Rethinking Employee Engagement and the Employee Voice

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.  

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.  

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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About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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