Making Every (Employee) Voice Count

December 1, 2022

Marlene S. Neill, PhD, APR and Shannon A. Bowen, PhD

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Organizational communication managers are tasked more and more with prioritizing employee communication due to the increase in employees working remotely. Listening, one of the primary components of communication, which also influences employee turnover, has not received much attention in research or in practice. We conducted our study to learn more about the state of listening in U.S. companies and organizations.

The Basics of Listening and Strategic Organizational Listening

Listening is organized into three dimensions: cognitive, behavioral, and affective.1 Cognitive listening indicates understanding and interpreting messages; behavioral listening includes using verbal and non-verbal cues; and affective listening indicates understanding emotions.1
While everyday listening can be defined using these components, it is important to highlight strategic organizational listening, which requires more formal focus, as it may lead to improvements in organizational performance, trust, and commitment with stakeholders and publics.2 Strategic organizational listening focuses on information that 1) improves organizational learning, 2) questions the organization’s current assumptions, and 3) impacts the organization’s decisions.2 This organizational-centered definition of listening, however, is dependent on leadership’s sincerity and desire to learn from listening to employees.2

Ethical Listening and the Voice of Employees

Ethical listening comes with an expectation that everyone has something important to share while promoting being open, proactive, and empathetic.3 Valuing the voice of employees is crucial to ethical listening in an organization. Previous research involving the voice of employees found eight elements necessary to best benefit from this asset:

  1. Company culture is open to listening
  2. Organization addresses the politics of listening
  3. Organization has policies that specifically require listening
  4. Organizational systems are open and interactive
  5. Organization has invested in technology that can help with listening on a large scale
  6. Resources for listening are available to support the active monitoring, analysis, and response to complaints, questions, and suggestions made by employees
  7. Skills for large-scale organizational listening have been developed
  8. Articulation of what is said to senior management is accurate and clear3

The importance of ethical listening to the voice of employees is necessary, as employees often resort to silence when they believe it won’t make a difference or may result in negative consequences.4 Employee silence typically results in increased disengagement and decline in trust. Pseudo-listening—when stakeholders share concerns that have no impact on decision making—is another issue that negatively impacts employee voice.5 Additionally, if employees see that the organization is failing to listen to their voices, the organization will likely experience higher employee turnover, lower morale, and less productivity.6

Current Environment of Listening Based on Study

While understanding the theories of strategic organizational listening, ethical listening, and employee voice are vital in improving listening within organizations, it is important to first examine what listening looks like today within organizations. Specifically, our study sought to examine the most common methods organizations are currently using for organizational listening and the effectiveness of those efforts.

When asked what methods organizations use to listen to internal stakeholders, the top five answers survey respondents highlighted were departmental meetings, meeting with direct supervisors, annual employee surveys, employee intranet, and anonymous reporting systems. Departmental meetings and meetings with direct supervisors had many more responses compared to anonymous reporting systems. When comparing these answers to what was most effective to organizational listening, managers and nonmanagers greatly differed in their answers. The five most effective efforts in order according to nonmanagers were 1) meeting with direct supervisors, 2) departmental meetings, 3) anonymous reporting systems, 4) employee intranet, and 5) town hall meetings. By contrast, managers rated the following five efforts as the most effective: 1) meetings with direct supervisors, 2) annual employee surveys, 3) departmental meetings, 4) employee intranet, and 5) anonymous reporting systems. Based on this information, what is currently being used in organizations may closely match what managers view is most effective but varies in terms of what nonmanagers prefer when it comes to communication and listening.

