with thousands of employees, it’s an effective way to put a face to the emails and for staff to see the CEO, someone who in many of their minds is an imaginary person in an office somewhere on the other side of the building. For smaller companies, it simply provides an extra avenue in which to engage with senior management.

It’s also a good opportunity for staff to get a glimpse into how on top of things management is. Information about what competitors are doing and sharing important company developments reassures employees who leave the meeting thinking, “alright, I get where we’re coming from, now”.

However, a successful dialogue and effectively building a two-way communication completely depends on how a leader shows compassion, concern and honesty.

A previous manager I worked with was terrible at this. Questions from staff were tossed aside as being “silly” and he successfully managed to dance around answering questions. On one occasion, staff were concerned about rumours they’d heard about company layoffs, but were assured there was nothing to worry about. What happened three weeks later? You guessed it.

While it’s good for a CEO or MD to ooze charisma and confidence, it’s more important he or she comes across as sincere. After all, employees can sniff out dishonesty easier than you think.

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Rebecca Lewis
Human Resources Magazine Singapore

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