Why you need to pay attention to employee voice

Your employees have a voice, but are you listening? And do you understand what they are trying to tell you? This month Professor Adrian Wilkinson, Director of the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing (WOW) at Griffith University examines exactly what employee voice is, why it is important to the success of an organisation and what challenges it presents to leaders.

What is employee voice?

Employee voice concerns the ways and means through which employees attempt to have a say and potentially influence organisational affairs about issues that affect their work and the interests of the organisation. This can involve a variety of voice mechanisms (e.g. formal and informal, direct and indirect, union and non-union). It encompasses individual employee behaviours such as suggestions to help management, but also includes the ways in which employees might challenge managerial behaviour, either individually or through collective behaviours.

The issue of speaking up or remaining silent faces us daily. The notion that people should have a say in matters which concern them and affect their work stretches back hundreds of years. Today, it seems to be common sense that workers should speak-up when there are problems. Many well-known organisational disasters such as the United Airlines 173, Columbia space tragedy, even the ‘Dr Death’ tragedy at Bundaberg were connected to a failure of people using, and listening to, employee voice.

Why voice is important?

We spend much of our lives performing tasks under the direction and guidance of others, so for a synergistic and productive work environment, it is imperative that workers have a voice. Managers also need to ensure workers deliver their best efforts, which employers must facilitate with both opportunity and the encouragement to do so. However, an alarming number of workplaces operate on the ‘managers knows best’ and top down autocratic styles, which are based on models of management developed a hundred years ago. The old saying goes: “With every pair of hands, you get a free brain.” But these organisations aren’t using the brain.

Harnessing employee voice is central to unlocking and utilising human talent. It is often said that people are creative, committed and innovative until they come to work. Too often creativity, innovation and energy are part of an individual’s life outside work, and when they come to work these attributes are shackled and inhibited as they lose or silence their voice. This is the tragedy of the modern workplace.

The challenge is to develop HR practices that harness these skills and characteristics in the workplace. Progressive employers see voice as valuable – particularly for workers who are on the front line and have access to critical information. Voice helps problem solving and innovation and serves as an alert system to emerging issues.

However, employee voice is more fundamental than that. From the perspective of human dignity, employees need to be able to voice their views to have a say in the determination of working conditions. Differing views on whether employees should be encouraged to speak up and over what type of issues has meant the practice of encouraging employee voice has proved contentious. Many managers see worker participation and voice as irksome or unnecessary.

What challenges and opportunities does voice present in practice?

Most employees appear to want the opportunity to have a say and to contribute to the work issues that matter to them. They also want a variety of channels expression rather than a single medium. All organisations have some structures for employee voice, but the way voice initiatives actually work may depend on whether participants perceive them as authentic. That is, are managers interested in hearing their voices and will they do something about their concerns or suggestions? Too often voice becomes perceived as spitting in the wind or lip service, which has little impact and leads to workers becoming demoralised as management pays little attention to resolving issues. There has been a lot of talk of voice systems, but such a system needs listening and action dimensions to be effective

Employee voice does place higher expectations on managers. While the CEO or the Human Resource Function may give strategic direction and profess enthusiasm for the notion of voice, it is at the line manager level where voice is enacted, and line mangers may frustrate, lubricate or by-pass voice opportunities because of their lack of confidence, belief or training. Therefore, these managers need to be developed and trained with support for taking on a new role as coaches (supporting and developing staff) rather than cops (catching people doing things wrong).

Other challenges include designing voice for a diversity voice agenda given the many missing and neglected voices within a labour force and facilitating voice in a digital world where modern generations of workers will not be easily silenced. Some argue that when employees do not speak-up this can be a type of protest in the form of active employee silence. In Chinese, this is referred to as the “thunder in silence”.

Despite these challenges, voice is an important facet of the employee experience and management agenda, and by offering the right channels and a commitment to listening and acting, it can be used to great strategic advantage by businesses.

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