Let's start with the premise that Google was trying to do the right thing in fostering a work environment in which employees could speak freely--and share their opinions on internal social media.

But this good intention blew up when an employee wrote an opinion piece contending that women are underrepresented in technology jobs because of psychological differences between men and women. Google fired the employee, then faced a storm of strong opinions both supporting and criticizing the company's decision.

Meanwhile, inside the company, Google canceled a town hall because some employees were worried that they would be "outed" for asking a question. As CEO Sundar Pichai wrote, "Over the past two days, I have had a chance to meet with so many people here, and I have read each of your emails carefully. The base majority of you are very supportive of our decision. A smaller percentage of you wish we do more. And some are worried that you cannot speak out at work freely."

What steps can Google take to create a culture where employees can speak up, but where that candor doesn't backfire? And how can any company encourage employee feedback and participation?

Here are five suggestions:

  1. More guidelines. "Free speech" is neither possible nor desirable inside a company because leaders need to create a working environment in which every employee feels supported. That's why a company creates a code of conduct, so employees understand how they should act and treat each other. And why guidelines for social media are so important. Yes, you can go too far in creating restrictive policies, but it's been my experience that employees are actually more comfortable when they understand what the rules are.
  2. More understanding. Of course, it's not enough to write guidelines and post them on some obscure location on the intranet. You have to actively and consistently communicate guidelines so that employees understand what to do. One key to building employee knowledge: investing time in making sure managers are comfortable answering questions and giving their team members guidance.
  3. More face-to-face forums. Google's not the first company to learn the painful lesson that anything posted online internally can be shared with the world. Some especially risk-averse companies have even prohibited internal social media because leaders are worried that sensitive or proprietary information will leak. The answer is not to shut down sharing, but to create offline, face-to-face town halls and other forums where leaders and employees can communicate in person.
  4. More small-group discussions. Google did the right thing in canceling its town hall--that meeting was going to be too big and too exposed to be productive. All-hands meetings are terrific for some topics, but employees are often too intimidated by speaking in front of leaders and peers to raise sensitive issues. But when a leader meets with a small group of employees--say, eight to 15 people--the environment is much more comfortable. The leader can more freely share his/her perspectives, and employees are more likely to engage in straight talk as well.
  5. More focus groups. Yes, an employee engagement survey can be valuable for measuring attitudes, but to really find out what employees are thinking, conduct focus groups. This classic qualitative method gives employees a safe space to share their views. If you're concerned employees won't speak freely, engage an external firm to moderate the focus groups and analyze findings. And if the issue is especially emotionally charged, individual interviews are a good option.

To encourage employees to speak up more, companies need to do more to set their workers up for success.