Do employees have a RIGHT to voice?

Voice and Value 2014, Jonny Gifford, research adviser

‘Power, influence and institutions’ was the subtitle for our 14th annual Voice and Value conference, hosted by the CIPD and the LSE on Friday. How much voice do employees have and what are the impacts on areas such as quality of working life? What do today’s employees want to influence and how should employers, trade unions and government adapt to support this? These and other debates were looked at from the angles of social technology, organisational culture, legislation and the role of trade unions.

We started the day with Kay Carberry, the Assistant General Secretary of the TUC. From a trade union perspective, Kay described the title of ‘Voice and Value’ as ‘bang on’. As well as giving employees a voice, she argued that trade unions exist to create business value and thriving organisations. The business value of employee voice is widely recognised and it’s having its day in the sun, but the notion is ‘slippery’. People mean different things by ‘voice’ and the benefits of structures and representation are often overlooked. The TUC wants a national discussion about workplace democracy, a subject put to bed after the 1970s. There is nothing to fear and everything to gain from doing what is commonplace on the continent. Shutting out employees as a stakeholder group and purely following the interests of investors creates short-termism and risk, as recent corporate crises testify.

Our second keynote speaker was Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD. Peter built on this reflecting on the substance and nature of employee voice. He argued that it is many things, but at heart, the socialization and democratization of the workforce. And we are starting to see a trend towards this, both in two-way dialogue, up and down the chain and – especially through social media – across the organisation and even outside it. But while cultural shifts have led to greater expectations of voice, the rhetoric about empowerment has not been met by reality. Why? One main reason is that we still do a poor job of teaching managers, right from the start, how to lead people. And this despite the proliferation of books on leadership. Employers also worry about employees’ input over their output, which holds back the use of social technology to work more flexibly and facilitate employee voice.

Kim Hoque, Professor of HRM at Warwick Business School, opened the research section of the conference, looking at the influence of shop stewards or on-site union representative. Do they still have sufficient power to influence decision making and what’s their value? Drawing on survey data from the UK finance sector, the research confirmed that they do have positive impacts on what can broadly be called ‘job quality’ (including pay and work-life balance as well as voice, etc).

Nonetheless, employers can still hold to a negative view of employee voice which, to paraphrase Kim, holds that employee voice makes the grumblers less likely to leave the organisation and spreads dissent.

Emma Parry, Reader in HRM at Cranfield School of Management, picked up on this in her paper on qualitative research in a large UK telecommunications firm. This focused specifically on the adoption of internal social media, including message boards, blogs, Twitter-style micro-blogging, and knowledge-sharing communities. There were plenty of negatives: social media was seen to create ‘big moan forums’, especially as employees were allowed to use it anonymously. And when this provision of anonymity was dropped, levels in usage dropped with it. Fundamentally, although there were seen to be positives – for example, in collaboration, sharing ideas, networking and asking for advice – the culture was such that people didn’t expect their voice to have an impact. Indeed the experience of many was that ‘unpalatable’ views were quickly shouted down by management.

Andrew Timming, Reader in Management at University of St. Andrews, broadened the debate from organisational to societal democracy. His paper presented analysis of over 50,000 responses to the European Social Survey, specifically on how employees’ political involvement in their communities and wider society are affected by the degree of voice they are given in their organisations. In short: do we learn something from organisational democracy for our lives more generally? The findings suggest that we do. If we have more opportunity to organise our work and influence decisions in our organisations, we are more likely as citizens to vote, contact an MP, actively support a political party, sign petitions and demonstrate. Voice is another way in which work spills over into our personal lives.

Max St.John, Managing Director of NixonMcInnes opened our practitioner session with a first-hand warts-and-all view of organisational democracy in his own organisation. Characteristics of working life at NixonMcInness range from complete transparency on salaries, to democratic decision-making, to highly flexible working practices. On balance, it works well but takes real effort. The experience is that, while making organisation-wide decisions by consent initially takes longer, it results in immediate buy-in once the decision is made. Staff turnover in a democratic, empowering organisation is low, which is great; but can be so low that people stay too long. Leaders still struggle with having next to no control over employees, but the danger is not that employees don’t pull their weight. Rather, the tendency is for people to overwork.

Kevin Croft, President of the Healthcare People Management Association and HR director of NHS Epsom and St. Helier, talked about increasing involvement and performance through an employee engagement model. Whereas the Francis Report on Mid Staffs highlighted a culture in which staff gave up on raising concerns, the HPMA’s APPRECIATE model is being used in part to make it more natural for employees to talk to senior leaders. Part of the route to success is seen to be in empowerment and developing more of a coaching style of leadership. Yet these need to be nuanced in the context of current NHS change. By explaining that ‘the vision remains uncertain but the mission remains the same’, the message is reinforced that employees are being empowered in some but not all ways. They should focus on what they can control and accept what they cannot.

One point of general agreement through the day was that social media is not by itself ushering in a new form of democracy, but rather that it is a tool that supports such a shift. If the general mood in the organisation is negative, that will be reflected in social media. But employers have less and less choice in whether employees use social media. As Paul Gollan put it, if employees were previously moaning down the pub, ‘the pub’s just become a lot bigger’.

Increasingly, our attention turned to discussion on whether voice should be seen as an employee right. Our panel discussion with Andrea Broughton (Institute for Employment Studies), David Coats (WorkMatters Consulting), Gill Dix (Acas) and Professor Tony Dundon (National University of Ireland Galway) focused on this in answer to the question, ‘What do today’s employees want to influence?’ Above all, the answer was felt to be respect and voice, and the clear consensus was that the UK’s current information and consultation regulations have failed to ensure this.

The panel highlighted the clear need for convincing cases of good practice to demonstrate to employers how employee voice and even workplace democracy can work. But it was also argued that the government should take a stronger lead, in contrast to our ‘voluntarist tradition’. Most employers will always fear a fundamental power shift in the employment relationship and need firmer encouragement. As one delegate, Peter Monaghan put it, the case for employee voice is made, but ‘Can you hear the patter of dragging feet behind you?’

‘Voice and Value: Power, influence and institutions’ was organised and chaired by Jonny Gifford (CIPD) and Professor Paul Gollan (Macquarie University and London School of Economics). It was held at the LSE.

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