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How a $20 Cake Uncovered My Employees’ Concerns

If you and I talk long enough about HR and the challenges that businesses have with keeping employees engaged, one of us will likely bring up the topic of employee surveys. My own opinion of them? There’s some really great things that can be learned, and there are a ton of downfalls if they aren’t conducted with the right intent or follow-through.

Years ago, I was the HR manager for a large manufacturing plant. We had a great workforce of more than 700 employees and had a reputation in the community as a solid employer (I mean, we had more than 2,000 people come out – on the weekend – to info sessions just to learn about what it meant to be an employee with us at one point!). We paid well, had good benefits, and had stability. Externally, things looked like sunshine and rainbows. Internally, though, was much more confusing.

Among our peers in the company, our plant consistently ranked towards the bottom on our annual employee engagement surveys. And every year, we would get the results, try to explain the “uniqueness” of our facility, and put together some action plan that would finally, just finally, turn the tide. And every year, after rolling out those action plans, the next survey would be administered, and we would see either stagnant or declining results.

Lean/Continuous Improvement Isn’t Just for Operations

So one year, after being involved in enough process improvement/lean/continuous improvement processes, I decided to take a different approach (after all, what would it hurt?). My HR team and I took the results, crafted out standard questions related to the lower results, and took it to the floor. Over the next few weeks, we asked our questions across the shifts, across the departments, and tracked our notes to look for themes.

I remember one of my conversations very well, and then heard it a few more times in different words: “It used to be like a family working here. We would celebrate birthdays with cake. We cared for each other. It doesn’t feel like anyone cares about us anymore.”

With information and pearls of wisdom collected over those few weeks, we started looking for more meaningful ways to demonstrate employee recognition. It didn’t mean overhauling a huge program. It meant finding ways to show care and interest for our employees. The result? An intentional, longer-term plan to address our weak areas. This meant getting rid of things that weren’t working, and opening up some of our older processes to allow more employee involvement. We built the plan, and we shared the plan back with employees, to show just how their feedback influenced the direction in which we were headed.

Feel Free to Steal This With Pride!

One of my favorite things we implemented? We took our monthly roundtable meetings and turned them on their heads. Rather than being a random assignment of employees (depending on schedules, overtime, etc.), we instead invited every employee during their birthday month to join us for our roundtable. Here, the plant manager and I would give a quick update on the business and initiatives, and then turn it over to the most important things: employee questions and concerns. Employees had the floor and could ask us what was on their mind, share with us their concerns. They told us when they thought we were doing something stupid (trust us, they were quite candid), or if there were ideas we hadn’t considered to make operations smoother (GREAT solutions are out there with your employees, if you ask and listen). If we knew the answer and could respond then, we’d do so. If we had to get more information, we’d do that. Notes from these meetings were kept and posted for all employees so that we could use it for a vehicle to keep communication strong.

And what else did we have? A $20 birthday cake, and sang “Happy Birthday.”

What’s Your “Birthday Cake” Solution?

Did it solve all the world’s problems? No. But did it help us start to turn our ship around with our engagement scores? Yes. While the scores themselves are, as I share with others, a diagnostic (they tell you where there might be an issue, but don’t say WHAT or WHERE the issue may be), we were able to start seeing scores improve in areas that had long been stale.

The lesson learned? Take the time to ask a few more questions, and listen to the responses. You might just find there’s a birthday cake-type solution out there for your business, too.

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