By Leisha DeHart-Davis and Lloyd Payne

Let us begin with a simple argument: The most effective cities and counties are the ones that listen to their employees. Systematically. Routinely. Sincerely.

There are many ways to effectively listen to employees (more on that in a moment), and they all have two things in common: a deep respect for employees and an intention to act on what employees tell them.

Respect for employees is necessary for effective listening but not uniformly practiced by managers. Some U.S. cities and counties are stuck in post-World War II industrial hierarchies that rule by fear and kill individual initiative.


A manager, for example, who received survey results once responded: “If our employees don’t like it here, they can go get a better job.” No, no, no. This comment reveals a fundamental disrespect for employees, not to mention a cluelessness when it comes to the need for local governments to retain the best and bright.

Senior managers must also fully intend to act on what employees say. No shelving the results or making excuses about tough budget times. There are many ways to respond to employee input that do not cost a pile of money.

To illustrate, the city of Concord, North Carolina, has just completed a listening exercise, which started with an employee survey conducted by the Local Government Workplaces Initiative of the University of North Carolina. The survey revealed that employees rated Concord high in many areas, including employee recognition and teamwork.

But a few hotspots emerged, including a dissatisfaction with payment systems and communications. With regards to pay, employees felt that there was an inadequate distance between merit pay distinctions, that a recent comp and class study did not produce pay raises across the board, and that there were pay compression issues created by the need for higher salaries to compete in the Mecklenburg County labor market. As for communications, employees wanted more opportunities to share input and receive information from senior management.

Concord acted immediately (an effective listening requirement). The city employed a summer intern to research salaries and benefits to become more competitive in the region and created greater differentiation in merit pay. A compensation and benefits committee was formed to address the competitiveness of Concord’s pay, along with traditional and nontraditional benefits. A communication committee was also formed (resulting in four subcommittees) to identify potential solutions to the issues raised by the survey.

Concord is not alone in effectively listening to employees. Other North Carolina local governments have responded to survey results by cutting out layers of approvals, training supervisors to give constructive feedback, and holding senior managers accountable for communicating with employees.

So how can local governments listen to employees? Here are just a few ideas:

  • Conduct employee surveys biennially and then hold focus groups with employees to interpret the results.
  • Establish task forces staffed by employees in good standing to tackle tough organizational issues.
  • Conduct real-time polls to get employee thoughts on upcoming organizational changes.
  • Ask supervisors and managers to interpret their departmental survey results and outline improvement plans.

If you want to improve your city or county organization, listen to employees and act on what they tell you. Systematically. Routinely. Sincerely.

Leisha DeHart-Davis is a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Government and director of the Local Government Workplaces Initiative. Lloyd Payne is assistant manager of Concord, North Carolina.

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