Employee Suggestions - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Annals of Enterprise

Employee Suggestions

Case Study #1: Remodeling

Years ago I worked for a large organization that was remodeling several buildings. They asked for suggestions from the employees for improvements they might make to their facilities as part of this project. A month or so later there was a long article in the newsletter about the suggestions that had been submitted and management's response.

One suggestion was to make some break rooms with real walls. The organization had many break areas scattered around with a coffee pot and a microwave and that sort of thing, but almost all of these were just converted cubicles, i.e. built from those fabric partitions that are used to break up a big room these days. The person making the suggestion said that there was a lot of traffic to and from these break areas and a lot of noise there from people chatting and so on, and this was very distracting to people with offices near the break area.

Management replied that they would not implement this suggestion. They said that they had studied the situation and concluded that the present break rooms were adequate.

Another suggestion was to increase parking space. I guess that one's straightforward enough.

Management replied that they had studied the parking situation and concluded that present parking facilities were adequate.

A third suggestion was to have a more varied menu in the company cafeteria.

Management replied that they had studied the food offerings in the cafeteria and concluded that the present selection was adequate.

Well, I don't remember all the suggestions, but the pattern for all was the same. Every single suggestion mentioned in the article was rejected. In every case, management said that they had "studied" the situation and concluded that what the present situation was "adequate". It's possible, I guess, that there were other suggestions that were not mentioned in the article that were accepted. But I doubt it. Surely if some were rejected and some were accepted, they would have mentioned at least one or two of the accepted ones. So it seems that management rejected 100% of the suggestions submitted.

I think from the examples I gave you can see that the suggestions were not absurd. It's not like employees were suggesting that the organization provide every employee with a luxury yacht or anything like that. No doubt some suggestions that sounded reasonable to the person suggesting them and to me reading about them were, in fact, impractical for one reason or another. Like, maybe they couldn't increase parking space because all the open spaces were already slated for some other important use and they couldn't afford to buy more land. But it was obvious to all employees that present parking space was NOT adequate.

Case Study #2: Company Policies

At another company I worked for, every year each employee was required to fill out an "annual self-evaluation" form. Many companies do this. Perhaps you've filled out such a form yourself. At this company, one question on the form was, "What could the company do differently that would help you to perform your job more efficiently?" There was then a place on the form for management to respond to the employee's suggestion.

The first two years I worked there I left this blank. The third year I wrote that the process of arranging business travel seemed unnecessarily cumbersome and suggested a couple of ways they could be streamlined. My boss wrote in the reply box, "I have explained to Mr Johansen why the present procedures are necessary." Well, he didn't actually explain anything to me, but okay, fine.

The next year I left it blank again. The following year I had a new boss. I suggested a change to some company policy -- I forget just what now. He came to my office and quiety told me to fill out a new form and leave this off. I'd get in trouble with upper management by criticizing a company policy, he told me.

A few years later my boss retired and I was assigned to clean up his files and save anything still of value. Among the papers was a memo about a suggestion made on this form by another employee. (I probably should not have seen a personnel matter like this, but whatever.) It seems this employee had written that some employees were being shown favoritism: Employees with children were allowed to take time off for school events and kids' doctors appointments and the like while employees without children got no comparable time off. According to this memo, the response from management was to haul him into a meeting with his boss and his boss's boss and yell at him and warn him never to say anything like this again. Well, they didn't say "yell" in the memo, they said they "counseled him", but from the tone of the memo it was pretty obvious what the nature of this counseling was. Apparently after being yelled at for a while -- oops, I mean "counseled" -- he said "I probably shouldn't have written that." I strongly suspect that he meant he wouldn't have written it if he knew that it would get him into all this trouble, but his boss took it as an admission that his complaint was unjustified.

Personally, I thought his complaint was unjustified. I had children and I sometimes took off for school events, but I was told that I was expected to make up that time by working late the next day or working on a weekend. It wasn't free time off. And if he wanted to take my children to the doctor and sit in the waiting room so that I could keep working, I would have gladly agreed to let him. But whether his complaint was justified or not, I found management's response outrageous. An employee complained about what he considered unfair treatment, and instead of seriously considering his complaint, they just yelled at him for complaining.

