Employee voice: on mute or mission critical?

In this episode of the Acas Podcast, we take a big-picture look at employee voice – why it matters now and what we need to do to strengthen it.

We're joined by:

  • Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC)
  • Paul Nowak, deputy general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC)
  • Gill Dix, head of policy at Acas

We discuss:

  • what good voice really looks like
  • what mechanisms workplaces need to harness it
  • what happens when they do – or do not

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Episode notes

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Sarah Guthrie: Welcome to the Acas Podcast. Today we are looking at the big picture and panning out to look at employee voice. What is it? What role can it play in making our workplaces better? And how can it play that in building back better after and during coronavirus? So it's big picture, meaty discussion for those interested in shaping the world of work.

I'm here with Gill Dix who is head of policy at Acas and we're joined today by special guests Paul Nowak, who is deputy general secretary of the TUC and Neil Carberry, who is chief executive of the REC. Neil and Paul have both been really heavily involved in shaping the world of work through their organisations, but also as their role as Acas Council members. So it's great to have you here with us today to have this discussion.

Paul Nowak: Hi Sarah.

Neil Carberry: Hi Sarah.

Sarah: So to kick us off, employee voice. Gill, I wondered if you could start off by describing what it is that we're talking about when we use words like employee voice?

Gill Dix: Yes, Sarah, thanks, and it's good to be here on the podcast. Yeah, I agree the idea of employee voice is a slightly abstract term. It's actually quite a simple, essentially, a simple idea. It's about workers basically being able to have their say at work.

But here comes the tricky bit, that having this say has to be part of a dialogue, I think. And that's really what makes for good employee voice. Now that can be, sort of, through organised voice. And we generally tend to term that collective voice and most commonly talk about the trade union movement, or through staff associations. And the focus is really on the impact of that voice on most or all of the workers in that workplace.

But then we also talk about voice being very much an individual right or an individual entitlement, where people just are able to have their say at work, can talk to their managers, can raise their concerns and, really importantly, can share their ideas as well. I think with Paul and Neil here today, it's going to be good to talk most about what we might think of as collective voice. But clearly the two issues do go hand in hand.

Yeah, just a few more words, really, from me before we hear from others, but I was reading an article just the other night, which referred to voice as being mission critical at the moment. And I thought that was interesting. And I think I know what they're talking about, as we live through, rather than emerge from probably, the COVID pandemic, there's a massive shake up in our social and our working life. And I think worker voice is critical at the moment in creating balance and calm and continuity, but ultimately in finding a resolution to how we regained where we were and improve where we were maybe.

I mean, for my mind, voice is and always has been mission critical. But I get what they're saying when they think it's mission critical now, the authors of that paper. I suppose the question is, are we fit for purpose with voice at that point? I know that, you know, if you look back to MacLeod and Clark's work on engagement, voice was one of the levers but was probably the one in, certainly in research that we commissioned, that was the one that was lagging most in its establishment. We hear about voice shallowing out and consultation arrangements being difficult to maintain at a high level. But nonetheless, we are where we are and I think it'd be really interesting to hear from others, where they think the state of employee voice is.

Sarah: So with that question, Paul, where do you see voice showing up at the moment? And how do you think that it can show up better at the moment?

Paul: Well, that's a big question, Sarah. And listen, first of all, you're going to have to excuse me, if you hear background noise, it's the rain bouncing off the roof of my shed, because we're obviously doing this remotely.

But I mean, I think voice covers a whole range of sins and virtues, doesn't it? I mean, for me, the key thing about voice is, it has to be effective voice. And I suppose, you know, it's not enough for people to have a voice. That voice needs to be heard. So it takes different forms in different workplaces, I suppose. It's a truism. But it's important nonetheless, to sort of recognise that, you know, there isn't one size that fits all workplaces, and all sorts of organisations, but I don't care if you're running a corner shop or you're running a multinational company – that idea that you give your staff the opportunity to input into the work that they do, that you listen to their ideas, that you give them a sense that their opinions are valued and rewarded, and that crucially, you act upon that voice, I think is important now.

So as Gill mentioned, I mean, I suppose from a trade union perspective, that's probably normally articulated, Sarah, through, you know, formal recognition agreements with employers through collective bargaining arrangements, and that's common across the public and private sector.

