Breaking the silence: Employee voice

Employees want their opinions and concerns heard at a strategic level, but there’s no one-voice-fits-all method

“Employee voice isn’t just a warm and cuddly agenda – it’s a hard-edged agenda about making sure your company is productive and innovative.” So says Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

It’s an argument that took up a substantial chunk of the recommendations he made in his review of modern working practices, published in July 2017.

It called on the government to review the effectiveness of the Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) Regulations in encouraging voice in the workplace, recommending that the threshold criteria of 10% of the workforce to make a request for their employer to inform or consult them about issues be reduced to 2%.

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Taylor concluded that employees’ voices being listened to creates happier workers, ‘a more collegiate environment between managers and staff’, and boosts productivity.

And the government is – like the ideal employer – at least to some extent listening. In her 2016 leadership campaign Theresa May called for workers to have a seat on company boards – a pledge welcomed by many employee groups.

This was a pledge made manifest in last Summer’s Corporate Governance Reform whitepaper. However, instead of regulation requiring firms to put workers on boards, what materialised was what critics decried as three ‘watered-down’ proposals for businesses to choose from: putting a non-executive director (NED) on the board to represent the workforce, appointing a workforce director, or a formal workforce advisory panel.

Which begged the question for many of whether the government is serious about promoting employee voice, and what the best way to do this actually is.

It’s a question the government and UK organisations can ill-afford to not give their full attention in the current climate. Last August’s Corporate Governance Reform whitepaper came in the wake of several high-profile corporate failures, not least the Sports Direct ‘Victorian working conditions’ saga, and the demise of BHS – which subsequent parliamentary inquiries placed firmly at the doors of the board’s mismanagement and plundering of the employee pension fund.

This year it’s been the collapse of construction giant Carillion hitting headlines; a “story of recklessness, hubris and greed”, and of executives ‘increasing and protecting generous executive bonuses’ at the expense of the company’s survival and the thousands of jobs subsequently lost.

And all the while there’s no doubt that the average person, living in today’s hyperconnected social media-fuelled world, increasingly expects to get their voice and opinions out there. The floodgates for ‘having your say’ are open, particularly for younger employees coming into the workforce – with ever more reputational risk for employers ‘named and shamed’ online.

So how best to ensure employees not only feel heard and therefore engaged, but genuinely contribute to spotting and calling out warning signs that might help avoid the kinds of corporate failures detailed above? And what exactly do we mean by ‘employee voice’ anyway?

Talking ambiguously

“The phrase employee voice per se isn’t that useful as it means so many different things to different groups,” explains Unipart’s group HRD John Greatrex.

As Unions 21 director Becky Wright puts it: “If we ask people what they think of collective voice they’d respond ‘what the hell is that?’ And even those of us that understand it don’t have an everyday answer.”

The ambiguity around voice can be best unravelled by looking at the differences between individual and collective voice. Individual voice refers to “the way an individual raises their own issues or grievances”, says Greatrex.

“This is about individuals and their line managers as voice is underpinned by this relationship.” Meanwhile collective voice is where a group of individual voices can be expressed anonymously and used for collective bargaining on broader issues affecting a group of workers.

Traditionally it’s been this space that trade unions have occupied, acting as an external and independent voice for the collective workforce. But membership has been on a downward spiral since the 1980s and, over the last few years, phrases such as ‘outdated’, ‘irrelevant’ or ‘obsolete’ have become perhaps dispiritingly synonymous with this mode of representation – leading many to question whether unions still have a place in representing worker voice.

With the demise of the union many employees have turned to social media platforms as safe spaces to air concerns. “Social media can be an alternative to that independent protective space outside of the business that unions hold for some sectors, for the sectors where unions don’t really exist,” says Alex Wood, researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute.

In line with this, internal mechanisms for making employees heard are shifting and evolving. Employers and HRDs serious about listening to their workforce are implementing formal voice architecture such as elected employee forums or reps, suggestion schemes, or new feedback technologies.

However, research advisor at the CIPD Louisa Baczor worries that those HR professionals taking employee voice seriously are in the minority. When interviewing CIPD members about worker voice she found that HR professionals didn’t see it as a priority or as their role to get workers’ views heard at board level, she reports.

Which, with the apparent demise of the trade union in many quarters, leaves UK businesses with something of a gap. One that again potentially played a fatal role in catastrophes such as BHS and Carillion, feel many, and that could land your company in hot water in the form of social media exposés.

“Employee voice is the cheapest smoke alarm you can buy,” says David MacLeod, co-chair of the Employee Engagement Task Force and co-author of the MacLeod Report.

