The power of employee voice

Today’s workforce is more diverse than ever before – generationally, aspirationally, educationally and culturally, as well as in terms of the more obvious and visible aspects of diversity we still wrestle with. We are also working in increasingly diverse ways, with work itself changing beyond recognition.

Understanding, respecting and valuing these different dimensions of diversity is vital, not only to get the best from our entire workforce, but also to encourage innovation and different perspectives. But it’s also true that greater diversity brings challenges. We need to understand how to engage, support and listen to the different voices, issues and concerns, and we have to adapt our people management and development practices and recognise that one size does not fit all.

The relationship between workforces and organisations has been evolving, and there are many channels to connect with employees, such as social media. Union membership across the UK and most of Western Europe has declined significantly in the past two decades. Today, around a quarter of the UK workforce is unionised, varying by sector, and the average across the EU is about the same. The number of days lost to industrial action in the UK over this period has dropped by more than 90 per cent. And although strikes and industrial action can hit the headlines – as with London’s public transport sector or European airline pilots strikes – our surveys and consultations indicate that relationships with trade unions are generally positive.

Unions do continue to play an important role in the voice of the employee, and a decline in collectivism isn’t necessarily good news, but it needs to be balanced with responsible union behaviours. Unions can be good at representing workers for whom speaking up is not easy or whose views might otherwise be supressed. Recent proposals from the UK government to introduce a number of measures to curb strike action do seem like they’re addressing problems of times gone by, and remind us again of the dangers of union relationships becoming more of a political football.

So whether the channel to hear the voice of the employee is through unions, other representative groups or via social media, the important thing is how we increase dialogue and connections. When we listen to our employees, we need to make sure we are not only hearing the loudest voices, but are able to tap into the thoughts of the silent majority. People need to be able to open up without fear of reprisal, in environments where it is ok to ‘speak truth unto power’.

Even if the often-cited holocracy model adopted by some innovators like Zappos may not be the whole answer, greater democracy in the workplace and the move to more self-organising teams are certainly important trends. There is real merit in challenging ourselves to think about these newer ways of organising and managing people. They can create more dialogue, more engagement, more understanding of purpose and accountability, and can help us be more productive. They require us to rethink the traditional models of command and control, to move away from lots of rules and policies, and to work more from wider principles and values.

Of course, there will be many activities that will still require rules and processes, but we have a lot of space to move into. HR then needs to focus more on how we recruit and develop people who are aligned to our wider principles and values, while embracing greater diversity and inclusion at the same time. These are harder things to do, but are undoubtedly what will drive our future.

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  • I agree 100% with the viewpoint that we actively need to encourage the more silent staff to speak up. Their ideas, feedback and suggestions should not allowed to be miss out on. This not only sends out the wrong message, that the 'loudest voices' have opportunity to have greater influence but also means the company misses out on valuable information which could have potential to improve overall company performance, increasing staff morale, enhancing a more open, all inclusive culture.  


  • The trick is getting the messages from the front line up.  Information needs to be able to flow up to the leadership teams from the people that 'do the job'.  If only it were as easy as saying it!


  • I really like this comment: 'When we listen to our employees, we need to make sure we are not only hearing the loudest voices, but are able to tap into the thoughts of the silent majority. People need to be able to open up without fear of reprisal, in environments where it is ok to ‘speak truth unto power’. Peter Cheese