Creating a climate of voice benefits everyone. Every voice matters, regardless of difference, and fosters a culture where healthy debate, respectful dialogue and constructive challenge are welcomed. In this update we explore how employers can create an environment where employee voices are listened to, acted upon and positive outcomes arise as a result.
What is employee voice?
There is much written about speak up and whistleblowing policies – both of which are important given the requirement by regulators and indication of good corporate governance. However, employee voice is not just about raising a concern. It is also about employees feeling positively engaged and empowered to put forward new ideas, suggest different ways of doing things and enhance workplace productivity as a result.
Key benefits to enabling employees to have a voice at work
Fostering a working environment where employees are heard can benefit the organisation in a number of ways. Here are just a few:
1. It unlocks diversity to create an inclusive culture – There are a variety of business benefits to a diverse workforce that is empowered to use their voices – better creativity, diversity of thought, increased innovation, improved attraction and retention of employees, smarter decision making and increased productivity, to name a few. Different employee voices in the workplace unlock diversity to generate a sense of inclusion and greater belonging. But it is not easy to do and requires effort. Research from the FSCB (Financial Services Culture Board) tells us that ethnicity has an effect on the likelihood of employees remaining silent. Black and Asian people who had concerns they wanted to raise were 13% and 8% more likely to remain silent than White people. Where there is asymmetry in voice with disproportionate silence from specific communities, this can result in an absence of diverse contributions and a choir of 'missing voices'.
2. It's all about the culture – The benefits of a positive workplace culture are outlined in our previous articles which you can access here and here. It is important to note that active listening is one of the most powerful ways to shape and develop company culture. Tone from the top is critical when it comes to culture, but if there is limited or no two-way communication organisations will struggle to embed real change. How do leaders know if initiatives are working? Is the impact of actions on stakeholders as leadership intended? Is there a consistency of interpretation and adoption by employees and other key stakeholder groups? Answers to these questions will only be known if a two-way dialogue takes place and is acted upon.
3. It creates a sense of value – Each and every employee has a valued role to play in an organisation. By ensuring everyone has a voice and is listened to, each employee will better understand their role and impact on the bigger picture leading to boosted job satisfaction and staff morale. According to research by TinyPulse, employees that don't feel comfortable giving upward feedback are 16% less likely to stay at their companies. Being heard is intrinsically linked to feeling valued. Taking on board employee opinions and giving fair and transparent recognition is a key component of attracting and retaining employees.
4. It drives innovation – Diversity of thought helps to boost innovation. By opening up the floor to the wider workforce, leaders can invite and have access to more sources of new ideas and suggestions on the different ways to conduct business.
What steps can employers take to help enable employees have a voice?
Employers should think about hosting a number of different engagement platforms which will appeal to some, most, or all employees at any one time and encourage them to use their voice, either to raise concerns and/or share new ideas:
Elected employee forums –Dialogic forums allow employees to feedback in a safe and structured way. This is even more powerful when employees volunteer to champion and act as advocates of creating safe spaces with the active support and input of senior leadership at the forums.
Group feedback technology – Intranets, online suggestion boxes, apps – the list goes on – can all help facilitate employees being heard from disparate locations and workplace sites. The additional advantage of using technology means it is easier to capture the data surrounding the suggestions and to identify key themes and problem areas quickly.
One-to-ones – The power of individual voices should not be underestimated and the creation of space for private and confidential conversations is critical. Line managers should be trained on how to listen and respond to their team members to ensure ideas, opinions and suggestions are actively heard on a one-to-one basis and responded to appropriately.
Pulse surveys – Pulse surveys provide a quick and easy touch point with the workforce to monitor views and opinions on key matters in real time. The data gathered provides data-driven insight for the employer on what is working well and where improvement is needed.
Organisation wide meetings – Many organisations hold town hall type meetings where strategies are shared with the workforce and employees are encouraged to provide feedback. Sessions such as this provide a real opportunity for employees to recognise how their voice contributes to the strategic direction of the business, openly communicate on recent performance and have clarity on what's on the horizon.
