Employee Voice - the Key to an Engaged Workforce
Updated: Sep 16, 2021
In a narrow sense, Employee Voice is the means by which employees communicate their views on employment and organisational issues to their employer. But, more broadly, it really describes the extent to which an organisation’s people can, and are willing to, speak up about the issues of importance to them.
For employers, effective Employee Voice mechanisms contribute towards innovation, productivity and organisational harmony. For employees, they can lead to increased job satisfaction, engagement and opportunities for development.
Employee Voice isn’t just feedback, though. It’s something more profound, about building a culture of candour and participation. As Bath University’s Prof John Purcell notes, the root of Employee Voice lies in the fundamental idea of influence being shared among individuals who are hierarchically unequal – that is, between people of different levels in an organisation.
WHY DOES EMPLOYEE VOICE MATTER?
There’s evidence of a positive correlation between the increased Employee Voice opportunities and the amount of participation an employee craves. And that participation in decision-making over an employee’s immediate environment leads to greater satisfaction and commitment to their jobs – that is, greater Employee Engagement.
And, an abundance of quantitative studies suggest that high levels of job satisfaction and engagement are associated with higher levels of business performance. For example, a study of 801 employees and their managers in 93 units across nine North American credit unions revealed business units that opened lines of consistent communication directly between a unit’s manager and her subordinates, had performance increases by up to 30 per cent.
So, by increasing the opportunities for employees to speak out and participate in organisational decision making, organisations can significantly increase productivity.
EMPLOYEE VOICE CAN BE TREACHEROUS FOR EMPLOYEES AND EMPLOYERS
Giving employee’s voice can produce difficult dynamics between workers and managers, depending on the tenor of the employee communication and how sensitive management is to challenging feedback.
Researchers at the University of Texas conducted an experiment investigating how managers respond to employees who provide supportive feedback versus challenging feedback. Managers consistently reported those who gave ‘challenging voice’ as poor performers, less loyal and perceiving them as a threat.
Clearly, there are two important sides to the Employee Voice equation, and there may be a need for management training and development to get the process right.
In areas outside of managerial control, like online social platforms, Employee Voice can be even more challenging. Uber employees made headlines for engaging in closed online discussions about senior leadership. 2200 employees were said to be posting complaints of management malpractice, following the high-profile departure of ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler.
The app used, Blind, also allows employees to speak to employees from other companies in similar businesses. One Uber employee informed a Fitbit worker that 118 San Francisco-based Uber employees recently resigned.
Uber reportedly proceeded to block employee access to the app on the company Wi-Fi, which triggered even more outrage.
So, in the same way that employee engagement surveys require management commitment and follow-through for them to be useful, employee voice mechanisms can only fulfil their very great potential if management is open and responsive to feedback.
FACILITATING EMPLOYEE VOICE
Every organisation has some mechanisms in place that can facilitate Employee Voice.
Internal communications departments are generally tasked with facilitating employee voice. Most often, though, internal channels are used to simply disseminate the corporate message, with far less emphasis on fostering feedback and facilitating a conversation between workforce and company leadership.
Internal communications done right, however, can be instrumental in increasing engagement and building a positive business culture.
Consider HSBC, which had customers stranded at airports around the world in 2010, when airspace over Europe was closed because of the ash plume from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
With the “right channels” already in place, HSBC’s head office was able to be persuaded – by a large number of employees – to cover customers’ costs. This was despite the stranded customers not being covered within the terms and conditions of HSBC’s travel policies.
HSBC’s key communication channels consisted of numerous face-to-face meetings, 360-degree feedback processes and ‘deep dive’ focus groups.
In the short term, taking onboard employee’s ideas was a cost to the business, but the long-term value added to the brand and reputation of HSBC was enormous.
And, while the communication channels were important, it was the bank’s culture that meant the employee’s voices were heard, management acted and HSBC’s people felt valued.
In less extreme circumstances, surveying employee opinion is the usual method of gauging Employee Voice. While surveys are useful for providing a snapshot of what people think, they are not much help for understanding why people feel the way they do.
Furthermore, according to research conducted by Towers Watson, just 57 per cent of Australian employees believe that a survey they participate in will lead to actual management action.
Facilitating actionable Employee Voice is increasingly being done through new technology, rather than surveys.
Whether it’s Slack, Discord, or any other online communication platform, they are all generating employee conversation. And conversation is increasingly recognised as crucial for effective voice.
EMPLOYEE VOICE AND THE WHISTLEBLOWER
And yet, if an organisation doesn’t encourage and support employee voice, whistleblowing may become the employee’s “voice of last resort”.
Whistleblowing – generally defined as the reporting of suspected illegal company or employee activity to an external party – can severely damage an organisation’s reputation. It generally reflects inadequate or ineffective internal mechanisms for “safe” internal discussions (e.g. anonymity and protection from repercussions) and often a lack of willingness by management to hear uncomfortable truths.
Whistleblowing generally has far worse consequences for employers than “normal” internal reporting, even if such reporting discloses a matter that requires self-reporting to the regulator. This is because the mere fact of whistleblowing suggests that, not only are there cultural problems within an organisation, but further that the corporation doesn’t have the managerial integrity to adequately resolve its own problems, or certainly isn’t trusted to do so.
Chasing after those who leaked the news – the classic “witch hunt” phenomenon – can be even more reputationally damaging (or illegal), such as the attempt by Barclays CEO to track down the whistleblower who reported alleged misconduct by an associate of the CEO’s to Barclay’s board.
Whistleblowers themselves usually fare incredibly badly by choosing to voice their concerns.
A 2013 National Business Ethics Survey reported that 21 per cent of US whistleblowers suffered retribution as a result of reporting misconduct.
The tragedy is that whistleblowers are often the most engaged workers who care (or cared) enough about the company, and its impact on the public, to choose to risk everything by speaking out.