By Troy Miller
The issue of speaking up or remaining silent faces us on a daily basis. The notion that people should have a say in matters which affect their work stretches back hundreds of years. Today, it seems to be common sense that workers should speak-up when problems arise. However, many well-known organisational disasters, such as United Airlines flight 173, the Columbia space tragedy and Dr Death at Bundaberg Base Hospital were connected to voice failure.
We spend much of our lives performing tasks in the workplace under the direction and guidance of others. A productive work environment requires communication between employees and management, and organisations must provide opportunity and encouragement to do so. However, an alarming number of workplaces follow the ‘managers know best’ and top-down autocratic styles, which are based on models of management developed during the Henry Ford era: ‘Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?’
Employee voice is central to unlocking and utilising human talent. It is often said that people are creative, committed and innovative – until they come to work. Too often creativity, innovation and energy are part of an individual’s personal life, but these qualities are repressed at work – this is the tragedy of the modern workplace.
Progressive employers see voice as valuable and employ HR practices that harness these skills and characteristics in the workplace. Employee voice systems have the potential to improve and innovate practice and alert management to arising issues. From a fundamental perspective, employees need voice systems to have a say in the determination of working conditions. Differing views on whether employees should be encouraged to speak up, and over what issues, has proven to be a contentious topic.
Encouraging employee voice places higher expectations on managers. While the CEO and HR provide strategic direction, line managers hold the bulk of responsibility in facilitating employee voice; thus, they need to be developed and trained for this role and transform from cops (catching people doing wrong) to coaches (supporting and developing staff).
Other challenges in this field include designing a diversity voice agenda for neglected voices in the labour force, and voice in a digital world, where modern generations of workers will not be easily silenced.
Progressive organisations understand that employee performance benefits can be gained by permitting employees to speak up with genuine support, and they allow their managers to act on the ideas and issues that are raised to improve outcomes.
This employee voice facilitation strategy outweighs the cost of establishing formal voice systems, and the cultural benefits can convert into long-term employee satisfaction, reduced human resource costs, lower staff turnover and better customer service.
These are some of the lessons learned by Professor Adrian Wilkinson from the Department of Employment Relations and Human Resources, and Director of Work, Organisation and Wellbeing Research Centre, who is one of Australia’s leading researchers in the field of ‘Employee Voice and Collaborative Workplace Relations’, with over two decades experience in the UK and Australia.
Professor Wilkinson’s area of Employment Relations (ER) was supported in 2018 by the Australian Newspaper and Higher Education Editor, Mr Tim Dodd, when Griffith University’s ER field was featured in 40 fields in which Australian Universities Top the World. It was compiled by League of Scholars, a data analytics firm that produces rankings on research performance.
Professor Wilkinson’s research on employee voice began early in his career and has guided organisational HR strategies in Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe, to develop processes for employees to voice ideas and raise issues both in relation to improving organisational performance as well as worker wellbeing.
“I went to Durham University and my PhD investigated the relationship between business strategy and the management of labour within the HR department of a bank,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“The bank was introducing new employment and HRM strategies and it had a two-fold dimension – it aimed to improve relations with the union and the employees themselves.”
While employed as a research fellow early in his career at the University of Manchester, Professor Wilkinson worked on a project with the UK Department of Employment, examining what new methods employers were using to encourage direct employee voice, that differed from the traditional approaches of working through the trade union.
“I found that some employers would speak directly to their employees without going through trade unions. There was more briefing, consultation and involvement of employees, and the employers sought how to improve business through quality circles,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“In short, management motives had shifted away from concerns with labour control to wanting to involve employees in meeting the new challenges of quality and customer care in an era of intensified global competition.”
Professor Wilkinson was appointed as Chair of HRM at Loughborough University in 1998 and then as Director of Research for the Business School, he continued his research on employee voice and workplace systems involving employee participation and collaboration.
He conducted a follow-up project sponsored by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development – with the same group of colleagues he worked with on the UK Department of Employment project – revisiting several of the original participating organisations to determine if their voice practices had changed.
“At one level, the voice practices appeared more embedded and less fragmented than they did a decade earlier. Attempts had been made to consolidate and integrate different mechanisms over time,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“The dualism seen earlier of separated direct (individual) and indirect (union) involvement channels, seemed to be more intermingled with a range of schemes that overlap and coexist at different levels.”
“However, while some organisations had established genuine voice structures – they were a minority – others seemed to be following the motions in a form of ceremonial adoption because it was expected by senior management.”
“In the latter cases, it was clear that senior management was not truly aware of what was enacted on the ground on a daily basis,” said Professor Wilkinson.
