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Manager practicing ethical listening with her employees during a virtual meeting

Pandemic Reveals the Importance of Ethical Listening

A study conducted during the current COVID-19 crisis offers tips for managers to improve communication with employees

Rachel Muenz

Rachel Muenz, managing editor for G2 Intelligence, can be reached at

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A recent study published in the Journal of Communication Management shares some important lessons on workplace communication as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that can be applied going forward. It involved 30 interviews with communications managers from a variety of industries and the key learnings can be applied to managers of laboratories and other organizations.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that listening to employees was the most important way to overcome many of the communication challenges posed by the current pandemic. In particular, managers’ “listening efforts need to be authentic, morally autonomous or open-minded, and empathetic to respect the genuine concerns of employees and how organizational decisions will affect them,” researchers Marlene S. Neill and Shannon A. Bowen note in the study abstract.  “Listening is essential to serving as an ethical and effective strategic counselor.”

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Ethical listening, which involves respecting the speaker through actively taking in what is said, making them comfortable to speak freely, and avoiding pre-judgements, was shown to be especially critical to strong organizational communication.

Barriers to communication during a pandemic

However, Neill and Bowen said they found several obstacles to such listening in the organizations they interviewed, including:

  • Lack of desire from upper management 
  • Perceived lack of time
  • Lack of trust from employees
  • Difficulty connecting with remote workers
  • Challenges picking up body language essential to effective communication

Improving active listening in spite of COVID-19 challenges

Solutions to these communication challenges include the use of mobile apps, video conferencing technology, and sending out employee feedback surveys more often. Building trust through these and other virtual options was shown to be critical to successfully listening to—and communicating with—employees in spite of such challenges, the researchers write. Their tips for building trust with employees, whether in-person or remotely, include:

  • Building and improving relationships with employees
  • Using ethical listening
  • Communicating to employees how their feedback is being used to create positive change in the organization

Some of the managers interviewed for the study, according to a press release on the paper, said they found shorter, more succinct meetings and more visual communication methods to be helpful in cutting down stress and maintaining an informal connection with their employees. Paying special attention to visual cues during video conferencing meetings was also found to be important in actively listening to employees.

Though the study is small, the researchers note that, during the pandemic, leaders seem to be giving more consideration to ethics in their decision making.

“This pandemic has enhanced moral sensitivity and empathy, leading organizations to make decisions based on ethical considerations,” they write.