Treat employees as equals by giving them a voice that you hear and respond to writes Louisa Moreton, partner at Finsbury.
Employee voice exists where a company’s mechanisms and culture enable it to have an ongoing conversation with colleagues, in different ways, to ensure opinions and ideas are heard. It’s embraced by companies that see their people as central to delivering their vision and strategy.
Achieving this is not just a task for HR. Boards have a remit (under the revised UK Corporate Governance Code) to “establish a method for gathering the views of the workforce”; implement “a means for the workforce to raise concerns in confidence and (if they wish) anonymously”; and “ensure that arrangements are in place for the proportionate and independent investigation of such matters and for follow-up action”.
The four elements of employee voice
However, it feels as if ‘employee voice’ is still misunderstood. For me, it boils down to gauging sentiment, ideas sharing/problem solving, and issue raising. Gauging sentiment involves knowing how people are feeling and segmenting audience groups to understand the causes of these sentiments. Surveys enable you to benchmark and track progress, but frequent dialogue-based interventions such as leadership listening sessions add first-hand exposure.
With problem solving, consider how people can share ideas around processes and innovation (before bringing in external consultants). Innovation jams and hackathons are helpful for giving focus, with board members part of the assessing panel. During a listening tour, boards could simply ask employees, “what would you change if you could?”.
Raising issues goes beyond whistle- blowing to creating a safe environment in which people can question how things are done. Strong employee voice can only thrive under three conditions.
It must be two-way, with people given the opportunity to speak as equals. Messages imparted must be representative of diverse views across the organisation, and the process must be repeated. Board members need to spend time with employees in multiple locations and conduct data and sentiment analysis on a regular basis.
How to give employees a voice
Ways of giving employees a voice within organisations include conducting regular surveys; enabling unions to act as intermediaries between staff and boards, creating two-way communication channels; and board member site visits, including listening sessions.
Schemes to enable the reverse mentoring of board members also amplify workers’ views, while some firms develop employee boards to feed perspectives into the main board, or allocate a non-executive director to lead on employee voice and engagement. Former prime minister Theresa May proposed putting workers on company boards as part of corporate reform, but this was dropped from the government’s plans.
In my view, developing robust employee voice requires all of the above. If ‘employee voice’ is represented too narrowly, understanding will be limited; without some formality, it only takes a small change in leadership composition or company fortunes for employee voice to be relegated.
‘Voice’ sounds like communications, but it’s about culture, engagement, involvement and motivation. The UK Corporate Governance Code gives HR an opportunity to re-stress its importance to C-suite in a strategic conversation that links people and business outcomes.
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