“There are only four real ways to improve a business and they all require and benefit from employee voice,” he continues. “One is through employees innovating, the second is to open up new markets, the third is to do things more efficiently, and the fourth is customer service.”

Pointing to the fourth way MacLeod says it is employees on the ground who hear the mood from the customers. And so if their voice is heard by managers the business can “catch things early” before they escalate to the point of no return.

Turning to the recent spate of high street failures (Toys R Us, Maplin, Poundworld et al) and their failure to react effectively to changing consumer demands, the role of employee voice as smoke alarm becomes clear.

For Guy Chiswick, managing director of employee engagement platform Speakap, such high street deaths could have been avoided if frontline employees had a voice to raise issues on the ground. “They’re the people on the shop floor seeing things firsthand so they should have a voice to give feedback,” he says. “Speed is crucial in this turbulent time for retail so there’s even more need for communication between workers and head office.”

Of course not listening to the shop floor on changing customer demands wasn’t the only factor in the demise of BHS say; had there been an employee rep on its board they’d have almost certainly had something to say about what executives were planning regarding pensions – pointing again to the importance of employee representation at this level.

Further reading:

Back to basics... Whistleblowing hotlines

Do boards needs directors in charge of bringing the workers’ perspective?

What do employees want organisational culture to look like in 2022?

A seat at the table

For Janet Williamson, senior policy officer in the economic and social affairs department at the TUC, putting workers on boards “should absolutely be made regulation”.She says: “It’s a very important element of worker voice as it gives workers access to all information, and gets their voices included in high-level, strategic decisions at the very beginning of discussions.”

She points to evidence that having worker voice at this level enhances the quality of decision-making.

“But we’d also argue the case of fairness. Workers are affected by the decisions companies make so they should have the right to feed into these decisions,” Williamson says, explaining that the TUC’s standpoint is that having elected workers on boards should have been made regulation at the very least for companies with more than 250 employees.

Stefan Stern, visiting professor in management practice at Cass Business School, points out that employees having a seat at the table is already routine practice across many other European countries. “It doesn’t hold back Scandinavian businesses so why would it be bad for the UK?” he muses.

But the challenge, Stern says, is ‘Britishness’. “There’s a culture problem. It goes against the grain of British top teams to let workers in on the conversation – it’s just not the British way,” he says.

‘Britishness’ and government regulation (or lack thereof) aside, there are some forward-thinking organisations bucking the trend. Transport firm FirstGroup has had an employee director on its board for decades, with the role currently occupied by a bus driver. So if businesses and their HR departments are serious about giving workers a voice they don’t need to wait for regulation.

But not everyone thinks giving an employee representative a seat at the board table translates into truly encouraging and amplifying employee voice. “I think it’d be a desperately bad step if it was made a regulation,” says John Timpson, chairman of shoe repair, key cutting and dry cleaning retailer Timpson.

“People don’t understand that business is not a process where everyone sticks to the rules – to say you have to have employees on the board would be pure bureaucracy. I don’t tell my staff how to do their jobs so I don’t expect the government to tell me how to do mine.”

It’s a concern echoed by Peter Reeve, head of HR at the Motor Neurone Disease Association. He says there’s a “danger” in thinking that having one employee at board level will give the entire workforce a voice.

“Not all employees are created equal or want to talk about the same things so how do you ensure that the one person in that room is able to speak on behalf of every employee in the company?” he asks.

So could the Corporate Governance Reform whitepaper’s so-called ‘watered-down’ option of an NED to represent workers prove a more constructive route? This for Stern is where HR can step in and – given its apparently none too impressive track record on employee voice in some quarters – step up. The success of this will depend on “how much HR can really punch above its weight”, he says.

MacLeod agrees that a skilled HR director can play a valuable role in drawing out the priority issues to take to an organisation’s leadership. “Employees will talk about many issues so there’s a need for experienced people to be able to spot the underlying issues from the typical things people have a go at that aren’t really that important,” he says. “Organisations need to separate the noise from the feedback.”

A concern for Stern, however, is that HR leaders are management and so lack the neutrality or the democratic standing of an elected workforce representative.

Taylor shares his reservations. “Some argue that good HR engages employees and involves them in meetings, so there’s no need for rights and rules,” he says. “But the danger is, if the engagement strategy is based on goodwill, when things get tough and the business faces difficult decisions employees aren’t told things anymore.”

The formal way

A more suitable and valuable role for HR in driving forward the employee voice agenda for many is creating the right formal mechanisms, and so internal conditions, for employees to be heard.

It’s something Catherine Allen, head of keeping people happy at Ella’s Kitchen, has been focusing on over the last few years.