There are obviously non-union workplaces out there as well where there'll be other types of employee voice but I mean, the starting point from my point of view is about it being effective voice and a voice that's heard. You know, we've all worked probably in workplaces or for organisations where employee voice is, you know, put your ideas in the suggestion box or the digital equivalent. To me that's not effective or meaningful voice.

Neil: I think it's very easy for firms to think, you know, this is, it's all about this kind of slightly ubiquitous acronym EVP, employee value proposition, and if we get the employee value proposition right, you know, we'll align what we're asking for from the employees, what we've got to achieve in the business and everything will be lovely. And I mean, it's a slightly naive view of how human beings in the workplace work. And people come to work with diverse and goals for what they want to achieve, they come to work looking for different bits of meaning. As an employer, your job is basically to align that effort with the things that the organisation needs to achieve.

And what that means is that to some extent, conflict in workplaces is inevitable. And that's not a bad thing, you know, differing points of view and different challenges are a driver of innovation, they're a driver of change. But as employers, we have to think about, well, how do you channel that potential for conflict into really positive actions that help employees and help the company prosper? If you don't have a process in the business for thinking about voice and how voice happens, the risk is actually that when it arrives, it arrives in quite destructive ways, which is clearly in no one's interest.

Sarah: So kind of if we were to summarise what voice is, it's actually, put very simply, how do you listen to your people and, as Gill said, create that two way dialogue. And that because workplaces are complex, we have different mechanisms that we can use to do that. And workplaces do that to varying degrees. But if they don't do it, then there's a desire still for voice to be heard. But it doesn't come up in the most constructive ways and will come up as badly handled conflict.

Neil: Yeah, that's exactly my point, which is, you know, we've had a, there are a couple of sort of case examples of where companies have imagined that just because they say things will be a certain way, things will be a certain way. And ultimately, employees will find a way of expressing their views, whether that's dissatisfaction or ideas that need to come out, and whether that is that they move on to somewhere else, which is what you don't want, or whether you get a bigger conflict.

There's certainly something there about just encouraging all employees to think about the pipework of how are we hearing what people think in the business early enough that we're not surprised when we find it out in staff surveys, or from trade union reps, and early enough that actually we can be in on sorting that out in the normal course of business, rather than having these peaks of conflict, which are not in the interest of anyone in the business.

Gill: I indulged myself by looking back at the last Workplace Employment Relations Survey just recently, which if you might remember, it was conducted during the period of the last recession. And I think what we're talking about really is what's good voice. And if you look back at the findings from that, about what was it that made some companies survive during the last recession, it was a kind of virtuous circle of good voice, not just voice, as Neil was saying, good voice arrangements, that generates trust, that generates good trust, that generates good voice. And it was the companies that invested in, indeed invested in working practices generally, but also those that invested in unions and voice arrangements that actually ended up with the employees with the greatest commitment and productivity outcomes. So it really was a key to survival in the last recession. And sadly we're looking like… well we are heading in the same direction. So I think they bring it together – the point about voice being absolutely central, the business case is made. And then I think the point that Neil is adding to it, it has to be good voice. Which goes back to Paul's point.

Paul: You're absolutely right Gill. I mean we're in a really difficult environment at the moment, aren't we? I mean, COVID-19's right at the forefront of everybody's mind and it's already had a massive impact in workplaces. And you mentioned the sort of previous recession, Gill – the experience there was that this is an opportunity to engage the workforce on what can we do, imaginatively, creatively, together to make sure our organisation and the people who work for it get through to the other side. And, you know, Neil was absolutely right about the value in voice not eradicating conflict at work, but helping to channel and to mitigate the impacts of conflict in work.

But it's also a real opportunity for employers as well to get ideas from the shop floor, from the people who are doing the job day in, day out, about how we can improve processes, how we can deliver better customer service, how we can do things more efficiently. And I think that's important for the people I represent as well. Because you know, people go to work and like to feel that they can influence the job that they do. And I don't care whether you're working in a supermarket or you're working in a nuclear power station – the idea that you've got ideas, and somebody takes those ideas on board and listens to you and takes you seriously is really important I think.

But now more than ever, you know, as we deal with the last year, we know the impact of the pandemic won't be over in six weeks or probably six months. We're all in this for the long term.

