Exploring new ways of thinking about voice in the workplace
Employee voice is the means by which people communicate their views to their employer. It’s the main way employees can influence matters that affect them at work. For employers, effective voice contributes toward innovation, productivity and organisational improvement. For employees, it often results in increased job satisfaction, greater influence and better opportunities for development.
This factsheet explores what employee voice means and the different perspectives and purposes of voice initiatives in an organisation. It looks at the changing nature of voice and influence in the employment relationship, and mechanisms for representative participation. It also examines whistleblowing and how employers can create an environment in which individuals feel safe to speak up.
Creating opportunities for employees to have a voice at work is a fundamental element of treating them as legitimate and valued stakeholders in the employment relationship. Voice is a key mechanism by which individuals can influence their working conditions. It helps to build open and trustful relationships between employers and their people, and can contribute to organisational success. People are more likely to show commitment to the organisation if they have a voice, and sharing views can lead to greater innovation, problem-solving and productivity.
Key trends in the modern world of work such as remote working, increasing workforce diversity and alternative work arrangements are creating new challenges for individuals’ ability to have a say over their work conditions. Meanwhile, technology developments have influenced people’s expectations of voice in the workplace. With calls for greater transparency in organisations following numerous public scandals, voice is crucial in keeping organisations honest. It’s also fundamental to ensuring job quality in the context of changing working practices.
At the CIPD, our ‘Sounding Board’ is a group of representatives from across the organisation who meet every two months to represent the views of their colleagues. We use an ongoing ‘pulse’ survey tool which gauges at any time our employees’ views on a number of key factors within the organisation. We’ve also appointed a staff member to sit on our Remuneration Committee. Our Diversity and Inclusion Group captures the commitment and support of people across our organisation to make this a truly inclusive place to work.
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What is employee voice?
We defined employee voice as ‘the ability of employees to express their views, opinions, concerns and suggestions, and for these to influence decisions at work’ in our Alternative forms of workplace voice report. To enable a genuine two-way communication between employers and their people, it’s important that management listen to and act on employee voice.
Employees can have their say through individual and collective channels, by speaking directly to management or indirectly through representatives. Voice can also be exhibited through formal mechanisms such as suggestion schemes and attitude surveys, as well as through informal channels including team meetings and workplace social media. Effective voice is unlikely to result from any one single initiative, but rather from a number of complementary channels supported by leadership at all levels of the organisation.
There are two main purposes of voice described in management literature.
- As a tool for increasing employee engagement, whereby employees share suggestions and ideas ‘upwards’ to improve the functioning of the organisation.
- A social justice perspective argues that voice is a fundamental right and a means of employee self-determination.
Conventional approaches tend to view employee voice as a means to an end of ultimately improving organisational performance. Our Best to good practice HR research found that a quarter of practitioners never apply the principle ‘People should be able to influence the decisions that affect them’ in their decision-making, or they merely see it as a ‘nice to have’. Understanding the human nature aspects of voice, and considering outcomes for workers such as well-being and fulfilment, can create shared value for organisations and their people, and, in turn, help to build sustainable organisational cultures.
It’s also important to consider employee silence, when individuals choose not to speak up despite having something to say. Our 2017 HR Outlook survey found that over half of organisations are taking steps to improve employee voice, but highlighted that employee attitudes including apathy, lack of engagement and fears around expressing their voice can act as barriers. Diversity concerns should be considered as a core element of voice initiatives, since people may be motivated by different factors to become involved, and the perspectives of minority groups can be underrepresented in conventional voice mechanisms. Hearing diverse viewpoints may not be easy, but can help to unlock people’s potential while balancing the power between the organisation and its employees.
To explore new ways of thinking about voice in the workplace, visit our Future of Voice hub page.
Representative participation refers to schemes under which employee representatives meet managers on a regular basis, whether in scheduled committees, or through more ad hoc arrangements. The essential characteristic is that participation is not directly between individual employees and their managers but is mediated through representatives. Approaches include:
Collective representation – negotiations between senior management and employee representatives (usually but not exclusively union representatives) leading to joint regulation of pay and other conditions of employment. These can be periodic in the case of pay, but continuous or ad hoc in the case of other matters, for example grievances.
