The Value of Employee Voice in Retail

A large number of studies have already demonstrated the value of employee voice and its positive relationship to employee engagement. That makes it surprising that so many employees across industries are joining and forming unions, joining the Great Resignation, or holding protests because their employee voice in the workplace is muffled or non-existent. It is not so surprising in the retail industry because retail workers are usually not included in decision-making, due to so many being low-paid frontline workers with a high turnover rate. There is also likely an element of bias in the lack of employee voice. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports retail industry employees are 48.6% women, 13.3% Black or African-American, 5.8% Asian, and 18.5% Latin.

Retail is an industry marked with a high turnover rate, but those staying - and leaving - are frequently joining forces now to demand an employee voice. Much of the negative sentiment and impetus to unionize came from retail employees being called "nonessential" during the pandemic and furloughed without pay or benefits. Others were deemed "essential" and went to work worried about their health and safety and the health and safety of family members. Without consulting with the workforce, employers made decisions that often negatively impacted the personal and work lives of retail employees.

It is vital to provide a give-and-take communication system in the modern workforce. It has never been easier for employees to unionize than it is today because of accessibility to communication technologies. A dedication to a two-way feedback system can help overcome a labor shortage, pro-union government, and new forms of unionizing coupled with reinvigorated labor unions supported by the National Labor Relations Board rigorously pushing for an increase in union membership.

Value of Employee Voice

The value of the voice of the employee goes both ways. Employees express their perspectives, thoughts, and ideas in various ways, and the employer listens, learns, and provides feedback. From these intentional exchanges, the employer gets access to business intelligence that would not be available otherwise, and employees feel more engaged in a participative workplace. Many business leaders have no idea what their frontline retail employees experience each day as they sell clothes, coffee, pet supplies, household items, and other consumer goods and services. It is a missed opportunity to better understand employee and customer needs and improve operations.

What is Employee Voice?

Joe Dromey with The Involvement and Participation Association defined employee voice as "the ability of employees to express their views, opinions, concerns, and suggestions, and for these to influence decisions at work." Employee voice is not a simple one-way question-and-answer process. Giving people opportunities to have a say about their work and the business means management:

  • Proactively seeks out the opinions and perspectives of employees
  • Actively listens through various communication platforms
  • Utilizes the information gained through listening for better decision-making concerning the workforce and the business in general.

An essential aspect of employee voice not built into the basic definition is that team members believe they can express themselves without fear of negative consequences, creating a feeling of psychological safety. Employees turn to labor unions due to fear of consequences in the workplace should they speak up. The labor union becomes a haven - a path to public expression with the knowledge the union will provide protection through social pressures. Labor unions are always ready to help current and potential members and back many independent worker unions.

The Starbucks Workers United union is a good example. From one store, there are now more than 140 stores across the country announcing union campaigns. With 350,000 employees, Starbucks is a bellwether movement for retail workers. One store at a time can quickly lead to thousands of new union members, and it is a pattern repeating itself in retail companies.

In their own voice, Starbucks Workers United says, "We know what it takes to make this company run, and we know best what we need to be able to do our jobs to the fullest. We are organizing because we know that Starbucks partners have the ability to improve this company, transform this industry, and form a collaborative, creative, forward-thinking, justice-seeking, independent organization that will allow us to advocate for ourselves."

These are frontline retail workers saying they can transform an industry and improve the workplace and the business by speaking for themselves. The implications for employers in this shift in retail employee perspective are enormous.

employee voice in retail

Valuing Employee Voice 

The value of employee voice is measurable in several ways, but the connection between employee voice and employee engagement creates the greatest value. The level of employee engagement determines critical aspects of business success, including turnover rates, productivity, collaboration among peers and management, inclusion and belonging, and happiness with work and the workplace.

The value of employee voice is also found in its ability to increase employee engagement by promoting:

Retail employees are more aware than they have ever been about what they want from their employer in the way of an employee experience. One of the top expectations in the modern workforce is having a say in how the organization achieves results. The "how" includes how companies:

  • Develop employee policies and procedures
  • Design organizational processes and systems
  • Make management decisions

The principle of employee voice includes sharing problems or concerns, ideas for improving work processes, negative customer comments offering opportunities for business improvement, personal needs like work-life balance, and diverse perspectives and opinions.

Making Room for Expression of Views

The path towards identifying and getting actionable feedback from a diverse workforce is not always easy to maneuver. Some team members may refuse to speak up because they fear repercussions. Some diverse employees avoid speaking up due to different life experiences and fear exclusion based on those differences. In a hybrid retail workforce, remote or online employees may feel disengaged from the onsite workforce.

