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Employee voice: Building a foundation for success

Lee Smith

11 Mar 2023
Employee Engagement
Employee Experience
Employee Voice

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Ensuring your employees have a voice enables them to take part in dialogue across your organisation about matters that they care about. If you have a strong employee voice, conversations will take place, which are genuinely two-way. This provides an opportunity to positively impact the organisation, from the jobs employees do, to the organisational culture, products and services, to 'the way it feels around here’.
In their influential 2009 UK Government-backed report, Engaging for Success, David MacLeod and Nita Clarke identified employee voice as one of four ‘strategic enablers’ of employee engagement, describing it in the following way:
“Employees’ views are sought out; they are listened to and see that their opinions count and make a difference. They speak out and challenge when appropriate. A strong sense of listening and of responsiveness permeates the organisation, enabled by effective communication.”
In the decade or so since then more evidence has emerged to underline the enormous value and impact of organisational listening to employee engagement and experience. 

Done well, employee voice is much more than an annual engagement survey – it’s something that permeates every aspect or organisational life, from the way meetings are run, to the way leaders and line managers interact with their direct reports; from the way issues and complaints are dealt with, to the actions that flow (or not) from the findings of employee research.

Building a foundation for success: five top tips

At first glance this appears to be a simple and straightforward concept, which should be easy to implement. The reality is often different – in fact, there are several prerequisites an organisation should have in place to ensure employee voice is authentic and effective, rather than a mere tick-box exercise. 

1. Create a culture of trust

Employees won’t express their ideas or contribute to a conversation if trust is low. They won’t speak up if they feel that their contribution is subject to negative consequences in any way. Employees need to feel safe to speak their minds without fear of any negative consequences. You only have to consider the need to reinforce the confidentiality of engagement surveys, or focus groups for example, to see that trust is often difficult to build and all too easy to lose.  

Creating that level of trust takes time, of course, but it can be established more quickly through specific interventions and circumstances - like ‘ask me anything’ sessions with the top team or the appointment of a new CEO, which can signal a new, more open style of leadership.

2. Line managers have a role to play

Line managers not only play a critical role in unlocking engagement, but also building trust within an organisation and helping to facilitate employee voice. A report by IPA and Tomorrow’s Company identified some key characteristics of leadership that they found empower employee voice. They list these as:

  • Openness
  • Good communication
  • Approachability

By recruiting and promoting managers who have these traits, and training all managers in the art of good communication, it is possible to create a strong culture of listening at team level and to ensure individual employees feel they have a voice.

3. Remove blame and remember, no problem is a problem

A case study published as part of the IPA and Tomorrow’s Company report looked at employee voice within the UK-based logistics, supply chain and manufacturing business Unipart. A no blame culture at Unipart helps to mitigate potentially stressful situations and the business introduced a concept that ‘no problem is a problem’.

In Unipart, there is an acknowledgement that rather than avoiding problems, they should be actively sought out as opportunities for improvement. Employees believe that consultation and involvement (another engagement enabler), strengthens their commitment to the site where they work, ensuring success.

4. Get to know your employees… and show you care!

For line managers in particular it is important to learn about employees in a personal capacity – for example, by knowing names, personal interests or family context. Both employees and leaders have found this strengthens loyalty and commitment and in turn they’ll work harder towards shared aims and objectives. It also encourages discussions around any issues with projects or productivity, which can then be collaboratively solved ahead of escalation.

5. Encourage Ownership

The idea that employees are the experts in their area of work supports this form of engagement:

  • At an individual level where people’s ownership of their work is expected to generate voice as employees offer feedback and raise problems with line managers
  • At a team level where teams are expected to take ownership of their work, solve problems and make improvements
  • At a site and divisional level where strong forums are encouraged as a way of management and employees engaging on cross site issues.

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