Giving Employees A Voice

Newsroom employees voted to unionize within 24 hours after the Los Angeles Times publisher and CEO was put on unpaid leave status, due to NPR revealing there were two sexual harassment lawsuits against him. An employee statement said the paper has been a voice for readers since 1881, and "Finally, [we] can be a proud voice for ourselves." Giving employees a "voice" is a common union campaign theme because people who believe management isn't listening to their concerns or taking their feedback seriously feel powerless. When people feel powerless, resentment festers until someone comes along, like a union representative saying, "You have a right to be heard. We can help you get a voice in your workplace, and your employer will have to listen."

"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.

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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.

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.

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.

If you don't give today's employees a voice, the workforce is likely to have a low engagement level, and the union is going to see an opportunity. Connecting with employees via a two-way communication system is a key element in developing positive employee relations and making unions unnecessary.

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.

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