Neil: So I think, you know, I agree with a lot of what Paul and Gill said there. I think what's really important to call out here is that none of this as an employer, as a business is about being nice. It's not something you do as a staff benefit. This is actually much more about different ways to resolving really difficult things. But that, I think, is the real management challenge for businesses, which is, how do you have the confidence to safely have really difficult conversations with your staff. And finding the structures in which to do that is difficult but absolutely worthwhile. And, you know, in lots of larger businesses and in many smaller businesses that, you know, trade unions play a role in that. But even where trade unions are not present or not recognised, that does not imply that that level of, kind of, input and control over working life that voice generates isn't wanted by people. I think it's a very powerful driver, especially in tough times for employees' engagement with a company.

Gill: Taking the unions as a start, their job needs to continue – they need to continue to look at pay and terms and conditions. But really are we at a point now where there's a lot of issues that need to be totally renegotiated? We've talked about the importance of business survival and how voice, in all its forms, has got a role in that. But I was thinking about much bigger issues as well, such as the value and purpose of organisations. Then you've got the, kind of, not marginal at all issue any more of safety at work – you know, really centre stage question of safety, where voice plays a part in that. Then through to more specific individual concerns about what does the future of flexibility look like.

So I kind of agree that managers and employers have got a massive challenge on their hands, as has the union movement and other forms of voice in organisations and, you know, the matrix is bigger. I was thinking, that's both collective and individual issues, it's for those in workplaces and those working remotely. And it's short, medium, and long-term objectives. So I think if we can all work together – Acas, the employer bodies, the union movement – I think we've got quite a tall order, but I believe that there is a way that we can promote our joint thinking on this.

Paul: Unions have always been, you know, had a focus on things like pay terms and conditions. But you know, when I started off as a young union activist, like sort of 30 years ago, I mean, one of the first things I was told was, you know, don't assume you know what really matters to the people that you are representing. And so there's a challenge there for unions to make sure that we're helping to give effective voice to the people that we represent on the stuff that really matters to them.

Obviously pay will be one of those issues, but it may well be about skills, it may be about progression, it may be about that balance between working from home and working in the office. And so that's a responsibility on us as organisations to make sure that we're helping to articulate the issues that really matter to our members.

I mean, just to pick up something else that Neil said, I mean, I think he's absolutely right that, you know, employees need to have the confidence to find the mechanisms to help facilitate effective employee voice. And I suppose that what I'd add to that is this stuff doesn't happen by accident. And it doesn't, you know… all the warm words about giving workers effective voice don't really count for anything unless you do put those mechanisms in place. And, as I say, for me central is about unions and collective bargaining. But I think there are other things that we should be collectively thinking about. I mean, as a result of the Taylor review, the trigger threshold for the information and consultation arrangements has gone down. You know, could we use that as an opportunity to extend employee voice across British workplaces?

And for me, you know, workers on boards, that's it, that's an important part of the employee voice. It's not the whole story, but that sort of sense that people from the shop floor can help influence the big strategic decisions and bring their perspective into boardrooms I think is a really interesting idea, something that we're very supportive of, because, yes, we want to influence practice at workplace level as well but you know, in terms of giving British business a bit of a dose of long-term thinking and a little bit more transparency and openness and those workers’ voices in boardrooms will be useful as well.

Sarah: Taking up what you're saying about mechanisms there, I'm just wondering for someone listening to this podcast who's heard all of your passionate and really good arguments for why we should prioritise voice, what are the mechanisms that they could put in place themselves in their workplace that would really help create good voice?

Paul: Oh well, maybe I'll start off – recognise a union. You'll be surprised to hear me saying that [laughter]. But there's actually a serious point underneath that, which is actually, I think, for employers, and for certainly the new generation of HR managers coming through, I would encourage them not to be afraid of unions and not to be afraid of engaging with unions.

Now ultimately, the decision about whether or not people are represented by a union has to rest with the workers themselves. But for me, you know, all too often I come across employees who don't have a huge amount of experience of dealing with unions and see us through the prism of the press, or see us through the political prism that you know – because the only stories you read about unions and the mainstream press are about strikes and about the Labour Party. And that really doesn't in any way reflect the job that we do day in day out to represent the sort of five and a half million, six million people that we represent. So I would encourage employers to have an open mind about engaging with unions.

Sarah: Because the kind of link with employee voice there, is because unions can help you listen to your people well, in a constructive way early on, which can save problems down the line.

