How much 'say' should employees have in the running of organisations and what form should this 'voice' take? These are perhaps the oldest and most important questions in employment relations. 

Answers to these questions also reflect our fundamental assumptions about the nature of the employment relationship, and inform our views on almost every aspect of HR policy and practice: how rewards are distributed, how health and safety are managed, how secure people’s jobs are and so on. 

For some, employee voice is a synonym for trade union representation.  However, we take a much broader view and suggest that employee voice and related terms such as worker participation define an important debate about how organisations should be managed. Three main approaches are apparent.

First, the managerial idea of Employee Involvement is associated with enlightened employers identifying inventive ways of involving ordinary workers in the pursuit of organisational goals.  Popular examples might include Profit-Sharing, Consultation, Teamworking, Empowerment, Total Quality Management, and most recently, Employee Engagement. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, is the radical idea of Workers Control. While this perspective is also in favour of voice and participation, it supports something quite different.  In this view, conventional capitalist organisations are run for shareholders, against the interests of employees and thus cannot allow genuine voice. This can only develop if workers own and control the organisation.  Experiments with Self-Management, Worker Co-operatives and the well-known Mondragon network are all examples of this.

For us, the key voice debate is now between direct, management-led Employee Involvement initiatives and models of collective Representative Participation, but this raises several important questions.  Can Employee Involvement offer real influence or is the voice offered tokenistic and superficial?   Can Representative Participation find some legal or voluntary means of bringing independent collective representation back into the heart of work organisations?  Are Employee Involvement and Representation best when they are combined, and can the ‘democracy at work’ and ‘business case’ arguments ever be reconciled?

In an attempt to answer some of the above questions, our book brings together essays by leading international researchers to offer a critical assessment of developments in employee voice. Specific themes include: the changing nature of the employment relationship and the scope for cooperation, as well current concerns regarding equality and diversity and employee engagement.  It also considers the role and future of trade unions, and in particular options for union renewal including Organising and Partnership models.  Finally, European models of voice are assessed, including the impact of statutory EU Regulations concerning European Works Councils and Information and Consultation. 

For us, effective voice needs to provide employees, as a collective, with a real say and the opportunity to genuinely influence management decision making. But many of the most fashionable systems seem to fall far short of this.  Perhaps more problematic is that managerially-led voice is only worthwhile as and when employers perceive some benefit from it: employees work harder; stay with the company longer etc.  Potentially then, voice may become an ‘optional extra’ for high-skilled or customer-facing workers, but not something for low-skilled, low paid worker on a zero hour contract; when from a moral perspective they need it most of all.

Indeed, one of the strengths of a statutory framework is that it sends a very strong signal that voice must be a universal priority and locks employers into serious, credible, and hopefully enduring voice institutions.  The argument is particularly compelling in rich advanced economies which already set basic minimum standards in areas such as discrimination and minimum pay.  Organisations operate within the rules laid down by democratic societies: perhaps these rules should include more ambitious minimum standard for employee voice for all workers?

It is hard not be pessimistic about employee voice if certain trends continue.     Our hope is that the analysis offered in our book will contribute towards putting effective employee voice at the centre of public policy – where it used to be.

Stewart Johnstone, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management (Newcastle University) and Peter Ackers, Professor of Industrial Relations and Labour History (Loughborough University).   

Finding a Voice at Work?: New Perspectives on Employment Relations is published by Oxford University Press and is now available to buy by using the link: