How To Establish An Employee Suggestion Program

by Daniel Hannig

A good idea can come from anywhere. If your company’s ideas for new products, new positions, and new ways of working are only conceived in closed-off meeting rooms, there’s a chance that you might be missing out on a million-dollar idea. Asking your employees for their suggestions means that your company can benefit from a diversity of expertise, experiences, and brainpower.

Employees might have an unexpected perspective on your company’s product offerings. Someone in Sales might have first-hand knowledge that the product benefits you tout in your marketing might not actually be how your customers use your product. An employee in the IT department might have some valuable insight on what and where the Purchasing department should focus their resources. Want to learn more about this topic? Download our Employee Engagement ebook

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They might also have a detail-oriented solution for solving smaller, harder-to-detect flaws in workflows. The course of their everyday work can expose inefficiencies that are invisible to higher-ups. While a manager might chastise a team for working slowly, the team’s inability to execute work quickly might be a result of other dependencies that their manager is unaware of.

An organized Employee Suggestion program gives your employees an outlet for their ideas. Formal, organized employee suggestion programs can improve your company’s performance in myriad ways by tapping employees at all levels for their ideas on everything from product to process. In most companies, management is in charge of innovation, and for good reason: they weren’t promoted for their good looks, after all. However, while your supervisors generally generate stellar ideas of their own, they’re also typically operating from a “big picture” point of view, which can result in plenty of missed opportunities for improvement.

“If an organization values innovation, you can assume it’s safe to speak up with new ideas, leaders will listen, and your voice matters.” —Adam Grant

Employee suggestion programs aren’t just about streamlining and delivering a better product, though. A commitment to listening to your employees’ ideas can yield internal improvements that are just as powerful as those that directly benefit your customers.

Employee satisfaction surveys typically show that around 75 percent of employees would remain at their companies longer if they felt their opinions and ideas were heard. Your people care that their concerns are being addressed, and implementing a system that assures them that you’re listening at all is the first step in letting them know they matter.

“The employees who share innovative ideas may also be the folks who have some hidden talents that would help incorporate their suggestions” —Harvey Mackay

Internal improvements aimed at engagement can save money in two ways. Requesting employees’ ideas gives them a voice and a stake in innovation, thus improving engagement and reducing turnover. What’s less obvious, however, might be the fact that–unless they’re in direct response to a suggestion–efforts aimed at improving workplace engagement amount to throwing money at the wall and seeing what sticks. Installing a meditation room in your office, for instance, is certainly a noble effort to ease your staff’s stress, but it’s wasted money if they’re not a meditation-minded bunch.

A more active team might prefer you invest in putting a small gym into that unused office. Or, you might even find yourself spending nothing at all if they feel they’d benefit more from a flex-time solution or by working from home on Fridays. The point is, every dollar spent speaking to an employee’s concern works double, by both putting their suggestion into play and showing them that their voice is heard.

Apart from its positive effect on morale, a good employee suggestion plan can clearly have a tremendous effect on your business. However attuned you are to the nuances of your organization, and no matter how talented your innovators, you still might be surprised by the quality of the input you get from your other employees. For example, British Airways’ competes with low-fare airlines like Ryanair, whose attempts of cost-cutting ideas extend to infamous–but no doubt effective–measures like standing-room-only flights and charging customers for using the inflight toilets. A British Airways employee suggested descaling the plumbing lines to reduce aircraft weight, and that idea alone has since saved them over three-quarters of a million dollars a year in fuel costs. But the best example of a priceless employee suggestion? Amazon Prime.

“The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.” —Ken Robinson

While Amazon’s free two-day delivery service might seem ubiquitous now, it has its humble beginnings as an employee suggestion: Back in 2004, current VP of Technology Charlie Ward was just a young software developer. When the company debuted a virtual suggestion box, Ward “dropped” in his idea for a subscription-based free shipping service that he felt would convince customers to make more purchases. Another employee suggested the name Amazon Prime, and not much later, a legend was born. Amazon estimates that Prime customers now account for over 60 percent of its user base in the United States, and users who sign up for the service increase their spending on the site by an average of more than 150 percent. With Amazon recently joining Apple as the world’s second-ever trillion-dollar company, Prime may very well hold the record for the most valuable employee-suggested innovation of all time.

How to develop an employee suggestion program

A strong suggestion process can essentially function as a roadmap to sustainable and steady innovation. So, how should you get started with creating your own?

To begin with, you may want to evaluate whether one is actually necessary. We know, it might seem silly for us to say so after preaching the gospel of employee suggestion boxes, but no idea is one-size-fits-all. Start by surveying your employees to find out if they feel heard. If your office culture is already collaborative, and ideas are free-flowing and easily received, your company might benefit more from short weekly brainstorming sessions, or a set period at the end of one-on-one meetings to share ideas while they’re fresh.

If a formal suggestion process sounds more your speed, then it’s important to examine where the information barriers are in your company, so that you can design your program with an eye towards breaking them down. Additionally, be sure to educate management on why you’re implementing a suggestion plan. Without encouragement and support from the top, convincing employees to share their ideas for innovation can be an uphill battle. And don’t forget to do your research. Enquire with other companies about their programs and think about whether their strategies will suit your organization’s structure and culture. Once you’ve decided how to proceed, it’s time to write up your suggestion template. Here are some fields you’ll likely want to include:

  • Who are you?

While it should be acceptable for employees to submit suggestions anonymously, especially those critical of the status quo, those who want recognition for their great ideas should definitely be able to attach their names to them. What’s the problem being solved?

The best employee suggestions solve a problem, even if it’s not one your company knows it has. Including this field allows your staff to give their suggestion some context. This is especially useful if it involves something like flextime, or another idea that could make employees feel like they’re asking for a handout. Just as importantly, this framework will gently nudge even anonymous employees toward framing their ideas constructively, as opposed to just venting their frustrations. What’s your innovative solution?

Here’s where you get to the good stuff. If your suggestion form is paper-based, be sure to give employees plenty of room to spell out their idea here. If you’re going digital, tell your designer to give this field a large character limit. What are the estimated costs and benefits?

Including this field gives your employees the chance to address the elephant in the room: how is this going to make–or save–us money? Some suggestions might seem a little off the wall, but this section shows a mutual trust: in the employee to make realistic and well-thought-out suggestions, and in the company to consider those suggestions seriously.

Just as important as the suggestion plan itself is how you promote it. Make it splashy–this is, after all, meant to improve morale and engagement. Be sure to spread the word, and consider holding employees’ attention longer by instituting a reward program. While truly groundbreaking ideas should be rewarded in a more traditional fashion (i.e. monetarily), all employees will appreciate it if you do something fun like reward constructive, non-anonymous suggestions with things like movie tickets or gift certificates. Prizes like these are just one more way your new employee suggestion plan will benefit everyone involved.


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