Paul: Absolutely. But also, I have literally had the conversations with employers where they've said, "well we don't need a union because we're a good employer". And the idea that, like, good employers and unions are somehow mutually exclusive to me just doesn't stack up. I mean, you can see some of the most successful organisations in the country that have strong robust relationships with unions, but ultimately positive relationships with unions. So yeah, I'm not an HR director or manager, but I would encourage those people who are, not to think about, you know, your staff wanting to be represented by an independent union as somehow a failing on your part or a failure on the part of the organisation. It's entirely possible for people to be proud of working for an organisation to want that organisation to be successful, and also to want an independent union voice.

Sarah: And Neil, from an employer's perspective, how have you seen voice done well?

Neil: So I think Paul happens on something, which I think is really important there, which is – as an employer, you can't control everything in the process of how voice happens. And you have to, kind of, slightly get comfortable with that. If a trade union is how employees want to be represented, then as a business there's a duty on you to be respectful of that.

There are lots of other ways in which voice can happen. And what's important, I think, is that you have a strategy for how it happens and a couple of things I'd draw out there. Firstly, Gill mentioned the last Workplace Employment Relations Survey. And because she's geeked out on that, I'm going to dive into it as well [laughter]. And point out that what's really interesting is that while there is relatively little reported in that survey of kind of formal structures for voice, actually what people say about their work reflects that there probably is more voice going on than perhaps there are formal structures for it. And I think that's about management cultures – first and foremost linking in, you know, how does voice, how do we handle voice in our management culture? How do we train our managers to deal with it rather than leaving it to HR, I think is important.

Then coming to Paul's point, I absolutely do think that HR has developed down a sort of HRM [human resource management] school of thought. Where you've got your reward specialist, your talent acquisition specialist, your employee value proposition people. Actually, company side employment relations thinking has been underinvested for a while. And you know, the ER [employment relations] guy is usually the person that the chief executive puts his head into his hands when they walk into the room. Because they're going to… they're usually there because there's a problem. And actually, it's breaking that culture that matters – how are we thinking about ER all of the time, in terms of that moveable feast and of what employers are telling us. What employees are telling us, what the company is trying to achieve, and the ongoing process of trying to get those two things to clear against each other. So it's a much more iterative and line management led process than kind of what we've been used to maybe in some of the HR textbooks for the last few years.

Sarah: So rather than almost delegating voice to specific people or specific departments, trying to think about everybody who's involved in hearing opinions from staff and how you can equip them to hear those opinions and act in a way that strengthens employee voice in a good way rather than an unconstructive way.

Neil: I think that's right. If you think about it, think things through, if you're thinking about a big reconstruction, a round of redundancies, and it's the first time that anyone has ever asked the employees about anything, then it's going to be rightly treated with a certain amount of caution by the workforce. Whereas if people are used to – in the culture of the business, in their weekly meetings with their own managers – getting a sense that they are being listened to, then I think the big stuff becomes easier to do as well.

Sarah: Yeah. So practising and equipping on the small things.

Paul: I think Neil's points about doing this, not just at times of crisis or times when there are problems, but building it into the day to day work of an organisation, is really important.

I always have this sort of very strong memory of going to a well unionised engineering plant in the north east of England, where there was a strong joint trade union, virtually everybody in union membership as you would expect. And we sat down, we had a presentation from the senior member of staff at the plant about the company's sort of strategic plans over the next five years. And then when we spoke to the shop steward, the reps on the ground, and said, "well, do you have these sorts of discussions on a regular basis?", they said this is literally the first time we've ever sat down and had a presentation about, you know, the future of the organisation. Now, they were having, they would be talking about pay constantly, they'd be talking about terms and conditions. But in terms of thinking about the big stuff that, you know, where do we see the future of this organisation? What does that mean for staff? What might it mean for our skills mix? There'd never been that sort of regular dialogue between the union and staff and the management.

And that, to me, it's just like, that's craziness. Because what a missed opportunity to actually get staff to understand why a company might be taking the decisions they're actually taking, why they're asking them to work in certain ways. I mean, this is the sort of stuff that I think, you know, I like to think that the people we represent, they're all grown-ups, they're not daft. And they can see through the BS pretty clearly. And that, you know, sort of treating people like they're grown-ups and bringing them into the conversation, and as Neil said making sure that is not something that "oh god, we've got to make redundancies, now we'll talk to you". I mean you should be building that sort of culture right throughout the day to day work of an organisation, I think.

