Should employees have a voice?

Interesting food for thought in the shape of a recent debate between academics and HR practitioners on the need to give employees a ‘voice’ in the workplace.

The Voice and Value Conference (organised jointly by the CIPD and London School of Economics (LSE) heard that “a catastrophic imbalance of power” had arisen in UK businesses thanks to the gradual decline of trade unions.  Delegates suggested that now that this traditional model of employee representation was no longer prevalent, staff were struggling to find ways to make their voices heard.

In today’s fast-moving business environment, it is of course about much more than just negotiating pay and conditions. Thanks to the rise of social media, employees now expect to be given a say on everything from corporate direction to corporate social responsibility.  If they are denied the opportunity to give their view on the things that matter to them, organisations will find it hard to create cultures of trust and openness and to get people behind their business objectives.

Now there’s an interesting discussion to be had about the advantages of the ‘employee engagement’ route for businesses, as opposed to the more traditional command and control model. Despite long-running rumours of its demise, command and control is still alive and well in some sectors and there are organisations who are managing to be very successful despite (rather than because) of it.  The question, of course, is how much more successful they might be if they allowed employees to speak out and contribute their ideas – rather than simply expecting them to do as they are told.

Thanks to advances in technology, giving employees a voice is much easier than it has ever been before whatever the size of your business.  Business software that allows people to share information and feedback their views is readily available, and some HR systems even have social platforms built in.  Research has shown, however, that although organisations have embraced social media for their external audiences, they have been much slower to pick up on it internally.

Here are four reasons why giving employees a voice matters and why organisations need to step up on a gear on engaging in dialogue with their staff:

They know what works better than you do

It’s not uncommon for organisations to invest a huge amount of time and resources developing a new product or service, only to find that it falls flat on its feet when it hits the marketplace.  Why?  Because businesses often fail to talk to the most important people – the employees on the front line serving the customers or delivering the service.  People on the ground often know far more than their senior managers about what will and won’t work in practice.  They are close to the customer, understand their needs and can point out the tiny but significant details that can make the difference between success and failure.  Involving them in discussions from an early stage – rather than simply presenting them with a fait accompli – makes sound business sense.

It will increase collaboration

If you don’t provide a vehicle through which employees can have a voice, you are stifling what is often a natural desire among people to work together to solve problems and move projects forward.  You are creating divisions rather than breaking down barriers.  The latest generation social portals are a great way to encourage more effective collaboration.  They allow employees to quickly find answers to questions, they avoid time being wasted because people are re-inventing the wheel and they speed up the progress and efficiency of projects.  Giving people from across the business the opportunity to contribute ideas to a project that is outside their normal domain can also lend a fresh perspective and may even lead to some light bulb moments.  Get people out of their silos and allow them to talk to you and to each other, and you will have a better networked organisation where innovation can flourish.

It will help drive through change

At times of change, senior managers have a tendency to keep their heads down.  They feel that if they can’t give people all the answers, they are better off not saying anything at all.  They are worried that if people get wind of what’s really happening, they will become demoralised and demotivated and performance will suffer.  The reality is that the opposite is true.  If you keep people informed of what’s going on – even if you can’t provide the full picture – they are less likely to spend time speculating, worrying and gossiping.  If you actually involve them in the change process and let them contribute their views on the future direction of the business, they will feel part of the process and are much more likely to buy into the eventual solution. Organisations worry they are saying too much.  Most of time, they are actually saying too little.

It will improve engagement

Research has clearly shown that staff who feel engaged with their employer are more loyal, productive and committed to their jobs.  If you want people to be enthusiastic participants rather than passive ‘passengers’ in your business you have to make genuine efforts to give them a voice.  Many companies pay lip service to this concept.  They send out a staff survey, for example, with messages about how this is the chance for people to ‘have their say’.  But the results are often not disseminated and nothing changes as a result.  Employees can see through token attempts to involve them.  If you truly want to engage staff you have to genuinely be open to listening to what people have to say and where possible, taking action as a result of what you’ve heard.

Do employees have a voice in your organisation?  Are you missing the opportunity to engage in dialogue with your employees?  Let us know what you think.

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