Contents

Learn about employee voice, its purposes and use, and the benefits it can bring to an organisation and its workforce. We also look at whistleblowing and creating a speak-up culture.

Introduction

Employee voice is the means by which people communicate their views to their employer and influence matters that affect them at work. It helps to build open and trusting relationships between employers and their people which can contribute to organisational success. For employers, effective voice contributes to innovation, productivity and organisational improvement. For employees, it often results in increased job satisfaction, greater influence and better opportunities for development. Here we explore what employee voice means and the different perspectives and purposes of voice initiatives in an organisation. We look at the changing nature of voice and influence in the employment relationship, and mechanisms for representative participation. We also examine whistleblowing and how employers can create an environment in which individuals feel safe to speak up.

What is Employee Voice?

We define employee voice as ‘the ability of employees to express their views, opinions, concerns and suggestions, and for these to influence decisions at work’. To enable genuine two-way communication between employers and their people, it’s important that managers listen to and act on employee voice. With calls for greater transparency in organisations following numerous public scandals, voice is crucial in keeping organisations honest. It’s also fundamental to ensuring job quality in the context of changing working practices.

Employees can have their say through individual and collective channels, by speaking directly to management or indirectly through representatives. Voice can be formally expressed, for example through suggestion schemes and attitude surveys, as well as informally such as in team meetings and workplace social media. Effective voice is unlikely to result from any one single initiative and should involve complementary channels and be supported by leaders.

According to management literature, there are two main purposes of voice:

  • Organisational voice refers to the positive benefits that voice can bring to an organisation, for example, higher innovation. Some voice mechanisms, such as suggestion schemes, allow the organisation to benefit from employees’ ideas.
  • Individual voice argues that voice is a fundamental right. It allows employees to be involved in decision-making and to express their concerns.

Representative Participation

Representative participation refers to schemes in which employee representatives meet managers on a regular basis, whether in scheduled committees or through more ad hoc arrangements. The essential feature is that participation is not directly between individual employees and their managers but is mediated through representatives. Approaches include:

  • Collective representation – negotiations between senior managers and employee representatives (usually but not exclusively union representatives) leading to joint regulation of pay and other conditions of employment. These can be periodic in the case of pay, but continuous or ad hoc in the case of other matters, such as grievances.
  • Partnership schemes – employee representatives and managers emphasise mutual gains and tackling issues in a spirit of co-operation, rather than through adversarial relationships. This includes a high commitment to information sharing.
  • Joint consultation – for discussing issues that are deemed to be of common interest or of key importance at non-union as well as unionised workplaces. Joint Consultation Committees (JCCs) may exist in organisations to address issues that are not covered by collective bargaining. JCCs consist of management and non-management representatives. In unionised organisations, the trade unions typically provide the employee representatives, but JCCs also run with non-union employee representatives.
  • Employee forums – groups of non-union or mixed groups of union/non-union employees meeting with management for consultation and information sharing.

Whistleblowing and Creating a 'Speak Up' Culture

Whistleblowing is increasingly recognised as an effective means for workers to communicate important messages to employers. It occurs when an individual raises concerns, usually to their employer or a regulator, about a workplace danger or illegality that affects others. The disclosure may be about the alleged wrongful conduct of the employer, a colleague, client, or any third party. Typically, the whistleblower is not directly, personally affected by the danger or illegality. Personal complaints such as harassment or discrimination are not usually treated as whistleblowing and should be handled according to the organisation’s grievance policy.

Employers should have a standalone ‘speak up’ policy that’s supported by top managers and promoted effectively to the workforce. It should make clear to all staff what to do if they come across malpractice in the workplace, and encourage individuals to inform someone who is in an appropriate position in the organisation to act on the disclosure.

The policy should make clear that:

  • The employer attaches great importance to identifying and remedying wrongdoing in the organisation (specific examples of dangers, illegality or unacceptable behaviour should be included.
  • Staff should inform their line manager immediately if they become aware that any of the specified actions are happening (or have happened or are likely to happen).
  • In more serious cases (for example, if the allegation is about the actions of their line manager), the individual should feel able to raise the issue with a more senior manager, bypassing lower levels of management.
  • Individuals can ask for their concerns to be treated in confidence and the employer will respect those wishes.
  • Individuals won’t be penalised for informing managers about any of the specified actions.

It’s preferable to deal with whistleblowing separately rather than as an extension to, or part of, an existing grievance procedure, while cross-referencing procedures on discipline and grievance. This is partly because the level of risk to the organisation and to the worker will generally be significantly greater in whistleblowing cases than in other matters.

A climate of open communication, supported by a clear procedure for dealing with concerns, will help reduce the risk of accusations of misconduct and illegalities, and ensure that concerns are dealt with speedily and effectively.

The Outcome of Workplace Voice

Research shows that effective worker voice can lead to positive outcomes for both individuals and organisations. Participating in decisions is important for individual well-being and motivation since it provides a means for improving the experience of work and overall job quality. Employers can benefit from higher productivity and innovation, and reduced workplace conflict and absenteeism.

Psychological safety, or individuals’ feelings about taking risks and sharing thoughts with others in the workplace, provides a bedrock for voice. Employees are unlikely to speak up if they believe the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits – for example if they feel that their position in the organisation would be threatened. Power dynamics influence people’s willingness to speak up, particularly on information which challenges the status quo or could be judged negatively by a more senior colleague.

Strong leadership also brings higher levels of both organisational and individual voice. Quality of leadership is particularly important for an individual voice which is less likely to be effective when leadership is seen as weak. It’s therefore important that all people managers in the organisation understand the value of employee voice and are trained to facilitate open conversations and demonstrate empathetic listening.

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