“There’s a number of formal mechanisms we use,” she says. These range from staff surveys used to gather feedback and develop action plans; postboxes in which queries, comments and suggestions can be left for management; and what Ella’s Kitchen calls ‘Show and Tell’.

“Show and Tell is our employee forum that meets every six to eight weeks and is made up of someone from Little Huddle – our director team – which is usually me as the HR person, and one employee representative from each team,” she says. Allen explains that these reps are elected by their teams to voice feedback from team meetings and give the employee perspective on any new company initiatives or plans.

It’s a model not too dissimilar to Unipart’s. “Within every business unit there’s a fully-elected forum representing everyone in that unit, engaging with senior leaders to talk about the organisation, where it’s going and where improvements can be made,” says Greatrex.

The challenge, he explains, is ensuring employees use these forums as an opportunity to voice the things that matter rather than trivialities.

“It’s not there to discuss the portion size of food in the canteen or the state of the toilets. How the business is doing is important to every employee’s future so that’s where the focus should be,” he emphasises. “If a forum is having to search for important issues to discuss then something has clearly gone wrong.”

That said, the conversation can only ever shift away from the trivial to the high-level if employees are given access to high-level information in the first place, as part of an open and transparent environment.

MacLeod refers to this as “informed voice”: “If you want to hear what people really think, they should be informed about what the business is doing and why,” he says.

The state of the toilets aside, Greatrex says that these elected forums deliver results for the business by way of a more engaged workforce and an organisation better able to problem solve.

At Turkish airline Pegasus listening to the voice of the workforce ensured that during a big change project and restructuring, employees were engaged and that this went as smoothly as possible.

“We held a conference and workshops to listen to employees and to conduct a health check on plans with them,” says VP of talent and reward management Gülhiz Demir.

Technology is also playing an increasingly important role in providing another formal route for employees to have their say. Speakap’s Chiswick says that to be truly effective apps must “mirror the tools people use in their personal lives”.

Apps are particularly helpful in enabling a two-way dialogue between head office or management and employees working in a non-desk-based environment, he adds.

“Non-desk-based staff, like retail staff, often don’t have a company email address or access to the intranet, and often work shift patterns so miss out on team meetings,” Chiswisk explains.

“Technology like this – with a chat function, group networks and feedback facilities – means they can have a voice and take an interest in the wider business.”

But, while technology offers one solution, Chiswick admits it is no “silver bullet”. It’s a sentiment echoed by the CIPD’s Baczor who suggests that none of these mechanisms are the whole story.

“Different mechanisms serve different purposes and are used in different ways,” she says. “A company intranet has a place for more informal discussions where ideas can be shared. But for more serious concerns there may be different mechanisms such as forums.”

The key, she adds, is employers communicating the range of mechanisms available to employees.

Paying lip service

But not everyone’s a fan of formal voice architecture. Some would argue that if businesses are correctly organised, with the right kinds of cultures, employee feedback and voice become a more organic – and crucially effective – endeavour.

Timpson sits squarely in this camp. His scepticism around the merits of employee representatives on boards extends to all types of formal voice mechanisms. If an organisation has a flat structure this creates an environment where staff gain voice as an informal by-product; meaning there’s no need for potentially “tokenistic” formal voice procedures, he says.

His company is known for its upside-down management structure whereby “everyone who’s not customer facing is there to help and support those who are, so they can do their jobs the best they can”.

This means no head office; store colleagues (“they’re not called employees as that creates two classes”) empowered to run shops how they see fit; and non-store colleagues regularly visiting to hear about issues and ideas in person.

To Timpson having worker councils would be “hierarchical”, something the organisation is determined not to be and that he believes runs in direct antithesis to the premise of true employee voice.

The RSA’s Taylor agrees that organisational structure and hierarchy has a big part – potentially bigger than formal voice mechanisms – to play in workers getting heard. Referring to a new RSA project focusing on worker voice in the context of technological change, Taylor explains that there is much to explore around how “less hierarchical organisations or the very way some organisations run gives employees a sense of voice and control”.

Timpson adds that where more formal approaches often fall down is employee voice being treated in a tokenistic way.

“Lots of current practices like engagement surveys or suggestion schemes only pay lip service to voice,” agrees Baczor. “When this happens employees treat these practices with cynicism as they think ‘I’ve told you what I think and you’ve ignored it and nothing’s changed’, so all this does is reinforce that the organisation is in the position of power and workers stop talking.”

Surveys – or any other voice mechanism – shouldn’t therefore be treated as the whole package, she says. Rather they are little more than diagnostic tools unless action is taken after these voices have left the room. “People will sniff out if they’re really being listened to or if it’s just lip service,” MacLeod agrees.