How does an organization create a "safe space" for the expression of views? A safe space is a system of communication channels that regularly present and welcome opportunities for contributing ideas and concerns. The listening & feedback communication system must be inclusive, meaning accessible by all employees. As is true for many industries, the workforce model is transforming in the retail industry. Employers must be careful to include all retail employees when making room for the expression of views.

One of the emerging trends in retail is the use of gig workers, or independent contractors, who are on-demand workers. This trend will impact how employers engage all workers in the future and is another signal the retail industry is constantly changing in ways that affect its workers. Companies using a contingent retail workforce include Walmart, Meijer, Faherty, and Target, to name a few.

The hybrid workforce is also becoming entrenched in the retail industry. The traditional image of the retail worker is of someone behind a counter, but the pandemic has led to a new group of employees called "omni-associates." These are people who work in retail stores and also manage e-commerce tasks remotely.


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Yet another growing segment of retail workers consists of casual workers who have no set hours or schedule. They work when called in to work. A survey by Herbert Smith Freehills of 400 cross-sector CEOs produced some revealing results. Approximately 54-57 percent of large companies see pay and benefits and the status of casual workers as significant activism triggers. Of the executives surveyed, 83 percent foresee an increase in activism among casual workers, and 95 percent see a rise in employees making their voices heard via social media over the next five years. The top five triggers for activism were automation and AI, surveillance, pay and benefits, CSR, and diversity.

Developing a successful communication system in the retail industry now means ensuring no one is excluded from opportunities to express their voice – regular employees, hybrid workers, remote workers, on-demand workers, omni-associates, casual workers, and diverse workers. Leaders must be willing to listen, be challenged, and provide feedback.

Today's "Activist" Worker Needs to be Heard More than Ever 

In the article "Leading in an Age of Employee Activism," employee activism is defined as the "voices of difference, on issues of wider social and environmental concern, that seek to influence company action and that challenge existing patterns of power." The Society for Human Resources says, "Employee activism is often associated with actions that employees take in response to specific societal events or company policies and practices. These actions often take the form of public protests, social media campaigns, information distribution to fellow employees, and more."

Employers need to hear retail employee activists because the employees are wary of companies that make statements with no follow-through, whether on corporate social responsibility or workplace issues. A global research study conducted by The Workforce Institute of UKG found a large gap between employee voice and employer action, leading to disengaged workers, higher turnover, and hindered business performance. The study found that employees with a heightened sense of engagement (92 percent) are much more likely to feel heard than highly disengaged employees (30 percent). Activist employees embrace social and work issues and are willing to take action to be heard, like forming a union.

Managers at the Alvarez and Marsal consumer and retail group wrote in Why raising the minimum wage is no longer enough to draw in retail workers, "In a world where Gen Z and millennials comprise nearly 50% of the full-time U.S. workforce, it is becoming increasingly clear…that retailers don't understand the nuanced motivations of their younger employees. In a Gallup survey, Gen Z and millennials revealed that they most value employers who care about employees' well-being. Furthermore, younger generations want to be "appreciated for their unique contributions" and expect to be coached and developed in the workplace."

Many retailers are increasing wages but remain vulnerable to unions because pay rates are only one issue that retail employee activists care about. This disconnection leads to employees starting corporate campaigns, forming or joining a union, staging strikes and walkouts, and taking other negative actions to get attention.

value of employee voice

How Valuing Employee Voice helps Companies Maintain a Direct Connection

Traditionally, retail companies expressed mission and values as statements of fact without engaging employees. Unfortunately, there is often a gap between company values and what employees experience in the workplace. When organizational leaders do not recognize the authentic or real culture, they cannot take steps to change it. When employees do not internalize the values, they do not develop a direct connection to the workplace. It is one reason so many retail employees are willing to take their grievances public, join the Resignation Nation or start a union organizing campaign. The employees are not worried about consequences because they lack a connection to the workplace.

Employee listening & feedback systems are communication systems that capture the employee experience - the real one and not the one management believes exists. They:

  • They provide the opportunities to receive and deliver feedback in real-time, so crucial in a business environment in which change is swift
  • Develop a strong employee voice and gather employee feedback to build direct connections between employees and management, negating the employee's need for outside assistance from a labor union
  • Deliver data and information that Human Resources can utilize across the talent management spectrum: recruiting, hiring, training and development, job design, workplace safety protocols, compensation schedules, benefits, recognition and reward systems, incentive programs, and so on.
  • Equip retail employees with a voice that makes them better able to handle company changes, periods of high activity during the holidays, supply chain shortages, and even customer aggression because they know they have communication channels for expressing workplace concerns

Retail Industry: Are Your Listening Systems Working? 

On Project HR, Karin Hurt and David Dye, authors of Courageous Cultures, discuss the common barriers to workplace courage (willingness to speak up) that people experience.