Partnership schemes – employee representatives and employers emphasise mutual gains and tackling issues in a spirit of co-operation, rather than through traditional adversarial relationships. This includes a high commitment to information sharing.
Joint consultation – to consider issues that are deemed to be of common interest or of key importance to the parties, at non-union as well as unionised workplaces. Joint Consultation Committees (JCCs) exist in organisations to address issues that are not covered by collective bargaining. JCCs consist of management and non-management representatives. In unionised organisations, the trade unions typically provide the employee representatives, but JCCs also run with non-union employee representatives.
Employee forums – groups of non-union or mixed groups of union/non-union employees meeting with management for consultation and information sharing.
European Works Councils (EWCs) – employees of large multinational companies operating across Europe have a right to ask for a EWC to be set up, which is a body that brings together senior managers and employee representatives to discuss transnational issues.
The changing nature of voice and influence in the workplace
Since the early 1980s, there has been a decline in trade union representation across various European countries, including the UK. While a significant minority of the workforce still have their terms and conditions of employment determined by collective bargaining, overall there is decreased reliance on collective agreements as a means of leveraging influence within the employment relationship. This reflects the general shift in recent decades away from indirect and representative voice, and towards direct and individual channels. With the rise of work fragmentation and flexibility, the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices commissioned by the UK Government in 2017 highlighted the imbalance of power in the employment relationship, and the importance of effective worker voice for creating good work.
Our report Power dynamics in work and employment relationships explores the complexities of power in the employment relationship and how employees can best shape their working lives.
Direct participation is employees’ direct ability to influence decision-making (that is, not through representatives). It can take different forms, such as control over the way job tasks are carried out, or influence over wider organisational decisions. The Skills and Employment Survey 2017 found that formal institutions for organisational participation (for example, consultative meetings held by management) declined between 2012 and 2017, but the proportion of employees reporting high influence over decisions that affect their work increased.
The Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations (known as the ICE Regs) apply to UK organisations with 50 or more employees. They give employees rights to request their employer makes arrangements to inform and consult them about issues in the organisation.
The UK government’s corporate governance reform requires listed companies to ensure that employees’ interests are better represented at board level. One of the recommended options for achieving this is to include an employee representative on the board. This is normal practice across Europe, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In our response to the government, we and the High Pay Centre welcome the options proposed to raise awareness of employees’ interests at board level, but acknowledge that there is no single solution to creating meaningful employee voice. Read more on corporate governance.
Technology is enabling new ways for people to have a voice at work. Some employers have set up protected enterprise social networks as a platform for workers to express their views. These virtual networks allow workers a degree of control over issues discussed, as well as the opportunity for informal networking with colleagues. They facilitate real-time conversations between staff and management, but there is a lack of evidence on how they can be used most effectively.
Whistleblowing and creating a ‘speak up’ culture
Whistleblowing is increasingly recognised as an effective means for workers to communicate important messages to employers. It occurs when an individual raises concerns, usually to their employer or a regulator, about a workplace danger or illegality that affects others. The disclosure may be about the alleged wrongful conduct of the employer, a colleague, client, or any third party. Typically, the whistleblower is not directly, personally affected by the danger or illegality. Personal complaints such as harassment or discrimination are not usually treated as whistleblowing and should be handled according to the organisation’s grievance policy.
In the UK, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 is a key piece of legislation protecting individuals who ‘blow the whistle’ in the public interest. Examples of the situations covered include financial malpractice, criminal offences, risks to health and safety, failure to comply with a legal obligation, a miscarriage of justice and environmental damage. Workers who make a ‘protected disclosure’ can make a claim to an employment tribunal if they’re treated badly or dismissed.
Employers should have a standalone ‘speak up’ policy that is supported at the top of the organisation and effectively promoted to the workforce. This should make clear to all staff what to do if they come across malpractice in the workplace, and encourage individuals to inform someone who is in an appropriate position in the organisation to act on the disclosure.
The policy should make clear that:
- The employer attaches great importance to identifying and remedying wrongdoing in the organisation (specific examples of dangers, illegality or unacceptable behaviour should be included).
- Staff should inform their line manager immediately if they become aware that any of the specified actions are happening (or have happened or are likely to happen).
