Employee voice – “ensuring that everyone working in an organisation is able to talk or write about what they see as important”. A vital enabler for business performance.
Here are my top ten reasons for why, and how we should encourage every employee to add their voice to an organisation:
1. People who have found their voice can be more focused about their work.
It sounds simple to say that people need to find their voice but actually this is a lot harder to achieve than it sounds. For various reasons, most people in most organisations do not contribute actively to team or organisational discussions. Even in those organisations using enterprise social networks like Yammer, adoption rates are typically under 10%. For many of these people the main problem is that they do not feel they have anything worthwhile to say. Despite this, my view is that everyone does have a unique contribution to make, but there is a need to help people articulate, shape and then share what they know and think. I often find the same thing writing an article such as this – it is not until I write down what I think that I get to fully and clearly understand what my point is, and I am then able to refine what I want to write. This ambiguity about what we know and believe was not much of an issue in the industrial age but today, in the knowledge economy, is a major barrier to organisational effectiveness. For example, I have heard people refer to Twitter as the production line of the knowledge age, bringing them new learning and knowledge. But if this is the case, then voice is the key production mechanism. Without employee voice, an organisation will not be able to produce the outputs it needs to, in knowledge terms.
2. The capability of employees can be further enhanced by effective HR and management processes, many of which depend on, or can be enhanced by, employee voice.
Recruitment, onboarding, career management, performance management and other aspects of HR are all supported by enhanced voice. For example recruitment advertising will always play a role in any company’s resourcing strategy. However developing employee ambassadors who can discuss and demonstrate the organisation’s employer brand is likely to generate better hires and will do so more effectively and efficiently. Example activities could include promoting opportunities outside the firm and making employee referrals into the organisation. In career management, most organisations recognise that the days of the chess grand master, plotting the movement of talent across the organisational chess board, are well and truly over as organisations have become far too complex for this approach to work. But if employees can be encouraged to talk and write about what they are doing and what they might like to do, career management can be developed to take care of itself, with employees connecting with others in the organisation to manage their own careers. Similar benefits like these exist in most other HR process areas leading to significant potential to boost the capability, or human capital, of employees.
3. Employee voice does not just help develop individual employee capability, but also the employees’ engagement, and retention within the organisation.
Allowing employees to talk openly displays a level of trust which leads to employees feeling more valued and more connected to leaders of an organisation as well as to other employees. This is why the UK’s Engage for Success movement defines employee voice as one of their four main enablers of engagement and there is plenty of evidence on the movement’s website showing how engagement leads to higher productivity, improved innovation and a raft of other benefits.
4. The organisation misses out from a lack of employee voice.
Organisations do not compete just upon the basis of their employees but on the way these employees work together in teams, networks and communities, ie based upon their employees’ social capital, not just each individual’s human capital. Sharing of information through employee voice helps people connect over content they find interesting and to form communities of interest, helping to generate new knowledge. It also helps people identify others with similar interests and passions and to form ‘propersonal’ (professional and personal) relationships with these other individuals. However to generate these benefits, employee voice really needs to be a social voice as well i.e. it must not just be an upwards flow to complement management’s downwards cascade but it should also be truly distributed across the whole organisation, with the bulk of the organisation participating, and each employee able to raise relevant issues with the CEO almost as easily as to the person working next to them.
5. Employee voice articulates and helps shape an organisation’s culture and is a major enabler to cultural change.
We all understand how important culture is but also how difficult it is to define and influence. This disparity between wanting to and being able to shift culture is why the concept has been receiving ever more attention, with Merriam Webster dictionary identifying it as 2014’s word of the year. But actually it is not that hard to change a culture if we get people talking about what they are experiencing. This helps us understand our culture, and gives us something very solid and practical i.e. employees conversations, and the stories which are being told about the organisation, which we can influence and change.
6. Encouraging employees to talk about what they are experiencing also helps when we want to change that experience, because it involves them in the change.