It was found by Professor Wilkinson that many managers try to create a positive environment in workplaces with the emphasis on solutions, but this culture can have a negative effect and discourage people from speaking up.
“Unfortunately, some managers frame ‘I want to hear from you’ in such a way that it’s pretty clear that they only want to hear endorsement or suggestions for improvement which aren’t too critical,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“And without honest feedback, senior management doesn’t have access to information that is available on the ground.”
“This brings us to the classic question of voice. Do you want people’s voices or not? If you want to genuinely facilitate employee voice, you need to create a climate where staff feel comfortable speaking honestly, and they don’t just say what management wants to hear.”
While employee voice is part of a progressive strategy to improve decision making, there can be substantial barriers to voice systems in organisations with hierarchical structures, such as hospitals and other bureaucratic organisations.
“One side of voice is getting information from people to help improve things, which is primarily what business are interested in. However, there is another side which is about individual rights, or more broadly ‘Industrial Democracy’,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“In a modern democratic world, why should your rights stop at the factory gate? Shouldn’t you have a right to speak up if you are being bullied, harassed or intimidated,” Professor Wilkinson asked?
“There are still workplace cultures where speaking up is not encouraged, and these are professional cultures. Hospitals and health services are rife with reports of bullying in Australia and the UK.”
“Apart from business and organisational improvements, there’s also literature supporting the view that workers should have a right to voice to improve their motivation and wellbeing, and it instils a sense of dignity,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“There is a saying, ‘Workers are motivated, dedicated, energetic and innovative, except at work’. People often express their talents outside work by being heavily involved in their community – organising cricket tours, helping out in aged care and in animal shelters.”
“Workers have all sorts of innate qualities and talents, which are not brought out by managers. In the war for talent, managers can forget the talent in front of them and think other organisations have these talented workers.”
Professor Wilkinson’s academic research on employee voice has had wide-ranging citations and the policy implications have been taken up by the European Commission, the Bank of England and many industry organisations.
“You don’t always know how your research will be used. There are examples where I think it’s been quite well used, such as in International Labour Organization reports and the Industrial Participation Association reports in the UK, which demonstrate how to improve social partnerships,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“In another example, Kevin Warsh (Deputy Governor of the New York Federal Reserve System) did a review on the Bank of England after the Global Financial Crisis citing my research on voice, on the need for more deliberative decision making and more genuine voice to survive another global financial crisis.”
It has been identified that organisations with autocratic leadership and management styles usually restrict employee voice, as they have limited voice systems and their cultures discourage speaking up. And if voice exists, it’s a more pseudo voice often on safe topics unrelated to employee interests.
“Employee voice needs to occur in a safe environment and needs to be coaxed. It’s too easy for a group to sit around a table where the manager frames the discussion by saying ‘I think this is what we should do, don’t you all agree?’, and they all get on with it even if they think it is futile,” said Professor Wilkinson.“
“The idea of voice is to let people flesh out their ideas and get all views on the table, allowing more deliberative decision making.”
In 2014 Professor Wilkinson co-lead a project called, ‘Employee voice in Australia: The impact of employee participation arrangements on organisation performance and employee wellbeing’, with Professor Paul Gollan.
The research identified five types of unheard voices:
1) ‘Black hole’ organisations such as small firms that have no voice structures
2) Where voice structures exist and employees utilise them, but no one listens
3) Where voice structures exist and grievances are heard by management, but are ignored
4) Where organisations have structures in place but instead they create and perpetuate a climate of silence.
5) Individual staff have differential access to employee voice
Professor Wilkinson found that employee voice input can vary based on whether their employment institutions have formal or informal voice systems, and if the institution aligns with either Industrial Relations or Organisation Behaviour approaches. This is explained further in an article ‘Toward an Integration of Research on employee voice’.
“Industrial Relations research focuses on collective-level structures and systems that allow for employee input, and voice is viewed as occurring via formal mechanisms such as unions,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“In contrast, within Organisational Behaviour research the focus is on the individual-level behavioural act of speaking up, and voice is viewed as occurring via informal interactions with supervisors and co-workers.”
“Given the different perspectives, it’s not surprising that Industrial Relations research has emphasised the structural enablers and inhibitors to voice, whereas Organisational Behaviour research has focused on identifying individual-level (e.g. attitudes, perceptions) and micro-level contextual (e.g. supervisor behaviour, team climate) enablers and inhibitors.”
“We are now looking at how various works of literature can be integrated by recognising that there are differences in levels of analysis to the phenomenon of voice,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“Voice occurs, is influenced by and can be examined at the societal (macro) level, the organisational or departmental (meso) level, and the individual (micro) level.”