What’s needed, says Greatrex, is a shift from simply listening to employee voice to equipping staff with the tools to act on their own opinions and ideas themselves.

“Voice is about behaviours not processes,” says Greatrex, explaining that by empowering employees and giving them accountability for their own work they have the power to change issues as they arise, rather than simply voicing concerns and waiting for the business to fix them.

At Unipart, as well as in its consultancy work with clients, it “use[s] lean tools and techniques to devolve accountability to the lowest level in the organisation that [it] can”.

“By equipping people with skills to take ownership of their work, frontline staff are engaged to act and are more productive as they know their work and know how to fix it better than anyone,” says Greatrex.

It’s a similar story for deputy group director of workforce and OD at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust Helen Farrington, who recently introduced a culture and leadership programme at the Trust. One of the main aims is to create an environment where staff have autonomy over decisions and so can drive improvements.

“If nurses and frontline staff feel trusted and have confidence from their managers to make changes where needed they’re more likely to raise concerns and come up with their own solutions. We think this autonomy gives them a voice,” says Farrington.

Employees on the leadership programme are also required to design improvement projects for issues they’ve voiced, she explains, with one colleague developing an algorithm that identifies patients at risk of coronary syndromes for example.

State of the union

But there are many issues within a business that employees won’t be able to change for themselves. Making your own day-to-day job more efficient and fulfilling through changing the process for doing a particular task, is very different to challenging executive pay or investment decisions for example.

Timpson’s caveat to more fluid, informal approaches to enabling employee voice is that these don’t necessarily work as well in empowering employees to have an opinion on board-level discussions.

For him voice is more about employees feeding back on their day-to-day areas of expertise and experience rather than corporate decisions, which the company should be managing effectively anyway; he’s “not asking people on the floor what the future business strategy should be” as “that’s not their jobs”.

Which is all well and good in the vast majority of companies where executives can be trusted to manage things fairly and prudently. But as the last few years have shown such responsible corporate governance isn’t a given. Which is where the union for many still has a highly valuable role to play, with an urgent need to breathe new life into this age-old model of employee representation.

For Williamson the union is still the best, most impartial method for organising individual employee voices into one coherent, powerful whole: “Things like worker directors bring the workforce’s view to discussions. But they don’t directly represent the workforce in the way a union does. Individual voice and collective voice are different – one is not a substitute for the other.

“Individuals can voice things to managers. Collective voice is anonymous and creates a two-way dialogue. Only through coming together as one body do employees have the power to raise issues,” she says.

“The whole point of employee voice is that it’s independent and it’s the voice of the employee not the voice of the employer,” adds Nita Clarke, director of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA) and vice-chair of the MacLeod Review.

This independence isn’t available in the workplace, agrees Williamson, pointing out that it “shouldn’t be about what tools employers decide to give their employees for voice but about how the workforce chooses to start a dialogue”.

The reality though, admits Unions 21’s Wright, is that unions aren’t as representative as they once were. “We can’t argue against the fact that we simply aren’t covering the private sector as well as we used to. The challenge is to maintain an independent collective voice in the workplace,” she says.

A reluctance to modernise is widely regarded as a key factor in this decline. As Baczor reports: “The ways of working are changing and so this is changing how we need to think about voice… If we ask how many unions have a data scientist the answer that comes back [from the unions] is: ‘what’s a data scientist?’”

The encouraging news is that many unions are waking up to their waning popularity and evolving to try to reframe their positions as independent workforce representatives.

One way is by casting their nets wider to reach a demographic that, until now, they’ve failed to engage. “Younger workers aren’t joining trade unions, which means they’re not getting access to the support we offer,” explains the TUC’s young workers campaign manager Clare Coatman.

In June the TUC responded by launching a website and app called WorkSmart. Coatman explains that through a research programme with private sector workers aged 21 to 30 it came to light that – aside from the issues all workers face – this group was citing a certain set of needs.

“They were voicing a need to get ahead at work but feel their employers aren’t supporting this desire to progress and feel there’s no-one to help them reach these goals,” she reports. “The site aims to meet these needs by acting as a virtual career coach and giving them tools to have those difficult conversations in the workplace on how to get ahead.

“It’s about growing their voice as individuals so they can arrive at a place where they have strong collective voice,” Coatman adds.

From what Clarke has seen unions and employers are beginning to collaborate better to deal with the challenges arising from the changing workforce, disruptive technologies and new ways of working.

“It comes back to the fact that organisations that understand voice are using all the tools at their disposal – including relationships with unions – to move this agenda forward,” she says.