This finding is then mirrored by the satisfaction ratings of organizational listening efforts for the two groups. Nonmanagers were seen to have significantly lower satisfaction when looking at organizational listening compared to managers. Specifically, nonmanagers were found to be the least satisfied with the quality of listening that occurs with high-level leaders and most satisfied with the listening that occurs in meetings with their peers. Nonmanagers also collectively rated their organizations more favorably in their usage of technology for listening but noted less satisfaction when addressing their organization’s ability to collect bad news and concerns. Meanwhile, women were also seen to have a significantly lower satisfaction about organizational listening compared to their male counterparts. Women were also less likely to agree with the statement that they personally felt listened to. Overall, women and nonmanagers were less satisfied with the level of listening and how listening was happening currently within their organizations compared to managers and males. Likewise, lower-level managers were also less satisfied with organizational listening compared to mid- and top-level managers.

How Can Real Estate Management Improve?

These findings can be applied to real estate firms and even to client-agent relationships. We recommend that managers implement listening methodologies that nonmanagers consider more effective for organizational listening, such as direct meetings, departmental meetings, and town hall meetings where agents can voice concerns and comments to managers. Additionally, it may be helpful to decrease less-effective means of listening and designate resources toward more effective methods.

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Employees can perceive inauthentic approaches to listening, particularly when management does not take action on employee concerns. Inauthentic listening can result in decreased commitment and engagement by employees. As such, firms and managers should focus on improving listening skills and practicing more ethical listening while considering feelings and emotions of their employees.6 Management should also consider following up with employees who bring forward specific concerns and/or recommendations. To maintain trust and commitment, managers should discuss changes or plans of action to address employee concerns.

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Recommended Reading

Neill, Marlene and Shannon Bowen (2021), “Employee Perceptions of Ethical Listening in U.S. Organizations,” Public Relations Review, 47(5).

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  1. Lipetz, Liora, Avraham N. Kluger, and Graham D. Bodie (2020), “Listening is Listening is Listening: Employees’ Perception of Listening as a Holistic Phenomenon,” International Journal of Listening, 34(2020), 71-96.
  2. Lewis, Laurie (2020), The Power of Strategic Listening, Rowman & Littlefield: London, United Kingdom.
  3. Macnamara, JR (2016c), Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication, Peter Lang Publishing: New York, NY.
  4. Van Dyne, Linn, Soon Ang, and Isabel Botero (2003), “Conceptualizing Employee Silence and Employee Voice as Multidimensional Constructs,” Journal of Management Studies, 40(6), 1359-1392.
  5. Adler, Ron and George Rodman (2011), Understanding Communication (11th ed), Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
  6. Shahinpoor, Nasrin and Bernard Matt (2007), “The Power of One: Dissent and Organizational Life,” Journal of Business Ethics, 74(2007), 37-48.

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About the Authors

Marlene S. Neill, PhD, APR, Fellow PRSA
Associate Professor & Graduate Program Director, Baylor University

Dr. Marlene Neill’s (PhD – The University of Texas at Austin) research interests include ethics in public relations, public relations management, integrated communication, ethics in advertising, and internal/employee communication.  Her research has appeared in leading academic journals including Corporate Communications: An Internal Journal, Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising, Public Relations Journal, Journal of Media Ethics, and Public Relations Review, among others. Dr. Neill has also co-authored PR Women with Influence: Breaking through the Ethical and Leadership Challenges and Public Relations Ethics:  Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to Speak Up and Keep Your Job. Dr. Neill is significantly involved in the prestigious Public Relations Society of America, previously serving as the chair for the Southwest District, on the PRSA Nominating Committee, and as the faculty adviser for the Baylor University PRSSA chapter. Prior to her academic career, Dr. Neill worked in nonprofit and government public relations.

Shannon A. Bowen, PhD
Professor, University of South Carolina

Dr. Shannon Bowen’s (PhD – University of Maryland) research focuses on ethical decision making within the highest levels of organizations. She teaches and researches ethics across corporations, pharmaceutical firms, governmental entities and the public relations industry. Bowen is one of three joint-editors for the journal Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics. She is published in Public Relations Journal and Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of Media Morality, among others. Dr. Bowen's work with PhD students has led to publications and top paper awards for the student at IPRRC and PRSA. She served an elected member of the Board of Trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and sits on the Commission on Public Relations Education.