New research seems to confirm what most of us knew already: engagement works. The report, prepared by the IPA for Acas, shows that the four enablers of employee engagement identified by Macleod and Clarke do produce more committed and motivated employees. Even more encouragingly, employers appear to be making the connection between levels of engagement and levels of productivity and are beginning to understand what they have to do to make engagement a practical rather than a theoretical concept.

Analysing findings from WERS 2011, the research highlights a particularly strong improvement in the strategic narrative enabler. Against the backdrop of the recent economic recession, this may indicate that employers realise that being clear about where an organisation is going and how it plans to manage change in uncertain times, is critically important for everyone.

Although there are also positive signs with regard to two of the other enablers, ‘engaging managers’ and ‘integrity’, there is some cause for concern regarding ‘employee voice’. The report found that despite the positive correlation between senior manager meetings and employee voice, only one in three employees say that their managers allow them to influence decision making. This is a matter of concern.

This point is re-enforced in the IPA report on engagement in the NHS. One aspect of employee voice that is critically important in the NHS post the Francis report is ensuring that employees have the chance to raise concerns with their managers about errors or incidents around patient care. There seems to be a worrying gap between allowing concerns to be expressed and these views having an impact on decision-making. Although 84% of staff said they were encouraged to report errors and incidents, only 62% thought actions would be taken in response.

Macleod’s description of employee voice goes beyond employees “being able to voice their ideas” and clearly anticipates a more active role in decision-making, with “joint sharing of problems and challenges and a commitment to arrive at joint solutions”. As the IPA know only to well, this vision of joint working is often best illustrated by the partnership agreements reached between unions and management.  

I see employee voice as being made up of three component parts – communication, consultation and negotiation. The recent analysis of WERS suggests that, up till now, the focus may have been too narrowly focussed on the first aspect of voice, communication. The danger is that some employers see communication as an end in itself, and evidence in the IPA report implies that “many employees see their managers’ efforts to seek their views as a merely cosmetic exercise that will have no consequence.”

The prominence of strategic narrative in the new report may support the old adage that you manage people through good times and lead them through bad times. As we move gradually out of the shadow of the recession, employee voice may begin to be associated with less passive and more active characteristics – in other words, renewed confidence in job security may encourage employees to expect more of a role in decision making.

But how widespread and effective are the systems for representation and consultation that lie at the heart of employee voice? Recent Acas reports on the incidence and impact of formal channels for consultation give a mixed picture. While the number of union representatives remains stable at 150,000 and representatives are reporting an increase in the range of issues they are can negotiate on, the picture with joint consultative committees (JCCs) is a little more ambiguous.

Although the incidence of these committees in workplaces had remained stable at 8%, the proportion of workplaces covered by higher-level JCCs fell from 29% in 2004 to 20% in 2011. This means that there is less consultation at the higher level where more strategic decisions are being made. And, of course, for representation to be effective at all, it has to be well resourced, so we need to keep an eye on the facilities and time available to representatives. 

There is evidence that some organisations are taking a more integrated approach to employee consultation, with direct forms of communication, via feedback sessions at meetings, for example, going hand in hand with the more formal joint consultative committees.

The good news is that with many organisations embracing the need for strong strategic narratives, communication channels seem to be largely working well. Perhaps the next step, as part of this strategic narrative, is try and set out what might constitute an optimum voice mechanism. In other words, rather than relying on voice to be heard, or not, at meetings and via emails, we might be better off describing the various diverse channels by which employee voice can be effectively harnessed and put to use. This, of course, is as much about listening as talking. 

‘Employees on boards’ takes employee voice into the realm of corporate governance and may be a step too far for those employers who more readily associate voice with surveys and team meetings. But there is no reason why employee voice should not embrace all of the available channels. As trust and cultural values are such an important part of the narrative, why shouldn’t employees have a say in constructing it?

Employee voice is clearly lagging behind the other three enablers of engagement and we need to get it higher up the management agenda. Making this happen may be about changing the way we perceive voice – transforming it into something more assertive, more participatory and more involved in decision making.    


Brendan Barber is Chair of Acas