  • Past negative experiences like being punished for speaking up
  • A belief contributions and ideas are not considered valuable
  • An open-door policy that always requires the employee to bravely approach the leader rather than the leader approaching the employee
  • A belief that not speaking up will avoid trouble

Hurt and Dye recommend building a courageous culture by training leaders in communication to ask straightforward, targeted questions and invite new ideas. Managers and supervisors provide the paths for expression. For example, instead of asking for ideas, ask a courageous specific question, like "What is the number one thing that is frustrating our customers right now?" The idea is to develop a culture in which everyone feels free to answer questions, advocate for customers, and contribute to problem-solving.

The listening & feedback systems in the retail industry need improvement, as evidenced by the frequent union elections and protests taking place. There are growing numbers of instances in which workers at large retailers walk off the job. Listen to the employee Adam Ryan, a Target worker and liaison for the independent employee coalition Target Workers Unite. He said during an interview on CNBC, "We were constantly told before the pandemic that we don't have real jobs. We're not real workers. We shouldn't expect things like health care — or even respect or dignity."

The common refrain of retail employees is always "management does not listen to us" and “management does not understand our jobs.” Kate Harris, a retail sales specialist at the recently unionized REI Co-Op in Manhattan, says she wants more understanding from leaders. "Our managers and higher management throughout the rest of the co-op don't necessarily understand what it is to actually be on the floor for 8½ hours a day for 32 or 40 hours a week." In other words, management does not understand the real employee experience because they do not listen and get feedback.

Retail employees want a say in company day-to-day operations because policies and procedures most impact them.

How to Implement Effective Employee Listening & Feedback Systems for Your Organization

Understanding the importance of listening & feedback to employee engagement, what is the next step? Giving employees a voice in a structured manner is key to a successful system. Without structure, it is not likely much will change.

  • Identify the points in the employee lifecycle where feedback is obtainable on a consistent basis, including recruitment, hiring, training, and exit interviews
  • Conduct an employee survey for fact-finding that helps with the selection of listening and feedback channels
  • Select the listening channels and tools appropriate for the company and its workforce
  • Select the feedback channels, like surveys, productivity apps like Slack, face-to-face meetings, etc. to implement
  • Train leaders on utilization of the listening & feedback channels and on engaging employees in-person, i.e., retail floor chats, meetings, etc.
  • Collect feedback data from listening platforms and utilize technologies for data analysis that drives well-informed business decisions
  • Determine the appropriate actions based on the feedback and data analysis
  • Utilize a feedback loop

People expect variety in the ways they can share their opinions and perspectives, and there is a wide variety. Some of the employee listening & feedback system tools and actions include:

  • Team feedback sessions
  • Digital focus groups
  • Townhall meetings (virtual if necessary)
  • Suggestion boxes
  • Periodic surveys, annual, periodic, employee lifecycle event-based surveys, 360 surveys, etc.
  • Polls
  • Online conversations (group and one-on-one)
  • Online employee-focused communication platforms, like an online suggestion box, website, etc.
  • Social media listening
  • Meetings in which everyone is encouraged to speak up
  • Stop and chat sessions with employees at their work location or via online visits
  • Periodic 1-to-1 check-ins with each employee
  • Team collaboration platforms
  • Employee apps
  • Crowdsourcing (cross-functional employee advisory group) in which a group of employees offers opinions, perspectives, and information on the workplace in general or in response to an issue uncovered through employee feedback, like survey results
  • Reverse mentoring, in which frontline workers mentor senior leaders
  • Employee Resource Groups

Upon implementation of the system, explain the reasoning for the tools to employees and the goals. This approach improves leadership transparency and sends a message that management values every employee's voice. Moving from feedback to action is as crucial as collecting feedback.

Apple store workers are a good example. Apple pays a competitive wage of $17-$30 per hour, an above-average rate in the retail industry. Yet, workers formed the Apple Together group, which includes any Apple employee. The employees sent a letter to the CEO, stating, "Hundreds of us have documented our stories of abuse, discrimination, and harassment. Hundreds of us have documented reporting our stories through internal channels and receiving no relief." Now workers at eight Apple stores are trying to unionize, and at least two of the store employee groups are backed by national labor unions.

The one-and-done annual survey is inadequate in the proactive era of positive employee relations and the volatile retail industry. Labor unions are always ready to find new issues - whatever it takes to engage employees. A company is not likely to meet every expectation that employees have, but explaining why is crucial. There is no guarantee every employee will accept the explanation, but transparency builds a culture of trust, improves job satisfaction, and improves employee retention. Leaders need to be willing to listen to retail employee concerns and take a position on them, even if they see them as beyond a workplace concern.

About the Author Scott Purvis

Scott Purvis is a Chief Operating Officer, HR Executive, and Industrial Organizational Psychologist with a 15+ year record of driving and accelerating positive business/workforce transformations in rapid growth, restructuring, and M&A conditions.

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