The art of listening - Research carried out by the FSCB showed that when they asked employees who had raised concern at work about their experience, less than half reported feeling that they were listened to and taken seriously. For a true voice climate to prosper employers need to ensure that employees' voices are listened to and safe spaces are created where ideas can be exchanged and actively taken on board.
Action or no action – communication is key - In order to build a community of openness and trust it is important for employers to take demonstrable steps to action employees' suggestions where appropriate. Without action employees will feel unheard and undervalued and will soon become disengaged with the whole process. Whether or not a suggestion is adopted, it crucial for the employer to communicate with the employee.
Confidentiality/anonymity - Employers should give consideration as to whether employees may want to provide feedback on a confidential and/or anonymous basis. Mechanisms should be set up so that this is an option too. As a culture of openness and trust is developed there may be less call for confidential/anonymous feedback but it should always be an option to mitigate the risk of employees being silent.
Existing engagement mechanisms in organisations
The very purpose of a trade union is to regulate the relationship between workers and their employers. Traditionally trade unions have played an important role in ensuring employees are listened to. The proportion of UK employees who were trade union members fells to 23.1% in 2021 from 23.7% in 2020. Although membership has declined since the 1980s, a number of organisations are still represented by trade unions. 2022 saw widespread industrial action with the Office for National Statistics reporting the highest number of days lost to strike action in more than a decade, with 843,000 days lost in December 2022. The industrial unrest highlights the importance of developing effective ways to engage with the workforce and with trade unions. Although unions are often portrayed in the press as disrupting business, in fact unions and employers have a common purpose – to encourage the success of the organisation – with the resultant job security for employees and obvious rewards for the employer. When unionised employers should work on creating a healthy working relationship with the union to help ensure employee voices are heard to a positive effect.
The Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004 ("ICE Regulations") allow employees of large and medium sized employers (employing 50 or more employees) to join together to require their employer to set up a structured mechanism for informing and consulting employees about economic and employment-related matters. As stated in the Good Work Plan the Taylor Review highlighted that for work to be fair and decent, workers must have a voice. High levels of employee engagement improve organisational performance and boost productivity. Matthew Taylor considered the ICE Regulations and underlined their role in ensuring that employee voice is heard and has impact. According to the Good Work Plan experts have identified that voice arrangements result in a higher level of organisational commitment.
Leaders should think carefully about how they frame their organisational whistleblowing or speak up policies and processes. Is the framework in place to tick a compliance box and provide a one-way mechanism for employees to report concerns? Or is it a missed opportunity that can harness the power of employee voice and foster a dynamic and inclusive culture where dialogue, discussion and two-way communication are actively encouraged and valued. Higher levels of engagement, employee satisfaction and business performance are clear indicators of a workplace where voice matters.
The sound of silence should not be seen as an endorsement that there are no issues, concerns or ideas within the organisation. Many employees don't speak up for a variety of reasons – they worry about retribution, that their concern/suggestion will not be dealt with or that they will not be taken seriously. Employers without open ears face the risk of a high turnover of staff, grievances and claims – not to mention the missed opportunity of all the ideas and suggestions not captured. Overall productivity suffers. A culture of voice is not just a nice to have, but a must have for business – it's time to start listening.
Please see our legal update Workplace culture: What does good look like? for more information on promoting a positive workplace culture.
At DWF, we can provide:
- Workplace culture audits to stress test organisational culture, identify potential behavioural risk exposure and develop risk-based remedial interventions that will actively mitigate culture risk.
- Independent reviews and/or design of ethical conduct and business integrity frameworks aligned to corporate purpose, valued behaviours and regulatory compliance requirements (including ethical decision-making and ethical business scenario analysis).
- Inclusion and diversity strategic design, development and implementation including dashboards, data and metrics, and global good practice.
- Tailored education programmes via Responsibility (our ESG educational programme) to embed cultural change.
If you would like further information please get in touch via the contacts below or follow this link to download our brochure.