Employee Voice – The Key For Better Employee Engagement

"You Never Listen"

Giving an employee a voice is more than just having employee-employer chats or providing employee feedback opportunities. The reality is that many employees take advantage of these types of engagement opportunities, only to find themselves muttering, "Nothing ever changes around here because management never listens." You aren't giving your employees a voice with a token suggestion box that's seldom checked when suggestions are never acknowledged or your managers fail to respond to employee feedback through your enterprise's particular communication system. Unfortunately, some employers find out the hard way that token feedback systems lead to unions getting involved.

Employees have a voice when their views are proactively sought, their ideas are actively listened to, they're allowed to challenge the status quo or point out troublesome issues (like sexual harassment) without fear of repercussions, and believe that management is responsive to their needs. Importantly, your managers act on employee feedback. This doesn't mean you give employees everything they request. A responsive organization has a culture of engagement supported by a variety of opportunities for leaders and employees to regularly communicate in a two-way dialogue. Employees are included in the conversation, which could be about benefits, promotion policies, scheduling, upcoming layoffs, operational strategies, reorganizations, and other relevant workplace topics.

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
  • Effectively 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.

Value of Employee Voice - Employee Engagement

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.

Organizations are rethinking employee engagement for very good reasons. The workforce's needs and work are changing so fast that employers spend a lot of time just trying to keep up. They need the full support of their employees in areas like innovation and teamwork, but that requires a strong employee voice. Developing that strong employee voice takes planning, a leadership commitment to enable voice opportunities, and communication infrastructure.  

Some of the changes include a remote or hybrid workforce; digital technology changing how people work, engage, communicate, and collaborate; and a changing mix of workers as Gen Z is now entering the workforce with new and different perspectives on what they expect from work. The impact of these changes is deep and wide on people, and your leaders are probably striving to understand how they can stay connected or reconnect with four generations of employees. Achieving a high level of quality employee engagement has never been more challenging between the workforce changes and labor unions experiencing a resurgence supported by a pro-union federal government.   

Employee Voice is Getting Louder, But Are You Really Listening? 

Gallup often focuses on employee engagement in its surveys because of its importance in employee engagement, attracting and retaining talent, and remaining competitive through innovation and productivity. Organizational leaders know that employee engagement is critical to sustaining success, yet they continue to struggle. Gallup's research found that 85 percent of employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged. Why?  

It's frustrating for employers to increase compensation, expand the benefits package, revamp HR policies to allow more flexibility in work schedules, and conduct regular pulse surveys, and then employees are still not satisfied and have low engagement. Gallup indicates the greatest reason for failed engagement programs is that "Employee engagement is widely considered "an HR thing." It is not owned by leaders, expected of managers, or understood by frontline employees." Rethinking employee engagement includes expanding ownership of the employee voice process. 

Gallup found that meeting employee psychological needs now plays a critical role in employee engagement. These needs include the expected element of ensuring employees have the right materials and equipment to do their best job and feel good about work, but of the 12 elements identified, 11 of them concern communication and employee voice. Leaders should ask their employees if they have real opportunities to deliver their best work every day, are recognized and praised for doing good work and have opportunities to learn and grow. This points to the need to begin rethinking employee engagement. Authorizing a pay raise is just not enough. 

Many of the elements for employee engagement directly address leadership behaviors. For example, does the supervisor care about each employee as a person, encourage development, seriously consider employee opinions, connect the mission to the work employees are doing, and talk to each employee about their progress. The younger employees have expectations that don't mesh with many of the expectations of senior leaders. Handing someone a job description is no longer effective in the Resignation Nation. In the traditional leadership style, employees are supposed to be grateful for a job. In the new paradigm, employees believe management should be grateful that talent is helping the organization succeed. Developing strong employee relationships through coaching and encouraging networking, assisting with career planning, setting clear expectations, advocating for employee ideas, and making people feel like they are valued team members are needed to engage employees today.  