Dealing with grievances is another key focus of employee voice, and Professor Wilkinson identified that employees are often reluctant to use specific formal grievance procedures, but may test the water by raising concerns informally in the first instance.
“But we also know that managers through agenda-setting and institutional structures, perpetuate silence over a range of issues,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“Too often voice is perceived as ‘Spitting in the wind’ which has little impact and leads to workers becoming demoralised as management pays little attention to resolving issues.”
“There is much discussion on voice systems, but such systems need listening and action dimensions (the Voice, Listening Action VLA model).”
”Many organisations think, ‘If we build it they will come’, but genuine voice systems require more than this if employees are to take it seriously,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“Most employees appear to want the opportunity to have a say and to contribute to the work issues that matter to them, and they also want a range of voice choices rather than a single channel.”
“The next issue is if employees speak up, is anyone listening to them? A lot of emails you send seem to disappear and you never find out what happened,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“Then if management has listened, will they do anything about it? There needs to be a feedback loop because if you have enough people speaking up and there’s no result, eventually they will stop speaking up.”
“Equally does the communication of a difficult issue get you marked out as a trouble-maker or not a team player,” Professor Wilkinson asked?
Another aspect uncovered by Professor Wilkinson was limited employee engagement at work is often attributed to lack of motivation. And while this can be the case, managers can sometimes unintentionally disempower staff and reduce their motivation.
“Often management think we need to motivate employees to work harder, but actually they are motivated to work hard. It’s more about management removing barriers from them doing good work, rather than having to provide incentives to overcome the barriers that management put in place,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“Equally we need to understand that having employee voice is not easy. From a manager’s point of view, in many respects it’s much easier not to have voice as it puts pressure on them.”
“It’s not easy for managers to deal with voice, so in a sense, the autocratic style is easier – people just do what you tell them. Consulting and negotiating is hard work.”
“But the counter strategy is to bring people on-board, establish an open channel of communication, and then you see improved employee performance,” said Professor Wilkinson.
A key benefit of voice is that it can be utilised as an early warning system about operational issues or misconduct in the workplace, to keep issues internal and provide management with the opportunity for remedial action. However, not all voices are equal within professional cultures, as was demonstrated in the Bundaberg Base Hospital incidents with Dr Patel (Dr Death).
“Stifling employee voice can lead to whistleblowing. Bundaberg was an interesting example because the hospital managers weren’t prepared to act on the internal employee voice at the lower levels of the bureaucracy,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“The issue was that not all voices are equal. You had a nurse saying a surgeon did something wrong and the manager had to either believe the nurse or the surgeon.”
“Voice structures should be early warning systems and feedback should be from staff on the shop floor, because they are in direct contact with customers.”
“You don’t want to be surrounded by ‘Yes People’ who say it’s all going well when it’s not because this insulates you from what is actually happening,” said Professor Wilkinson.
Professor Wilkinson explains employee voice has evolved with the growth of the gig economy and people becoming App Platform Workers, these workers while not employees, do have a voice they want to be heard – ‘Worker Voice’. And if they are not provided with an opportunity they will create their own voice systems using social media to collectively organise themselves.
“While Uber drivers are self-employed, they are workers with needs to express their views to Uber. Since there are no structures to do so, these workers are creating their own voice systems,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“Uber drivers have set up their own Facebook (groups) and social media has become their mechanism of voice.”
“There are private groups having discussions about various types of voice – some of them to do with grievances, like the rate of pay and the way Uber manipulates them – but others discuss how Uber can improve for the company’s benefit, like the use of navigation systems.”
“In Melbourne, there was an online Uber workers group who produced a list of demands and delivered it to the Uber office. It’s an interesting model where they have created their own voice system,” said Professor Wilkinson.
It has been identified that the Internet has become a new arena for voice, as a result of worker and employee groups on social media. It is now much easier to publicise workplace ideas, issues and practices, and more difficult for employers to control voice.
“It used to be easier from a management point of view to control voice – they could clamp down on unions, stop people from talking negatively about work in the workplace or ignore them – but with social media, managers don’t have the same control over people,” said Professor Wilkinson.
“Even in organisations with formal voice structures, such as hospitals, we have found that nurses have their own social media groups and talk amongst themselves about things that they aren’t comfortable discussing with management.”
For more information about best practice employee voice structures and systems, and employment relations that involve collaborative workplaces, please contact Professor Adrian Wilkinson.
Professor Wilkinson was recently lead editor for The SAGE Handbook of Human Resource Management, which sketches how the field of HRM continues to evolve in today’s organisations, in part due to the economic, technological and social realities that influence the nature of business.
Feature Image: Apple Headquarters, Apple Park California – by CMFink.com
This article first appeared in the Griffith Business School Research Blog, by Troy Miller.