- In more serious cases (for example, if the allegation is about the actions of their line manager), the individual should feel able to raise the issue with a more senior manager, bypassing lower levels of management.
- Individuals can ask for their concerns to be treated in confidence and that the employer will respect their wishes.
- Individuals will not be penalised for informing management about any of the specified actions.
It’s preferable to deal with whistleblowing separately rather than as an extension to, or part of, an existing grievance procedure, while cross-referencing procedures on discipline and grievance. This is partly because the level of risk to the organisation and to the worker will generally be significantly greater in whistleblowing cases than in other matters.
A climate of open communication, supported by a clear procedure for dealing with concerns, will help to reduce the risk of accusations of misconduct and illegalities and ensure that concerns are dealt with speedily and effectively.
CIPD members can find more on the UK legal aspects, including the rules about the uncapped compensation, as well as recent and proposed changes to the law, in our Whistleblowing law Q&As. They can also use our whistleblowing advice helpline.
Outcomes and influencing factors of workplace voice
Research has shown that effective worker voice can lead to positive outcomes for both individuals and organisations. Participating in decisions is important for individual well-being and motivation, since it provides a means for improving the experience of work. Having a voice also gives individuals a level of agency in their work; helping them to better use and develop their expertise, in turn increasing job satisfaction. Employers can benefit from higher productivity and innovation, and reduced workplace conflict and absenteeism.
Psychological safety, or individuals’ feelings about taking risks and sharing thoughts with others in the workplace, provides a bedrock for voice. Employees are unlikely to speak up if they believe the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits – for example, if they feel that their position in the organisation would be threatened. Power dynamics influence people’s willingness to speak up, particularly on information which challenges the status quo or could be judged negatively by a more senior colleague. It’s therefore important that all people managers in the organisation understand the value of employee voice, and are trained to facilitate open conversations and demonstrate empathic listening. Find out more in our leadership factsheet.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
DROMEY, J. (2015) ICE and Voice 10 years on. London: IPA.
JOHNSTONE, S. and ACKERS, P. (2015) Finding a voice at work? New perspectives on employment relations. Oxford: OUP.
PURCELL, J and HALL, M. (2012) Voice and participation in the modern workplace: challenges and prospects. London: Acas.
WILKINSON, A., DONAGHEY, J and DUNDON, T. (eds) (2014) Handbook of research on employee voice. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
CHAMBERLIN, M., NEWTON, D. and LEPINE, J. (2017) A meta-analysis of voice and its promotive and prohibitive forms: identification of key associations, distinctions, and future research directions. Personnel Psychology. Vol 70. pp11-71.
FRANCIS, H. M., RAMDHONY, A., REDDINGTON, M. and STAINES, H. (2013) Opening spaces for conversational practice: a conduit for effective engagement strategies and productive working arrangements. International Journal of Human Resource Management. Vol 24, No 14. pp2713-2740.
HOLLAND, P., COOPER, B.K. and HECKER, R. (2016) Use of social media at work: a new form of employee voice? International Journal of Human Resource Management. December, Vol 27, No 21-22, pp2621-2634. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 65.
KLAAS, B., OLSON-BUCHANAN, J. and WARD, A-K. (2012) The determinants of alternative forms of workplace voice: an integrative perspective. Journal of Management. Vol 38, No 1. pp314-345.
LAM LW, LOI R, CHAN KW, et al. (2016) Voice more and stay longer: how ethical leaders influence employee voice and exit intentions. Business Ethics Quarterly. Vol 26, No 3. pp277-300.
CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.
Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
This factsheet was last updated by Louisa Baczor.
Louisa Baczor: Research Adviser
Louisa joined the CIPD in 2015, specialising in research for the CIPD’s Profession for the Future programme. This research explored what it means to be a professional, key drivers impacting the future of work, and how practitioners apply ethical principles when making people management decisions.
Louisa’s current research is investigating the future of voice in the workplace, and how organisations can enable people to have a meaningful voice at work. Prior to this, she worked on workplace well-being, employability, and professional identity streams.
With an undergraduate degree in psychology, Louisa studied the changing roles of HR and impact on trust during a Master’s at the University of Bath.
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