Giving employees a strong voice is necessary for your leaders to successfully leverage their leadership behaviors to build employee relationships. For example, you can't learn about an employee's career plans, innovative ideas, work issues, and sense of belonging without communicating with them, listening closely, and giving and receiving feedback. As more members of the younger generations turn to labor unions to gain a louder voice, you should honestly re-assess leadership behaviors from an employee engagement perspective. While metrics are helpful and useful, they can mask issues and challenges when goals are set too low or used as an end goal without deep analysis and follow-up with people. 

Empowering People to Use Their Voice 

There are a lot of nuances to employee voice which is why applying the traditional perspective of employee engagement is not working well. How do you empower people in your organization? Applying some traditional principles can backfire.  

For example, in the news, there was a young woman who was a software developer. She was given a $20,000 raise and boasted on TikTok, sharing her old and new salary. She was fired for doing so. Younger people are used to sharing everything on social media. They also believe in ultimate management transparency, which includes salary transparency. Needless to say, she was shocked because the employer admitted she had not broken any policies or posted anything that was a security issue. The employer responded that they couldn't trust her in the future. An attorney has recommended she contact a lawyer if she believes she was terminated for talking about her wages which is an NLRA right.   

This event demonstrates the difference between the old vs. new perspectives. Millennials and Gen Z employees view salary transparency as a way to brag on their employer, reduce bias, and accelerate the closing of the wage gap, a social justice issue. The young woman who was terminated was praising her company by sharing her new salary. Senior management obviously viewed transparency as a risk the organization was unwilling to accept.   

How do you empower employees through voice? As you begin rethinking employee engagement, keep in mind there are two parts to the process.  

First, your leaders must ensure all employees have plenty of opportunities to share ideas, solve problems, discuss their work and the workplace culture, and plan their career paths. The workforce is more complex in many organizations since it includes all-remote, hybrid, or all onsite structures. A well-designed digital communication system is crucial to inclusiveness. Pulse surveys and communication apps are useful, but the difference now is that employees also want human interactions – especially Gen Z. It's too easy to rely on data analytics and forget human-centeredness. Empowerment includes your managers and frontline leaders regularly finding various ways to interact through face-to-face and group interactions and virtual meetings for those employees who never work onsite.  

employee voice

Going Proactive 

Second, you have to convince employees to use the opportunities to speak up. The authors of the book Courageous Cultures discuss FOSU or the fear of speaking up in an IRI Consultants Project HR podcast. Employees who are fearful of consequences if they speak up about workplace issues are not going to utilize opportunities to share issues. Employees who don't believe their leaders seriously listen to anything they say aren't going to bother to express their voice. The employees and the organization are hurt because new ideas and solutions to problems are not shared. Your employees don't see themselves as team members.  

As described in the IRI Consultants blog Giving Employees a Voice, "Employees have a voice when their views are proactively sought, their ideas are actively listened to, they're allowed to challenge the status quo or point out troublesome issues (like sexual harassment) without fear of repercussions, and believe that management is responsive to their needs. Importantly, your managers act on employee feedback. 

The keyword is "proactively." Announcing that a new digital communication tool is available to all employees is woefully inadequate to meeting employee psychological needs for enhanced employee engagement. In a courageous culture, you proactively encourage and capture the employee voice 

  • Ask employees questions about their past experiences, ideas, and perspectives. 
  • Hold conversations with employees about their aspirations. 
  • Ask employees about possible innovations in work design and flows, customer services, and product designs based on their knowledge of customers. 
  • Follow-up on suggestions and ideas. 
  • Recognize and reward employees who share ideas and problem solving, sharing their successes with the whole organization. 
  • Give a clear understanding of expectations and how those expectations are aligned with the organization's mission. 