Traditional change management has emphasised a small group of people creating a new future and then persuading everyone else to fall in line. I call it the Borg model of change (‘you will be assimilated!’). Borg based change has never been that pleasant and you could argue that it never really worked at all. But given the death of deference (the fact that people do not tend to look upwards or respond so positively to orders from those in authority) it definitely does not work today. Modern tools and approaches for generating employee voice provide the opportunity for organisations to change much more easily and naturally than has been possible before.
7. It is not only individual employees who will be less productive if they have not found their voice.
Businesses need to build upon the ideas of all of their employees, and potentially beyond. This is why approaches like crowdsourcing and open innovation are becoming so popular and important. So even if most of what employees are talking about is just noise, we need to listen to this if we are going to hear the signals which may spur new advances. Meeting customer needs, innovation, speed of execution, agility – all the qualities prized by most organisations today can be supported by listening to, and encouraging employees to listen to other employees.
8. Enabling people to talk productively internally is a pre-requisite to supporting them to talk in a useful way externally.
Many employees do not like to do this because they do not feel confident about what they should say or whether speaking about the organisation externally would be encouraged. And of course many employers have taken a risk minimisation approach and discouraged or even banned employees from engaging in external communication. But in today’s world where we are no longer in control of our brands (as these have been taken away from us by customers, employees and candidates talking about us on social media) that is no longer a sustainable position. Conversations are already happening, particularly on sites like Glassdoor, and we can either ignore these conversations, or seek to participate in them. We want, or potentially even need, our employees to talk about our organisations and their experiences externally and if this is going to happen we need to get them talking internally first. This gives people practice in doing this, and helps them fine tune their impressions through sharing and hearing back from other employees. It is then a very natural development to encourage employees to contribute to external conversations as well.
9. Another aspect of this is that it helps avoid negative commentary externally.
The amount of negative comments, just like positive ones, is increasing because of social media and this can be quite damaging. My favourite example is, or was, a site called Qinetiqette in which a disgruntled employee of Qinetiq blogged about this firm over a period of several years. Each of their posts generated tens and sometimes close to a hundred comments by other disgruntled employees. This behaviour did not just affect the company’s employer brand but their corporate brand as well – as Qinetiqette would come up in second place in a Google search on Qinetiq. The site has now been removed after Qinetiq trademarked the name Qinetiqette, though it is still available via a search on the Way Back Machine if you want to take a look. This and most other examples of negative employee communication have occurred as a result of not giving employees a voice internally, as this reduces the heat of any discontent, gives the organisation an opportunity to engage with those with negative feelings about the organisation and also supports taking appropriate action to improve things.
10. Of course all this depends on having a positive working environment. A consequence of increased transparency is that we can no longer spin things in our favour so we have to ensure that what we want to be communicated really does exist.
Again, supporting employee voice helps us achieve this by raising positive factors about our organisations which can then be further improved or made more common, and raising negatives which can then be dealt with. In fact employee voice does not just lead to a better broad understanding but to more specific insight through analytics. Particularly if employee voice is linked to an organisation’s values, analytics can be conducted into what employees are talking about, identifying which of the values are referred to most, and which are not, perhaps suggesting those which are stronger or weaker in the organisation, or perhaps how behaviours differ into different parts of the organisation. This gives a firm a much better basis for taking action to influence how things are working
In terms of generating employee voice there are a number of approaches which can be useful, very few grow to be integral.
Giving recognition is a natural expression, the growing sophistication within social recognition taps into this basic natural impulse so well. This is why participation on social recognition systems like Workstars tends to be so much higher than in enterprise social networks. The demand already exists, the positive voice is just surpressed by process, managers or reward mechanics.
Social recognition can bypass managers, which demonstrates that leaders trust employees. Social recognition is honest, and living proof about what the organisation is doing right, it gives employees a voice from which there is no looking back.