How do you encourage employees to communicate on sensitive issues? Dr Patrick Gilbert and Paul Sanchez say you need to engage employees through upward communication

Fewer than six in 10 employees (58%) feel free to report instances of harassment in the workplace, according to Mercer's latest What's Working(TM) Studies, which cover a cross-section of more than 1,100 British workers of different grade levels. Furthermore, fewer than two-thirds (65%) feel free to report dishonest or unethical behaviour. The research also shows that reluctance to report misconduct is not confined to employees low down in the organisational hierarchy; fewer than two-thirds (62%) of middle-ranking managers feel comfortable reporting harassment by more senior managers.

Bullying at work can have a significant negative impact on customer service and financial performance, so there is a moral, legal and commercial reason to address this issue. Yet research shows many UK employees feel discouraged from candidly expressing their views. So how can companies open the lines of communication?

A business imperative

It has long been accepted that communication is a critical success factor in performance. Communicating an inspiring company vision, together with explaining what workers will receive in return for their contribution, can help motivate and engage employees.

But communicating to employees is only half the picture. To achieve a high performance culture, organisations must establish a credible upward communication process, in which employees are encouraged to engage with their organisation and express their views, whether this concerns issues of misconduct or ways to improve performance.

Employee engagement leads to greater discretionary effort, meaning that employees will go beyond the stated requirements of their job to deliver superior performance. This engagement results in reduced absenteeism and employee turnover, improved service quality, greater customer satisfaction and, ultimately, improved financial performance - what has come to be known as the 'service-profit chain' (Heskett, et al., 1994.)

Employees can also be a rich source of business intelligence, because they are closest to operations and customers. They are the first to know when work practices have become inefficient and when customer preferences and satisfaction levels have changed. Capturing this knowledge can dramatically reduce response times and help organisations target those areas that will yield the greatest return.

While these observations may appear common sense, in many organisations they are not regular management practice. Even where management recognises the value of upward communication, its efforts are often eclipsed by the more immediate concerns of cost reduction and sales growth. The challenge is to establish upward communication as a true business imperative.

The employee perspective

Mercer's research found that UK organisations place far greater emphasis on downward communication about business and operational issues, as opposed to upward communication aimed at engaging employees and allowing them to voice their concerns and ideas. Consequently, while over seven in 10 employees report they have access to the information they need to do their job well, only four in 10 (41%) feel sufficient efforts are made to solicit their views.

The results also indicate that two-way communication tends to be focused on improving task performance. Nearly two-thirds of employees (64%) say their manager encourages two-way communication and almost 6 in 10 (56%) state that differing views are discussed when making decisions. However, the findings are less positive regarding proactive efforts to support upward communication.

To prevent problems from arising and enhance performance, managers need to maintain contact with employees, encourage innovation and actively seek employee input. Yet fewer than half (48%) report there is sufficient contact between managers and employees and just 46% report they are encouraged to innovate.

The employee survey

More than six in 10 employees say that their organisation conducts regular employee surveys, and, of them, almost seven in 10 report that the results are communicated to employees. But for a survey to be viewed as an effective upward communication process, management must demonstrate a willingness to act on the results. Disappointingly, in organisations where surveys are conducted, fewer than four in 10 employees said that action is taken in response to survey results.

The impact of a failed employee survey, or more generally, a failed process for upward communication, is profound. In organisations where action is taken on the basis of survey findings, over eight in 10 employees (84%) report they are highly engaged. Where organisations fail to take action, fewer than four in 10 (39%) are engaged.

Communication and engagement

The relationship between upward communication and employee engagement was also examined in the What's Working research. The findings are clear: where upward communication flourishes, a significantly greater percentage of employees report they are highly committed to their organisation (85%), proud to work for their organisation (88%), satisfied with their jobs (89%) and would recommend their organisation's products and services to friends and family (72%).

While the analysis is not strictly a causal model, the pattern of findings is compelling and demonstrates that upward communication can strongly influence employee engagement and, by extension, lead to improvements in organisation performance.

Enhancing upward communication

Our experience shows that the barriers to effective upward communication centre on three main issues - organisation culture, management skills and communication processes.


In many organisations a traditional, somewhat autocratic and top-down management style prevails. In essence, the manager's role is to tell employees what to do and then make sure that they do it. There is a clear divide between management and employees - workers are not viewed as a source of business intelligence; their role is to execute rather than question management decisions.

In some cases, upward communication is viewed as a waste of time and resources and a distraction from business imperatives. This view is not as extreme as it may first appear. In his recent book, Kersten (2005) claims efforts to solicit employee input are wasteful, because they give employees an inflated opinion about their influence and divert them from the acquisition of meaningful skills.

To overcome an entrenched organisational culture that blocks upward communication, senior management must lead by example, soliciting and acting on the input of their direct reports and other employees. These activities should be publicised throughout the organisation.

Presenting a compelling business case - ie evidence that the impact of upward communication on performance justifies expending time and resource in this area - can help ensure management buy-in. Assigning formal accountability for communication to managers and supervisors can also foster upward communication.

This two-pronged approach involves selling management on the business necessity of upward communication and establishing performance goals to ensure that managers deliver.


Even where managers are truly interested in developing an open dialogue with employees, many lack the requisite skills to deliver. Our research shows that informal feedback and coaching is an area of pervasive weakness for many organisations. Fewer than half of employees say their manager provides regular feedback on their performance and only one in four receives regular coaching on improving performance.

This breakdown in upward communication is also often seen in the team briefing process, which can become a rigid downward communication event where employees have limited opportunity to express their views.

These issues can be addressed through the assessment and development of management skills. The aim is to foster a two-way approach to communication through leading, informing, involving and listening to employees. Training can make managers more comfortable with upward communication and provide the necessary skills.


In some organisations upward communication fails simply because there are no processes in place to solicit employee views. Upward communication is not consistently pursued across the organisation. As a result, employees will conclude that it is not supported by senior management.

There are a number of processes that can be implemented to support upward communication. One of the more effective involves team briefings, subject to managers having the appropriate skills. Here, employees are informed about such things as organisation goals, team performance against targets, customer satisfaction and change initiatives, and given the opportunity to ask questions, voice concerns and offer solutions to problems. When properly conducted, team briefings involve employees in decisions and promote engagement.

Another process for upward communication is to carry out an employee survey. However, if organisations fail to act on the findings employees can feel disempowered and question management commitment. The lesson is simple: if you cannot take action, do not conduct the survey.


To improve the upward communication, organisations should consider the following:

- Senior management should lead by example, regularly solicit the views of employees and take visible action on the basis of their input.
- Managers should be 'sold' on the value of upward communication through evidence of the impact this can have on business performance.
- Upward communication should be seen as a core management competency and included in management performance goals.
- Management communication skills should be assessed and training.
- Accountability for communication should be assigned.
- Formal processes should be implemented to provide a platform for upward communication.

By adopting these practices organisations can create a workplace climate where employees feel encouraged to speak up, leading to enhanced employee engagement and improved performance.

Dr Patrick Gilbert is head of organisational research and effectiveness, and Paul Sanchez is head of communication consulting, Mercer Human Resource Consulting,