The nature and scope of employee voice is becoming increasingly complex, with drivers such as technology, new employment models and workforce diversity fundamentally changing the way we work. But are organisations flexing to accommodate these shifts in the way we express our voice in the workplace? This article was co-authored by Louisa Baczor (Research Associate) and Dr Jill Miller (Diversity and Inclusion Adviser) at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development.
People no longer just rely on trade unions or staff forums as a channel through which to express their views and concerns about their working conditions. With the rise of conduits like Glassdoor, Twitter and other social media, employee voice is becoming more public and is being captured in real time.
But it’s often not being heard in the workplace so it’s important for employers to consider how aligned their internal/external mechanisms are, and make sure the voices of all of their employees are heard, because not doing so risks alienating people.
The shifting nature of employment models
The changing nature of employment models raises the question of what mechanisms can be put in place to hear the voices of the whole workforce, including disconnected and disadvantaged groups.
The recent cases of ‘gig economy’ workers taking legal action against companies such as Uber regarding their working rights highlights what can happen when people do not feel their voice is being heard. It may be the case that employees who are core to the business (or who are perceived as providing the most value to the organisation) are given more opportunity to participate in workplace decisions, compared to temporary workers or other groups.
But apart from the moral perspective that giving people a voice on matters that affect them is the right thing to do, organisations can learn valuable insights by listening to a variety of staff, such as frontline workers and those who interact with their customers. For example, understanding the experiences of the shop floor can drive innovation.
Our latest HR Outlook survey suggests many employers are realising the value of employee views and ideas, and are starting to improve the ways that individuals can have their say in the organisation.
Over half of HR practitioners (55%) said that their company has taken steps to improve employee voice over the last 12 months, most commonly through organisation-wide communications and all-staff briefing sessions.
But what’s more important than which particular voice mechanisms are in place is the intended purpose and value underpinning them. For example, is employee voice seen only as a means to maintaining positive employee relations and driving engagement, or does it have inherent value as a fundamental right of individuals? At the CIPD, we are exploring this question as we consider how employers can enable people to have a genuine say at work.
In the following section of this article, we will discuss the roles of senior leaders, line managers, and employees in creating a culture of authentic voice.
How can your organisation encourage and benefit from employee voice?
Our research tells us voice is meaningless unless it’s heard.
The extent to which senior managers value, prioritise, listen to or act on employee voice is therefore really important.
According to the survey, the attitudes of senior leaders are a common barrier to enabling effective voice. If they just see it as a tick-box exercise, it’s likely that it will have limited positive impact and may damage trust.
For example, if individuals participate in working groups to influence an organisational change, but the leadership team does not take their input into consideration and decides to take a different direction, the individuals are likely to feel undervalued.
Do you have enough bandwidth to respond?
The challenge for employers is that they may not always have the bandwidth to respond to all voices.
Encouraging employee voice without active listening and a two-way dialogue can promote more discontent than not asking employees’ opinions at all.
HMRC launched an internal online idea generation system in 2014, ‘Fresh Thinking’, which enabled anyone in the organisation to put forward a suggestion. The system then categorised the suggestions and people could track the progress of, comment on and vote for ideas.
A review team acknowledged all the ideas and identified which changes could be easily made, which kept momentum going and signalled to employees that they were being heard. It’s important to remember that for such initiatives to foster a culture of openness and authenticity, senior leaders must fully commit to and champion employee voice.
Conversations with line managers are a key channel through which people can express their voice, to share information and feed ideas ‘up’.
Organisations should consider these informal voice mechanisms alongside formal ones (such as suggestion boxes and employee forums), in taking a holistic approach to employee voice.
Perceptions are very important
As well as managers’ attitudes to voice initiatives, the perceptions of them by employees themselves have an important influence on their outcomes.
Even though many employers are taking steps to improve employee voice, to what extent are employees embracing such voice mechanisms? Our survey found that employee apathy, lack of engagement, and fears around expressing their voice are barriers to improving employee voice.
For example, previous research has explored the impact of social media on voice in the workplace, and suggests that, while enterprise social networks (or staff intranets) have the potential to enhance employee voice through a two-way, real time communications channel, people will only engage with them honestly if they feel it’s a safe environment without negative repercussions.
It’s also important to think about the different purposes of employee voice, from involvement in decision-making to raising a concern. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for enabling effective employee voice.
Social media isn't enough
For example, internal social media might provide a platform for people to feed ideas ‘up’, but it does not replace the need for representation, and it may not be accessible for all employee segments.
A combination of different mechanisms needs to be used, that reflects the diverse make-up of the workforce, different job designs and particular needs.
In addition, employers must recognise individual differences and motivations when it comes to expressing voice in the organisation.
Some people may choose to remain silent not because they have nothing to say, but because they lack the confidence to speak up. Indeed, our survey found some employers are encouraging a particular employee group to have a voice, showing recognition that certain groups are underrepresented in conventional voice mechanisms. We need to understand how people interact with various mechanisms and consider diversity concerns as a core element of voice initiatives.
Hearing different voices may not be an easy task, but can help to unlock people’s potential and drive innovation, while balancing the power between the organisation and its employees.
About Jill Miller
Dr Jill Miller joined the CIPD in 2008 as a research adviser. Her role is a combination of rigorous research and active engagement with academics and practitioners to inform projects and shape thinking. She frequently presents on key people management issues, leads discussions and workshops, and is invited to write for trade press as well as offer comment to national journalists, on radio and TV. She specialises in absence management, employee well-being and future HR trends.