18 Oct 2017

Empowering employees to speak their voice

18 Oct 2017

With calls for greater transparency in organisations following numerous corporate scandals, enabling effective worker voice is crucial for keeping organisations honest. It’s also fundamental to driving better job quality in the context of changing forms of work.

Current approaches to employee voice tend to take a narrow perspective that does not consider individual needs, and is only taken into account if expressed through organisational mechanisms.

However, people may use voice for their own purposes, such as building personal relationships and enhancing a sense of well-being, which exist outside official voice mechanisms and do not contribute directly to organisational goals.

The CIPD’s paper – have your say: alternative forms of workplace voice, argues that business needs a new framework for employee voice that represents the changing world of work, from contractors looking for temporary assignments through online bidding platforms, to portfolio workers employed by a number of organisations.

How widening employee voice broadens your business

Employee voice is one aspect of working life that is affected by a lack of humanity. Too often, employee voice is confined to occasional consultations and staff surveys, where no comment box is large enough for people to tell their employer how they really feel at work.

One of the pertinent issues is employers’ ability and need to put boundaries around individuals’ desire for self-expression. Social media is a convenient arena for exploring and even experimenting with their identities, sharing knowledge and skills, as well as finding a sense of belonging through connecting to others with similar views.

Some organisations have benefited from these technologies, encouraging their workforce to share ideas to aid knowledge transfer and foster engagement. Yet, unlike our personal lives, behaviour at work is constrained by formal and informal employer expectations. Was the Google engineer behind the so-called anti-diversity memo out of line, or just providing an alternative view?

The other interesting take on voice is the idea of it being bought and sold as a commodity. Relating this to the world of social media again, we are aware that some users are not always expressing their authentic opinions, but are endorsing products and services in exchange for a reward.

Parallels to this behaviour could be seen through the lens of workplace politics, where employees may choose to give or withhold their voice on an issue depending on how that decision impacts their career. Can employers be expected to control such manipulations with voice, even if it is disadvantaging particular employee groups?

Individual or organisational voice?

The key debate is around where the boundary lies between the purpose of voice as creating value for individuals versus for the organisation. Organisational values will determine how voice is viewed against this framework, and therefore where the boundary is drawn in a particular organisational context.

If it’s viewed from the perspective of driving employee engagement and performance, employee voice may be more closely controlled by policies. On the other hand, in an organisation that places high value on employee voice as a fundamental right of individuals to have a say at work, a more liberal approach to voice may be appropriate.

Another question is what role individuals should play in drawing the boundary between voice for their own self-interest and for the benefit of the organisation. What is their responsibility? In current practice, voice is approached as something that is ‘given’ to staff by management, not as something that individuals have the power to exercise. What would HR practice look like if voice is viewed as a shared responsibility between the organisation and its people, rather than as just the responsibility of the organisation?

Organisations can create the environments for people to have a say, but this should be a two-way relationship in which individuals are accountable for speaking up. For example, employers can provide the resources for remote workers to be involved in conversations and decisions, such as through remote access to meetings – while the workers ensure they take the opportunity to contribute and connect with people.

In the case of freelancers who may not be able to participate in employee surveys, their line managers can facilitate open conversations with them on a regular basis and listen to their thoughts and concerns. But rather than relying on their manager to ask them the right questions, the individual should take responsibility for speaking up.

Interested in finding out more? Download Have you say: alternative forms of workplace voice here.