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Employee voice cultivates politically engaged workers

Giving employees autonomy at work has bottom-line benefits for your business. It can also make them better citizens, research says.

While it has only recently come to the attention of scholars, leaders and policymakers alike, the notion of ‘employee voice’ dates back thousands of years. An early advocate was first-century Roman farmer and agriculture writer Columella, who refers to consulting his slaves before putting them to work. According to him, the practice made them “more willing to set about a piece of work on which they think their opinions have been asked and their advice followed”.

Researchers have found the same holds true today. Giving employees autonomy and decision-making power over their work increases engagement and performance rates, reduces turnover and, surprisingly, has a spillover effect into political engagement.

The idea is not new, but the realisation of its importance is. This could be due to the rapid decline in union membership. A recent parliamentary report showed that 50 per cent of employees belonged to a union in 1976. By 2018, that number shrunk to just 14 per cent.

Andrew R. Timming FCAHR, associate professor of human resources management at the University of Western Australia, suggests HR could have influenced this shift.

“HR managers have been effective in realising their role isn’t just to squeeze productivity out of workers. If they viewed that as their only role, my guess is that unions wouldn’t be declining in the same way they are,” he says.

As the union-led voice has continued to fade, a new type of voice has emerged. Rather than staff shaping work through collective action, many organisations offer individual employees the opportunity for voice. While some may question this alternative, Timming saw a chance for some interesting research.

What is voice?

To define the different varieties of voice, researchers look at depth, form, level and scope.

The depth of voice refers to the degree to which voice is offered. Is an organisation merely seeking employee feedback on a new policy, or is it soliciting employee advice in creating it? The scope looks to the topics on the table. Is an organisation seeking employee input on superficial matters, such as where to host Friday night drinks, or is it willing to include them in, say, a restructure planning process?

The level of voice looks at the seniority of employees. Is it given to subsidiary staff or focused on top-level management? And form is how voice is delivered. Is it communicated directly to management, or indirectly, through a trade union-like framework?

For example, a fast food restaurant that lets staff switch shifts with one another would be an example of voice without much depth, limited scope, but a wide level and a fairly direct form.

“You could argue that the entire field of human resources was a managerial response to minimise the effectiveness of union representation in the workplace.”

The global perspective

UK-based Virgin Media took their employee voice efforts one step further than most, appointing Moira Jennings as its national employee voice lead.

When working as a project manager for the business, Jennings was using up to 80 per cent of her time on what she calls “voice work”. In an effort to elevate voice in the organisation, she pushed to turn the role into a full-time position.

“Voice provides a critical ‘two-way street’ for debate between employees and leaders on a range of topics, including: reward and recognition; engagement; policies; communication and organisational change,” says Jennings.

The organisation has since created local and divisional forums with 360 “voice representatives” at the helm – all are elected for a four-year term by Virgin Media employees.

The key benefits to come from this unique approach, says Jennings, is that representatives “now better understand their role and are able to confidently challenge the business. This helps to make sure everyone is treated fairly, consistently and with respect. This is hugely beneficial to the business as members can alert them to any potential issues they may not be aware of.”

Other countries take an even more forward-thinking approach. Germany has a system of co-determination, meaning workers have legal rights to sit on supervisory boards. And in the US, Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed a bill that would require companies with more than one billion dollars in revenue to let their employees select 40 per cent of their board members.

Timming says Australia sits somewhere along the spectrum between Europe and the US, and rates us as “a strong employee voice country”.

Empowered employees are more likely to want to work hard. They’re not just doing so in pursuit of a paycheck. It’s all about getting emotional buy-in from the very top.

Timming suggests implementing quality circles, Kaizen strategy groups or other mechanisms that mean employees could feel confident they’ll be heard when they speak up.

“The workers are the ones dealing with customers and consumers. They have the clearest vision around what the problems are in the organisation,” he says.

“Some may be hesitant to facilitate a politically active workforce for fear of landing themselves in a Frankenstein scenario; creating a beast they can’t handle.”

Better citizens

Using a European dataset of 14,000 workers, Timming’s research looked at the links between workplace voice mechanisms and political behaviours.

He and his fellow academics asked questions like: “Do you have a say in how your work is organised?” and “Have you recently boycotted a product?” They were able to demonstrate that high-voice organisations have the unintended effect of nurturing more politically active citizens outside of work.

Some may be hesitant to facilitate a politically active workforce for fear of landing themselves in a Frankenstein scenario; creating a beast they can’t handle. But research from PwC shows that younger workers want to work for organisations that put social responsibility on a pedestal.

It’s all about employment branding. Millennials want to work for a company that allows them to help define the end goal; one that’s packed with employees willing to advocate for change. And with Deloitte predicting that 75 per cent of the workforce will be made up of millennials by 2025, it would be a mistake to stifle your employees’ voices.

Alternative voices

But what does voice look like when there’s no union middle man and a company refuses to give employees voice?

It can look like the group of Uber drivers who make up Ride Share Drivers United (RSDU) and joined forces last year to demand an investigation into sham contracting. The point of difference between RSDU and a properly established union is that RSDU members protest for their rights anonymously, fearing they’ll be banned from the app. While this avenue still means employees are heard, its position outside of the law is worrying.

It can also look like the global protests by Google staff in November last year. They were in reaction to a New York Times story that revealed former Android CEO Andy Rubin sexually harassed a female colleague and, instead of being punished, was asked to leave and given a $90 million exit package.

While Google’s actions were widely condemned, the protests could end up working in its favour, specifically because the company signalled it was supporting its staff. Google mostly hires highly educated workers and with such top calibre talent on tap, it’s much easier to encourage strong employee voice.

When Google employees take to the streets, and the company okays it, it sends a clear message to potential recruits: you will have a say in how this company is run.

These values could attract a millennial recruit, but can these alternative voice avenues incite wider change? Timming thinks so.

“You could argue that the entire field of human resources was a managerial response to minimise the effectiveness of union representation in the workplace,” he says.

“HR realise they have a dual role to represent the interests of the organisation and also the interests of employees… they’ve really taken the wind out of the union’s sails as a result. If through a certain set of management practices you can make people more productive and happy, that  may render the union anachronistic.”

Whether that’s a good thing or not, he says, is up to the individual.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the February 2019 edition of HRM magazine.

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Don’t forget that a big part of the demise of union membership was when legislation was enacted to ensure it was non-compulsory. There were a lot of employees forced to be members even if they did not want to be, such as my first job (1979) in one of the “Big Four” banks. None of the many people I ever worked with over a period of seven years had the slightest interest in the union. Given the choice, workers are now clearly voting with their feet.

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