Employee voice exists, whether you recognise it or not. The only question is – "are you listening?"

From the water cooler, to Glassdoor, to twitter, employees are telling it like it is – and no attempt to ignore their voices or shut them up will work in the long run. And why would you want to try? It’s not just that employees are an organisation's best asset. Employee voice is probably the best friend a senior manager can have when trying to lead their organisation through change. And supporting it, enabling it, and listening to it, may provide one of the best returns on investment it is possible to make.

Just consider: what do all the public enquiries into egregious organisational behaviour have in common?

What did the Salz report into Barclays tell us? The report into how Jimmy Saville got away with his actions at the BBC? The Francis Report into Mid staffs Hospital; the reports into Deep Water Horizon and many more, in banking, retail and the care sector? They told us that people in the organisation always knew what was going on. The effects of cost cutting, the results of a win at all costs culture, the results of giving unchecked power to sadists.

People always knew. So why didn’t they speak up, go public, stop the rot?

Too disengaged – "just the way it is around here".

Tried – but no-one listened

Too scared – culture of bullying and intimidation.

Too much at risk, career-wise.

None of these organisations were listening organisations. There was a culture of denial and collusion, from top to bottom, which was extremely difficult for individuals to punch through. And the consequences have been catastrophic for the organisations concerned. The share price goes down. Public confidence in business probity, and in the whole system goes south.

But when organisations do listen – then employees speak up. Within a week of arriving at Tesco as the new CEO, Dave Lewis asked his employees to email him about their views and concerns.  In the batch of 10,000 or so emails were the revelations of what a small number of senior people had been doing to allegedly cook the books to make their figures look better than they really were. A scandal which, if left unchecked could have bought the company down, was dealt with. It was long and painful – but worth it.

Benefits of Voice

Having a functioning system of employee voice that both sides are invested in can help to build a positive social partnership between the workforce and management. This strengthens mutual trust and is likely to resolve any disputes in a professional and amicable manner, rather than leading to potential industrial action.

But beyond this, employee voice is one of the four key enablers of employee engagement – and an engaged workforce leads to a whole host of massive benefits for employers. Crucially, voice can play a key role in enhancing workplace productivity through its impact on employee engagement, creativity, retention, and effectiveness.

There is a wealth of evidence linking employee engagement and productivity, on both an individual and an organisational level. In a survey of over 23,000 business units, Gallup found that those with engagement scores in the highest quartile were 18 per cent more productive than those in the lowest quartile.

Voice also acts to strengthen organisational resilience – an engaged workforce with a meaningful voice will support an organisation undergoing periods of turbulence, either as a result of internal change programmes or external pressures. A disengaged workforce that lacks a proper mechanism for meaningful dialogue will instead exacerbate those pressures as they look for means to vent the frustrations that they have no legitimate means to express.

Who knows the customer or the supplier best? Even during times of normal operations, staff voice can provide a vital early warning system for problems such as technological failures, or changes in consumer or supplier behaviour which typically come to the attention of frontline workers quite some time before trends can be spotted in formal data available to senior managers.

On top of these costs there is another, often underappreciated one – security. While an organisations’ workforce is its greatest asset, a disengaged workforce can become its greatest vulnerability in terms of both physical and, increasingly, cyber security threats. A 2016 study of 874 data breaches found that less than 10 per cent were conducted by outsiders with stolen credentials – compared with 22 per cent caused by malicious employee activity and a shocking 65 per cent as a result of employee or contractor negligence. A workforce that feels they are listened to by management in a respectful way are far more likely to report concerns about a colleague’s behaviour, potentially heading off a major security incident which could cost the organisation up to millions of pounds in damage.

Forms of voice

By far the most obvious form of voice is the traditional model of collective voice – trade unions. These can still be highly effective so long as a positive model of partnership working and mutual respect has been developed, but in many industries these are declining in prevalence. Less than 14 per cent of private sector workers were trade union members in 2016, though still over half of all workers in the public sector.

More common, among private sector employers, are a variety of staff forums, information and consultation committees and other informal bodies. Sometimes these are set up based around the Information and Consultation Regulations, but more often these are of a format unique to a single employer. Some of these bodies are highly effective vehicles for staff voice, offering real opportunities for dialogue. Others sadly represent a tick-box approach to staff voice and offer a mere façade of consultation that is easily seen through by the workforce, often leaving them more cynical and disengaged than before.

Meanwhile, almost all major employers these days use some form of staff survey to solicit feedback and assess engagement levels, usually annual but sometimes more frequent. While these are among the most common forms of staff voice, they can also be one of the least meaningful, offering a sterilised, one-way, one-off form of consultation where answers are only sought on the questions management want answered and responses are either limited to pre-selected options or a patronising open text field that asks ‘if you were the CEO for the day, what would you do?’. A question which only gives out the very unhelpful impression that management is easy and therefore the current management must be idiots to need to ask for such simplistic suggestions.

Then of course there is the suggestion box – often unprintable, rarely productive.

Finally there is the direct approach – workers having discussions on either a day-to-day or semi-regular basis with their line managers. This is a necessary component of an effective approach to voice, but it is not on its own sufficient. For any organisation with more than a few dozen employees, the senior leaders need a more direct line of feedback and consultation with frontline staff than that which you can get mediated through multiple layers of management. Town halls, leadership walking the floor, listening exercises with the board – all can be effective transmission devices.

Overall, a multi-channel approach to voice will always be best for organisations – important to have direct voice through line managers, by all means have an annual engagement survey, but don’t neglect to also have some structure for collective, representative employee voice as well.

What makes voice structures effective?

First and foremost, to be effective, employee voice must be informed.  Voice requires a two way dialogue, not just a complaints system or a suggestion scheme. It is the cascading of information from the top down to the workforce that then makes their voice worth listening to.

Voice must cover meaningful issues about business performance, strategy, change management, workplace culture and so forth – not just ‘tea and toilets’ complaints or ideas about whether to install a new vending machine in the cafeteria.

It needs to be representative – making sure that the voice of all employees is heard, not just the 30% who are really positive or the 30% who complain about everything, but also the 40% in the middle who are usually content enough to just get on with the job, might not be the loudest in speaking out, but still have valuable contributions to make.

Elected employee representatives need support and training in order to fulfil their role effectively – something which trade unions can offer where they exist, but which employers otherwise need to take the initiative in providing. The IPA can offer support with this.

And voice needs to be listened and responded to. Organisations that adopt a voice structure simply to ‘tick a box’ in the CSR or improve their public reputation, but then don’t listen to the views their workers express through it, are setting themselves up to fail. Asking for views, then locking the results in a drawer will breed cynicism and distrust.  "You said, we did", can go a long way to convincing the workforce that you really mean it about listening.

For more information on how the IPA can support your organisation in establishing effective employee voice structures, check out our training section or get in touch with [email protected]