Listening to Employees is Research, Not Therapy

But only if you approach it like an ethnographer.

Recently, an HR leader shared a frustrating survey response: an employee was upset because no one from HR had checked in with them in the past year. While they’d love to check in more often, they told me, they didn’t see “company therapist” as part of their job—and their CEO agreed.

While there’s plenty to unpack with mental health at work, I’m more interested in the framing. Calling employee comments “venting” does more than delegitimize them—it frames a research opportunity as a laundry list of failures.

HR can feel like a thankless job. Like typographers, site reliability engineers, and other backstage roles, people usually pay attention when things break. But the best response to unhelpful feedback isn’t to dismiss it; it’s to find a way to get better data.

How would our workplaces be different if we structured employee feedback in ways that allowed for honesty, context, and nuance?

Anyone who’s studied adult fans of Lego knows great products are built on empathy, which is built on research. When customers are unhappy, product teams don’t tell them they’re wrong about their feelings. They listen, learn, and prioritize. Why don’t companies treat employees’ concerns the same way? (You may think the customer analogy is a stretch; not every hire ends up being a great fit. To which I say: companies fire bad customers all the time.)

Yes, some employees may have unrealistic expectations. And no, HR can’t fix everything. But if culture really eats strategy for breakfast, why don’t more leadership teams see employee feedback as R&D for their culture?

Venture-backed companies invest heavily in product research to understand customers’ needs before closing a sale. What if they funded internal research to understand employees’ needs with the same zeal?

Product teams spend hours listening to customers’ stories. What if, instead of obsessing over charts and NPS scores and Glassdoor ratings, HR spent more time walking the floor? How would regular, high-bandwidth conversations change the way leadership teams set priorities? (For example: in one client study, senior leaders were unsure who reported to them—and employees were just as confused.)

If you’re already wondering how this applies to your company, consider signing up below.

Product teams don’t just brainstorm great ideas—they start with the right questions. What if, instead of relying on SHRM templates that ask employees to speculate:

❌ What do you like most or least about working here?
❌ What might tempt you to leave?

HR asked employees to share how they feel and what they do?

✅ When was the last time you felt really excited about something at work?
✅ Can you tell me about the last time you thought about leaving?

Product teams go to great lengths to get honest feedback and respect ethical boundaries. And employees have plenty of reasons to avoid being candid at work. What if, instead of relying on employees’ blind faith, HR shared enough context to enable informed consent, protected their confidentiality, and made sure their participation couldn’t affect performance evaluations?

Of course, data is only useful if it leads to action. It’s easy to assume that facts will change leaders’ minds, but facts are open to interpretation. And when feedback challenges their self-image or beliefs, it’s easier to dismiss it as “anecdata” or write off critical employees as entitled complainers.

As I heard from another HR leader recently, “If the canary in the coal mine stops singing, you don't go throwing 50 more canaries in.” Until leaders are willing to give every opinion a fair hearing, no amount of listening will lead to change.

If you enjoyed this post, consider signing up to get the next one in your inbox.

Further Reading