Pulse surveys are good tools, and meetings remain useful, but do you know what you are missing out on? Are your employees talking about policies, procedures, ideas, personal perspectives, and grievances when your leaders aren't around to hear what they say? Do you know what your employees really care about and the issues they care most about. Are they not sharing them with leadership because they believe:  

  • They won't get any useful feedback and/or 
  • There will be repercussions if management doesn't like what they hear and/or 
  • Management doesn't really care about employees and has little interest in them holistically  

In Employee Voice in Healthcare, leadership rounding is on the list of communication steps a company can deploy. This concept applies to every business in every industry because your managers and senior leaders can walk around the business and talk to any employee chosen randomly. But what this approach does is make it possible to witness people working in their workplace element and to talk to employees at all levels. As companies go through the process of rethinking employee engagement, they are realizing many employees – especially those at the frontline – are not included in communications with any regularity.  

This is a basic principle of creating an environment where unions are simply unnecessary today. Frontline employees have ideas and issues, but they often never make it past the immediate supervisor. It's one reason there has been an uprising of frontline and entry-level workers who are unionizing– baristas, casino workers, restaurant workers, customer service representatives, retail workers, hotel workers, healthcare housekeepers, and distribution center employees feel ignored.  

Listen AND Follow Up

Giving employees a voice also doesn't mean your managers abdicate their decision-making responsibilities. They still make decisions but make them after considering employee needs, preferences, issues, and suggestions. Effective leaders are always willing to listen, but always follow up. The amount of time dedicated to each suggestion depends on its seriousness. Employees voicing concerns over a manager who is discriminating when assigning work, sexually harassing female staff members, or giving favored employees the most desirable projects or work schedules must be taken seriously. Otherwise, your employees are much more likely to seek union assistance.

There are many ways to create opportunities for employees to have a voice. Suggestion "boxes" can be actual boxes or a software system enabling private communication. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) programs enable employees to raise workplace issues without going through costly litigation or bureaucratic government agencies. Some companies hold monthly CEO "let's talk" sessions, encouraging employees to bring up any topic of interest.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), employee advisory groups, focus groups, including a diversity of employees on worker-management teams that address workplace problems and periodic brainstorming sessions are other suggestions. Appealing to younger generations of workers are activities like "hack days" that allow them to step away from their regular work to present any creative idea for co-worker feedback, promoting innovation and collaboration. You could hold a quarterly HR hack day during which employees share ideas about improving the workplace and workforce engagement.

LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT Simple, Powerful, Effective

Leaders Need to Use Their Voice 

Do your employees believe they are heard? Even when your leaders ask for their contributions, do employees believe your leaders are listening? Do your leaders use their voice to promote employee voice? What obstacles are in the way for your leaders? There is a disconnect between workers thinking their company doesn't want to hear their ideas and leaders believing they send a message they want ideas.  

Silence causes problems. It prevents innovation, shields weak ideas that slip through, and allows errors to be made. In a courageous organizational culture, managers and supervisors invite people to tell their stories, especially stories that inspire, like standing up for others or bravely sharing an out-of-the-box idea or pointing out discrimination. If you don't ask, employees often won't tell. Your leaders must be vocal, active listeners, and willing to hear good and bad feedback. From this perspective, your leaders need to use their voice in ways that support the psychological needs of employees. In a courageous culture where leaders promote courage in employees, they: 

  • Share their stories 
  • Listen to others with respect 
  • Operate on values more than procedures or "rules," sharing what matters like trust and honesty 
  • Help employees innovate  
  • Are clear that new ideas are encouraged, and there are no repercussions for speaking up 
  • Support diversity, inclusion, and belonging 
  • Persistently ask a lot of questions because it can convince employees to share their ideas they might not share otherwise 
  • Welcome feedback and express gratitude 

Feedback is the very foundation of employee engagement through employee voice. If employees speak up and are ignored, the employee-employer relationship will remain weak.  