Why ask the question if you're not interested in the answer?

I could give many other examples like this from various companies I've worked for. I sincerely doubt that my experience is unusual.

At almost every company I've ever worked for, management has, in one way or another, asked employees to suggest how the company could be better managed. And at almost every company I've ever worked for, all such suggestions were either ignored or resulted in the employee being reprimanded for criticizing company policy.

Indeed, at one company, the boss would regularly stand up at staff meetings and encourage employees to suggest policy changes. She would regularly say, "If I'm doing something stupid, please tell me. I won't hold it against you." I knew of a number of employees who responded to this and did suggest alternative policies. And in every case but one, the employee was fired. When a new employee once made a comment to me after one of these meeings about a suggestion he was thinking of bringing to the boss, I advised him not to and told him about the firings. He said, "Oh. So when she says, 'I won't hold it against you', she means, 'You can leave on friendly terms'." Which summed it up pretty well.

It just leaves me wondering: Why do they ask the question if they're not interested in the answer?

Personally, if someone isn't interested in my opinion, I would prefer if he didn't ask. At best, it gets my hopes up that the situation will improve, and then dashes them. When the company explicitly asks for suggestions, employees may spend significant time working on what they consider good ideas. They may do research or experiment with how an alternative procedure would work -- whether that means a different configuration of a machine or redesigning a form or whatever. They may spend their free time working on an idea, maybe even spend their own money playing with it. When the employee's suggestion is then rejected for frivolous reason, or the employee is reprimanded for daring to suggest that present company policies and procedures may be flawed, this is very bad for morale. I don't know about you, but I hate wasting time. If I know that something is doomed to failure, I'd rather spend my time on something else, something that at least has a chance of success.

I also wonder: When management asks employees if they have any complaints, and then makes clear that the only acceptable answer is "no, everything is great", and then collects the complaint forms ... Do they see that everyone has filled in "no" and cheerfully conclude that everything is going great? Oh look, the vice-president says to the president, 100% of our employees say that all company policies are the most perfect policies imaginable. All of our employees are happy! Morale here is through the roof! I guess they are then baffled at the large number of employees calling in sick or quitting.

© 2011 by Jay Johansen


Tunde Jul 23, 2014

that if I want to go to more schooling, than it's up to me to pay for it. And theiern lies the rub, seeing as how I can't even afford a matchstick let alone 2-3 more years of school. My question to you is, what do you think I should do? What did you do when you graduated from Undergrad? Thank you sooo much for continuing to inspire and create art.

Mrs. J. Heckler May 17, 2015

I have always found my suggestions are accepted when given with a bit of humility and a lot less pompous attitude Mr. Johansen. I have never once had a suggestion turned down by any of my employers. However they do know I am always looking out for the company first and not just myself. My suggestions tend to favor ALL of the employees as well as the company and not just myself. Humility and how you word your suggestions may be your problem. It is after all, only natural for a business to watch their bottom line. Pleasing ALL of the employees instead of only one will help them to increase their bottom line and an employee who is helping them to watch that line is naturally pleasing to them. Maybe you should look at it from another's point of view instead of only your own sir.

Jay Johansen May 28, 2015

Hmm, it's certainly true that if you offer a suggestion that only benefits yourself and costs the company, that there's a pretty obvious reason for management to reject it. And the tone in which a suggestion is made could certainly influence it's chance of acceptance.

But in the first "case study" I gave above, the suggestions were all made by people other than myself. I didn't offer any suggestions. None of them seemed obviously selfish to me. I don't know how they were originally phrased, just how the company newsletter described them, but nothing in the newsletter indicated they were phrased rudely or presumptuously. In the "please tell me if I'm doing something stupid" case, I heard the suggestions offered and few if any were rude or arrogant. So I don't think that's the explanation.

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