Last reviewed 18 May 2017

Human Resources (HR) has a responsibility to make sure leaders are listening — not just hearing employees, says Dawn Nolan.

“Employee voice” is in the spotlight as more employers are waking up to the fact that building trust depends on leadership making more effort to listen to its employees. Equally, organisations realise they must really engage with employees to drive innovation and increase productivity and that comes from giving employees a voice.

In fact, over half of organisations report they are taking steps to improve employee voice, according to the CIPD’s 2017 HR Outlook Survey.

What is employee voice?

So what exactly do we mean by strong employee voice? Engage for Success, the government-backed movement defines this as: “Essentially, where an organisation sees its people not as the problem, rather as central to the solution, to be involved, listened to, and invited to contribute their experience, expertise and ideas.”

While employee voice is not new, the concept is evolving: “It’s growing in complexity,” explains Louisa Baczor, Research Associate at the CIPD and author of its new factsheet on employee voice which explores the mechanisms for voice initiatives and the legislative background to it. “It’s about organisations having a trustful, open relationship where you hear different voices and take action. Hidden, untapped voices need to be thought about,” she warns.

“There’s a notion that voice is becoming more individualised. Employees are not using collective channels as much,” says Baczor. “This is being influenced by social media as individuals are getting used to having a say. At the same time, there’s been a decline in trade union membership.”

Notably, Baczor says: “It’s become more prominent due to recent political campaigns where employees have been suppressed or voices alienated and led to dangerous negative outcomes.”

Specifically, she points out that the recent cases of gig economy workers challenging organisations such as Uber on their employment rights have highlighted the potential negative consequences of not giving people a voice. “It’s damaging to trust, motivation, they are less likely to be loyal and not feel valued. A lot of corporate scandals might not have happened if people had been listened to.”

And its potential for avoiding disasters is echoed by Engage for Success: “Often employee voice is the cheapest smoke alarm you can ever install in an organisation.”

Yet companies face challenges around how they give employees a meaningful voice, especially now there are new forms of work with more remote workers. Increasingly, companies are using digital channels as a solution, enabling workers to dial in to events and have their say via digital forums.

To start with, Baczor recommends that you ask: “What is the purpose and value of voice?” Those companies with an effective voice “are prioritising voice as a fundamental right, a way of enhancing engagement and performance and think of it as a fundamental value”, she says. “They are treating individuals as humans, rather than widgets and really listening to their opinion. Companies leading the way recognise this.”

That said, Baczor also acknowledges that for some companies “lip service is going on”. “The mechanisms are there but are they hearing and listening to their employees? You can have the best mechanisms in place but if you’re not listening to them then it’s pointless.”

At the moment, employee voice is seen as a “nice to have”. “Companies understand its ethical value but when it comes to practice it is not prioritised,” she adds.

One success story is HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)’s Building our Future roadshows — reporting progress on change initiatives and allowing staff to access senior leaders directly with questions and problems. (Read more in the CIPD’s Landing Transformative Change report.) HMRC also has Fresh Thinking, an online suggestion gathering system, where anyone can make suggestions, comment and vote for ideas.

Releasing Voice for Sustainable Business Success produced by the Involvement and Participation Agency (IPA) and Tomorrow’s Company helpfully includes a toolkit for HR practitioners to understand voice in their organisation. Basically, a series of questions HR needs to ask about the culture, behaviours, structures and processes needed for employees to express their voice. These include the following.

  • To what extent is the senior leadership committed to gaining and acting on the views of employees?

  • Feeding back and responding to the views of employees is vital. How do you do this?

  • How do you measure the difference employees’ views and ideas make in your organisation?

The report also describes what conditions have to be in place for voice “to flourish” and includes case studies from Prudential and Sainsbury’s.

Essentially, it’s about making sure your organisation is really listening and responding — rather than just asking employees for their opinions. So how effective are organisations at this? Towers Watson’s research into the features of financially high performing organisations found more than 70% of employees in these organisations believe that management acts on survey feedback — much higher than the UK average of around 50%.

Continuous feedback

The trend towards “always-on feedback” means there are more feedback tools available that can capture people’s views, insights and solutions quickly, before problems escalate. GE and Team Sky are among those organisations capturing employee feedback more frequently using web and mobile channels — with apps available on employees’ phones.

One of the benefits of implementing a continuous feedback model is that it can boost engagement.

It’s not without its challenges though, warns employee feedback software provider Questback: “It needs to be integrated with overall Voice of the Employee programmes to deliver real benefits that will increase engagement, insight and overall business performance.” Also, you need to be “agile and responsive enough to act quickly on feedback received through this channel — in real-time, not in the old ‘annual survey’ way of doing things”.

The immediacy of social media can make leaders feel daunted and under pressure about how to respond. Still, “organisations should be encouraging leaders to respond to comments — not ignoring them — and getting senior leaders to answer them”, says Baczor. The IPA and Acas report Going Digital? Harnessing Social Media for Employee Voice offers some good practice for employers.

“If your social media channel is transparent it can really enhance employee voice but if employees still feel like they are being controlled by management or won’t be responded to it can have negative effects,” adds Baczor.

Equally, hosting a listening event, for example, but not subsequently taking action, could lead to disengagement. In other words, you should only encourage voice initiatives when leaders are genuinely prepared to listen and act on outcomes.

So how else can HR get leaders to really listen to their employees? Ensure they have appropriate training to understand the processes involved in voice channels such as unions and staff forums. You can also support them in developing skills such as communication and active listening or training in social media.

Baczor also points out that HR should be encouraging line managers to have open conversations. “It’s about asking the right questions, even as simple as ‘How are you feeling?’”

Building the case for employee voice

“More leaders recognise that they need to prioritise employee voice but it comes down to culture. It’s about tackling culture as well as leadership attitudes — if they can see the benefit they can be persuaded of the value.” On that point, she recommends that HR conduct pilot trials of voice initiatives and measure outcomes to create a case for them. You can read about Co-op’s recent Introducing Colleague Voice pilot here.

Although companies should be measuring how successful employee voice initiatives are there isn’t much evidence that this is currently happening. Baczor acknowledges this “gap” but says creating clear metrics and putting these in place is important.

“Voice initiatives should be owned by the whole company but they should be enabled by HR, who should put metrics in place to measure the outcomes,” says Baczor.

Developing an inclusive approach to hearing the voices of all workforce groups is the key. So how can employers achieve this? “Don’t just focus on one or two mechanisms. Have a diverse mix and offer different ways to have a say,” says Baczor. That way you can ensure disadvantaged and disconnected groups have access to mechanisms of expressing voice.

“Make employees aware of different opportunities through regular communications, invite them to come along to focus groups or a town hall-style meeting, engage with them through the intranet.” Importantly though, while HR can help to encourage involvement, she warns that these should not be imposed. “Accept that some people just come to work to have a job. It’s about having the freedom to engage.”

Aside from getting the right mechanisms in place, HR can genuinely support leaders in being authentic in their communications so employees are more likely to respond. The challenge is for more organisations to move from just hearing employees to really listening and taking action. Only when employees feel leadership is really listening, will you benefit from increased performance.

Ultimately, voice has the potential to deliver long-term business success; improving decision-making and driving innovation. To help make this happen, don’t inadvertently derail efforts to build trust and transparency by falling short of taking action. Instead, make sure you follow up on voice initiatives and communicate their value in driving engagement.