The Pseudo-Voice 

One fact can't be ignored: When employees are given a strong voice, there will be those who use it to cause the organization trouble. In many of these cases, disgruntled employees believe their employer has given them what researchers call a pseudo voice. The pseudo voice exists when employees believe managers aren't interested in what employees have to say. This upsets people and perpetuates low employee engagement. It can also lead to employees using their voice to purposefully cause conflict to prove their point, like publicly complaining about work schedules and threatening unionization.   

Pseudo voice won't exist when your leaders are sincere about developing high employee engagement. That leaves employees who enjoy conflict. They are prime candidates for promoting issues in the workplace and collaborating with labor unions. They use their NLRA employee rights to push for union organizing on the belief that the employer doesn't listen to or care about their needs. Or they go online and discuss what an awful workplace culture exists, impeding your efforts to become or remain an employer of choice. The voice opportunities are perceived as deceptive practices. Even regular pulse surveys are viewed as a tool for managers to say, "See, employees have a voice, but management doesn't follow through." 

Conflict in the workplace can develop quietly at first as employees talk among themselves. Eventually, it erupts. So one element of giving employees a strong voice is training leaders on conflict resolution involving difficult employees.   

employee engagement

Think of all Employees as Professional Relationships 

Though professional relationships aren't defined as mutually dependent employee-employer relationships, they can help you rethink employee engagement and employee voice. You can nurture positive employee relationships on the same foundation of principles and goals as developing professional relationships. It's a new approach to rethinking employee engagement.  

Enable employees to influence ideas and in decision-making 

  • Be open to new viewpoints and new perspectives 
  • Recognize there are mutual benefits and mutual value to be gained for leaders, employees, and the organization 
  • Develop a shared vision of what to accomplish 
  • Develop new networks of resources 
  • Increase connections in the workplace 
  • Improve organizational communication 
  • Become role models for voice and develop employee role models 

When you approach employees as valued resources for new ideas, more diverse perspectives, and sources of innovation, the employee-leader relationship is transformed. Value is exchanged. This perspective on employee engagement is especially important to Millennials and Gen Z, who are not willing to remain silent any longer.  

Capturing the Employee Voice

Technology also plays an important role in giving employees a voice. The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology named the top 10 workplace trends in 2017, and one was "capturing the voice of the employee." The prediction said that employers will focus on collecting more frequent employee feedback by using innovations to capture that feedback and taking action to enhance employee engagement based on the results. Suggestions included taking employee surveys that include qualitative and quantitative measures, continuous listening/pulse surveys, and examination of passive data on employee opinions and behaviors.

Using video, web and eLearning tools are additional tools for giving employees a voice by engaging them in the company's programs, processes, and policies. You can also use mobile apps to keep the communication going 24/7 and technologies like Facebook Live to ensure employees have unlimited opportunities to ask questions.

Honesty and Clarity 

When employees believe they don't have a voice, they are going to turn to the union in the pro-union environment. On June 15, 2022, the National Labor Relations Board issued revised statistics for the Fiscal Year period October 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022. Union representation increased 58 percent compared to the first three quarters of the prior fiscal year. The total number of petitions filed in FY 2022 exceeded those filed in FY 2021 by May 2022. Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) increased by 16 percent.  

In summary, employees believing they don't have a voice include: 

  • Not having an employee voice. 
  • Having an employee voice but not using it because management doesn't listen anyway. 
  • Having an employee voice and believing management listens, but managers never incorporate what they hear into decision-making. 

While rethinking employee voice, remember the crucial qualities that leaders must instill in communication processes to promote employee engagement are honesty and clarity, supported by a solid plan that includes opportunities for digital and in-person communication. Meeting the psychological needs of Millennials and Gen Z is gaining importance as approximately 10,000 Baby Boomers retire each year.   

Your leaders must care about people as valued resources and not cogs in a wheel churning out work. Employee engagement is ongoing, and success depends on making the employee voice a core value of the organizational culture. The year 2023 is only months away now. Getting employee voice established now can carry you into the future. 

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