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It’s Time To Dust Off The Ol’ Suggestion Box with Nina Hershberger

by | In the Magazine, Nina Hershberger

What do you think of when you hear the words “suggestion box”?

You probably picture a quaint, cobweb-covered container or a Black Hole from which nothing ever emerges.

But in today’s competitive market, management can no longer ignore the insights and brainstorming of employees.

Ideas from employees can eliminate inefficiencies, reduce turnover, and enhance customer satisfaction.

Of course, management needs enough humility to maximize this potential.


At one retailer in the Nashville area, low-paid workers in the cavernous warehouse endured bitterly cold winters year after year.  The store manager merely chuckled when reminded of his broken promises to install Warehouse Resin Flooring and an office in the warehouse.  Chuckled, and continued providing expensive kerosene for a heater that sent 99 percent of its warmth to the high ceilings.

Finally, during the “honeymoon phase” of hiring a new warehouse supervisor, the boss relented and paid for materials, so employees could build their own office.  The office is now cozy with just an inexpensive electric heater.

The employees could have been spared years of hardship and the company could have saved hundreds of gallons of fuel if not for the boss’s “if I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you” attitude.

Even in a small business, the people at the top can’t possibly know (and remedy) all the day-to-day aggravations, annoyances, and wasteful practices that employees and customers face – unless there is a well-publicized “suggestions” search. 

Here are some pointers for such a program:

Set ground rules

It’s a waste of everyone’s time if the suggestion box is inundated with pie-in-the-sky demands such as “Pay us more!” or tightly targeted smears such as “Make Judy in Purchasing stop wearing that awful perfume.”  Employees need to know that their suggestions should be specific, concrete ways that management would be able to afford raises – or less personal guidelines for maintaining professionalism and co-worker harmony.

Tailor the program to individual personalities

Some employees may want only the boss to know their suggestion.  Others (for fear of reprisal) may want total anonymity.  Still, others may really crave the spotlight for their innovations.  Don’t force anyone into a one-size-fits-all mold; ascertain what works best for each employee.

Trumpet visible results of employee suggestions

Cookie-Cutter pep talk about employee participation goes only so far.  So, if employee advice has enabled you to enjoy 300 accident-free days, keep insurance premiums steady, double the Christmas bonus, improve the parking lot, or snag that coveted customer you’ve been chasing for five years, be sure everyone knows such things don’t occur in a vacuum.

Share the wealth

Some improvements are so intangible that it’s hard to put a dollar amount on them.  But if it’s demonstrably true that an employee’s suggestion has directly enabled you to cut utility costs by 25 percent or land a million-dollar customer, don’t begrudge him a slice of the pie.  A slap on the back and a Dollar Tree trophy cup won’t suffice.  Think about an expensive jacket, a family meal at a ritzy restaurant, or a paid vacation.

Spread participation as broadly as possible

A good idea is a good idea, regardless of the source; but it’s counterproductive if employees get the perception that the same individual, team, or department is always getting management’s praise.  Don’t create co-worker friction by giving the impression someone is the “boss’s pet.”

You may even have to visit various work areas and think out loud, “I’ll bet someone here is sharp enough to solve Problem X…”

Make awards for suggestions recurring but not regimented

If management makes a big deal out of soliciting and rewarding employee input on a single occasion and then never mentions it again, employees will (justifiably) view it as a half-hearted “dog and pony show” gimmick to give the illusion of open-mindedness.

On the other hand, if you straitjacket yourself into recognizing a “Suggestion of the Month” or “Suggestion of the Week,” you will face diminishing returns and fading enthusiasm.  Most likely, the “low-hanging fruit” of glaring problems will be dealt with early on.  Employees will feel stressed out if they must routinely top themselves every time they turn around.  They will become dismissive of the entire program as increasingly nitpicky, “Mickey Mouse” suggestions are lauded.

Be patient

Most workplaces are saddled with a culture that sees the suggestion box as (a) an exercise in futility connected straight to the incinerator or (b) an opportunity for backstabbing individuals at various levels of the hierarchy to steal an idea and claim it as their own.  But, if month after month and year after year, you build a reputation for at least studying every reasonable suggestion, it will become second nature for rank-and-file employees to share their perspective.

Companies have Human Resources Departments, not Interchangeable Cogs Departments.  Treat your employees with dignity and compassion.   Morale, productivity, and profitability will soar.

 About Nina Hershberger

Nina is a marketing fanatic who loves helping local businesses not only survive, but thrive. She was recognized as one of the top 6 marketers worldwide in 2009 and is the author of “30 Minute Marketing – 101 Ways to wow your customers, clients, and patients”. She hosts a national marketing mastermind group where business owners from varied niches gather to plan, strategize and share marketing ideas.

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