Silent treatment

However, there’s a demographic of the UK workforce that neither internal voice mechanisms nor the external mechanisms of traditional trade unions are touching. And it’s a demographic whose place in the economy is growing dramatically: the gig workforce.

The so-called Uberisation trend has become one of the biggest disruptors changing the world of work in recent years. The latest figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recorded that 4.4% of the UK population worked in the gig economy in the 12 months to February 2018.

But it’s a sector that has been shrouded in controversy, with a series of tribunal cases where workers have fought against big names including Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon for the right to be classed as employees rather than contractors.

“Some organisations think short-term or contract workers perhaps shouldn’t have a voice as they’re only there for a short time or it’s too much admin,” says Baczor.

But in the words of Mark Hooper, founder of co-operative Indycube, “we are at the start of this movement”, with the number of self-employed continuing to rise sharply, and with organisations in all sectors increasingly upping their reliance on this kind of worker.

For Hooper self-employed or gig workers represent some of the most “vulnerable” members of the modern workforce. “There’s evidence that 70% of self-employed people are earning below the poverty line. They’re also twice as likely to have a mental health condition,” he explains.

It seems voice is all the more critical for this segment of the workforce. “I think voice is definitely important as this is a group who don’t feel represented and who aren’t members of unions,” feels Oxford Internet Institute’s Wood.

Based on his research into new forms of worker voice and collective action in the online gig economy, Wood says gig workers are in difficult “situations in terms of benefits and taxes”, feel that “unions are more for traditional taxi drivers than Uber drivers”, and that they even “face hostility from traditional unions and employers towards their very existence”.

In better news, a wave of dedicated unions for freelance workers is springing up. For example Indycube, set up to provide all the benefits of traditional union membership to the self-employed, including access to legal and HR support, and representing their voice to government.

As well as being a freelancer union, Indycube also provides co-working spaces. As Hooper explains: “This helps self-employed workers connect with each other and build a self-organising network where they can share practical advice, as well as discuss the wider issues affecting their part of the workforce.”

“Unions and organisations have come too late to the party so these workers are taking the matter into their own hands,” adds Wood, explaining that this shift to self-organisation is especially happening via online forums and social media.

Taylor concurs: “Social media is enabling workers to find each other and get together more easily than in the olden days where someone would have to call a meeting and then you’d all sit in a drafty hall.”

Wood points to an example where one of the well-known digital gig platforms doubled its fees and the workers used the platform’s own online forum as a collective voice channel to criticise the move and create an online petition against it.

This use of social media isn’t limited to self-employed workers alone of course. The CIPD’s Baczor says it’s time employees more fully embraced the likes of Glassdoor, Twitter and LinkedIn. “There can always be a downside if people say something the organisation doesn’t want to hear or if it is potentially damaging to its reputation but that’s the risk the company has got to take,” she says.

“If you want to give employees a voice you have to accept that it can’t all be positive and that they have the freedom to voice it where they want.”

That said a “mouthpiece” is all it will ever be, according to Wood, who says that the “formality” of a union or employee representative will still be required to act on what’s raised.

Range of approaches

For the Motor Neurone Disease Association’s Reeve the risk of reputational damage that social media represents, and the risk grievances and suggestions won’t be aired constructively and in a way the organisation can take forward, only emphasises the need for employers to establish a range of well-thought through, official mechanisms and approaches.

“We have no control about what goes on there which is all the more reason why we need to have employee voice routes,” he says. “Then if an employee has an issue there’s a route for them to bring it to us rather than them having no option but to name and shame us.”

Clearly the debate over what the best methods for giving employees a voice are is far from clear cut. Informal or formal mechanisms, collective or individual voice, independent or employer-led initiatives, strategic topics or day-to-day grievances: the list of potential approaches and philosophies goes on.

“What matters is that workers are respected, their voices are heard and they feel empowered to influence decisions,” says Taylor. “The way you do it can vary from firm to firm or industry to industry.”

The solution perhaps lies in employers committing to a range of complementary mechanisms that fit the culture of the organisation and needs of different employees.

“Some people will happily stand up in a meeting and say what they think, but others won’t feel comfortable doing that. If you’ve got different approaches then people can have their say in their own way,” points out Ella’s Kitchen’s Allen.

As Reeve adds: “It’s easy to make assumptions on what people do or don’t want.”

Which perhaps highlights the very point of voice: the need to listen to employees without second guessing what you’ll hear or what the solution will be. And where better to start than on the topic of how they would like to have their say in the first place.

This piece appeared in the July 2018 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk. If you would like to be featured in our future leader column please get in touch