From left, panelists Nancy Vitale, Heather Whiteman, Rajeev Singh, Jack Altman, and moderator Melia Russell (Photos by Daniel Beck)

Disagreements inside some of America’s largest tech companies, including Google and Facebook, have made headlines in the past year, bringing up issues of inclusion, social justice and dissatisfaction with workplace culture.

But before it gets to that point—and even during times of public turmoil—it’s important for companies to provide an outlet for employees to make themselves heard, according to panelists at the From Day One conference in San Francisco on April 9.

What can businesses do to make that happen? Among other things, leaders should show a vulnerable side with employees, said Jack Altman, founder and CEO of Lattice, a people-management company. Leaders should talk about the company’s missteps and solicit employee feedback in earnest, he said. In the long run, it creates a culture where employees aren’t just “screaming into the void” and actually want to contribute their ideas.

“I think vulnerability gives employees a sort of slack for the company that leads to forgiveness,” Altman said during the panel, which was titled “How companies can foster bold ideas—and dissenting ones” and was moderated by San Francisco Chronicle tech reporter Melia Russell.

While employee-engagement surveys have become commonplace, there’s more that companies can do to encourage employees to speak out. In fact, companies should have multiple ways for people to express their grievances and concerns, said Nancy Vitale, chief human-resources officer at Genentech.

Access to Leadership

The larger companies get, the more intentional they have to be in creating instances when employees can talk to senior leadership about and bring up issues about the company. Altman said that since his company, Lattice, is housed in one office with less than 100 people, employees naturally interact with senior leadership frequently. In bigger companies, that just isn’t possible.

At Genentech, a biotech giant with 14,000 employees in the U.S., groups of about 18 to 20 staffers meet in informal “coffee chats” with top executives, Vitale said. “We create a living-room-style format that’s casual and informal [and] gives people access to senior leadership. No agenda, just Q&A  and dialogue.”

Rajeev Singh, CEO of Accolade, a health-care benefits advisory firm, said he has begun implementing listening sessions where employees and management have a conversation about what they each need from one other, instead of just talking at one another. The sessions, Singh said, have often turned into emotional interactions.

“That has been a profound change in the way our teams interact, which we would not have thought of prior to opening up some of these listening panels,” he said.

Executives listen to every piece of feedback and respond, even if they don’t agree. Singh said. The hope is that by being transparent, even when times are tough or there’s tension, executives will be more credible in the long run. “Sometimes it’s a little sticky, but it’s a good kind of sticky,” he said.

Once-a-year performance reviews, Singh said, can't keep up with the pace of business

GE Digital, a software division of General Electric Co., has a 30-minute, all-hands meeting every other Thursday. The session has no formal agenda, and employees use a digital tool called Slido to submit questions for executives. Employees can also upvote other people’s questions they want answered.

“This is something we started doing six months ago to deal with the fact we didn’t have a lot to share and employees assumed that’s because we were hiding things,” said Heather Whiteman, GE Digital’s head of people strategy, analytics, digital learning and HR. “But it gave us the opportunity to say, ‘Just ask.’ In harder times, there’s something to that, to let them know that every other week we’ll be here. ‘Just ask, we’ll answer.’”

A Room of Their Own

Before going straight to the top, employee-resource groups (ERGs) can be an avenue for employees to share experiences and ideas about company culture. These groups are typically centered around a shared identity, such as a women’s group or a Latinx group.

“I think those play a really important role in terms of connection and communication within the organization,” Vitale said.

She added that companies should also think about intersectionality when encouraging these groups, since employees have multiple aspects to their identities. An example would be a group specifically for black women, or for LGBTQ women.

The most powerful outcome of Genentech’s ERGs, Vitale said, is that representatives from different groups have started meeting to discuss how to best support and be better allies to each other.

Speeding up the Feedback Cycle

Increasingly, companies are starting to move away from a once-a-year schedule for performance reviews and goal-setting. It’s just too slow, Singh said, and can prevent employees from knowing how they’re doing, and responding to feedback, in a timely way.

“We believe that the old mode of annual coaching plans and annual objectives just doesn’t keep pace with the pace of the business,” Singh said.

Shane Metcalf of 15Five, a people-management company

Altman said that he’s seeing companies begin to implement reviews two or three times per year.

“As we’ve made that shift, it’s been really liberating, it’s been fantastic,” Singh said. “People feel like they’re heard and that they’re getting a really clear sense of where they stand.”

Another evaluation tool that can be helpful in some cases is the 360-degree performance appraisal. These reviews get feedback from everyone around an employee, including people who work for them, colleagues and supervisors. While labor-intensive, 360-degree reviews can highlight disparities in how employees seem themselves and how managers see them. At GE Digital, Whiteman said, employees consistently ranked themselves lower than their managers did, a disconnect that can be remedied.

“It helps someone get a better view of their own skills. And to flip it around, sometimes a manager has no idea how good someone really is,” Whiteman said.

In a keynote presentation right after the panel, Shane Metcalf, co-founder of 15Five, talked about how to build a culture of continuous feedback within a company. In 15Five’s system, employees take 15 minutes a week to answer questions, managers take five minutes to read and comment on responses, and feedback travels up the ladder to through all levels of management.

Rachel Sandler is a freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She covers business, technology, local real-estate development and housing policy. Follow her on Twitter at @rachsandl