Gill: I definitely think that that point is one that Acas operational senior advisers would echo, which is that voice should be there for the good and the bad times. And in fact, if you can smooth out and oil the wheels, when a crisis comes up, if you've got your institutional arrangement in place, then you're cooking on gas, really, that, you know, you're not having to create from scratch. That's definitely a message that I've heard.

Sarah: We started off talking about how this is mission critical. And I think it's fair to say that everybody understands more than ever the need to bring people along with you in a workplace. But a lot of people are trying to bring their workplace along with them or listen to their workplaces remotely. And I'm just wondering what your reactions are to that. How do we create good voice in a context where this is, as we are doing currently, remotely?

Neil: I think partially, that's about not giving ourselves a free pass. So as many people will be quick to remind you, not all workplaces are closed. So there are plenty of workplaces which are open where the mechanisms might be more disaggregated than normal. I mean, clearly, you're not going to get the workforce together in one big room at the moment.

But equally, I think employers have found that, you know, things like staff meetings on Zoom are often actually rather better for some of this stuff. Because you have to think about structuring it, thinking about how you present what the company's got to say and thinking about how you take feedback. In my own experience, just with the team at the REC, I think it's been a powerful tool for engagement just through this period to increase the volume of discussion that we've been doing with the staff. So I don't think it's impossible. It's different. I don't think it's fundamentally more difficult to achieve.

Sarah: What role do you think voice can play when we're talking about race inequality and discrimination?

Gill: I think that voice needs to work doubly hard around those excluded groups.

Paul: I mean, from my perspective Sarah, I mean, one of the keys to effective voice is about redressing the power imbalances that exist in workplaces, you know, power imbalances between individual employees and their employer. I mean, that's part of the job of unions is to give people a collective voice to redress that fundamental power imbalance.

But then there's also a responsibility on unions, for example, to make sure that we're genuinely representative. I think we need to do more, for example to make sure that we've got more black workers taking on reps roles within unions so that our reps base is genuinely representative, more work to do to put women into senior positions in the trade union movements. So unions absolutely, fundamentally, I think have got a role to play in terms of making sure that the issues and concerns of black workers are effectively articulated and part of our agenda. That's a challenge to us as organisations, but it is also a challenge to the employees that we engage with as well.

Neil: I think that's right, Paul. And from a business perspective, you know, greater understanding that as businesses, we exist within society, you know, there's a lot of discussion about business and society. You know, there's a lot about social economic diversity, which overlaps in many ways with some of the themes around people coming into the workforce from black and minority ethnic backgrounds as well, where I think it beholds us as businesses to think about how we open our doors more broadly and think a bit differently about how people might come to us and how they might add value to us. It's not about the best way, it's about finding a good way. And I think more businesses need to challenge themselves to remember that a good way is enough. That opens you up to a greater diversity of approaches to how we tackle things, and perhaps opens your mind to different ways of recruiting and engaging with staff that will fundamentally underpin a culture in your business that people coming from different backgrounds will want to work in.

Sarah: Thanks for those thoughts. I wondered if to round off, I could ask for a top tip from each of you on employee voice – your biggest insight into how you can create good voice wherever you are.

Gill: I mean, for me, it's a relatively discrete area actually, which is recognising that representing employees, employee views, and listening to the views of reps is actually not necessarily a given skill. It's a bona fide skill that people need to be trained in so that the roles are fully recognised and realised for the best for everyone. So it's quite a marginal comment, really. But nonetheless, I think it's absolutely the heart of what makes for good voice – so training for both the managers and the reps.

Paul: I mean, for me, I've mentioned before, unions have got a key role to play in terms of helping give workers collective voice to redress those power imbalances in workplaces. And I would say to employers that where staff choose to join a union, want to be represented by that union, then respect that choice.

But ultimately, trust your workforce. Because, you know, my experience in workplaces in the public and private sector is that people want the organisations that they work for to be successful. They want their company or their organisation… to be proud to work for that company or organisation. And giving people effective voice enables them to feel that sense of pride and that sense of involvement and engagement and I think that's good for any organisation.

Neil: So just to finish off on this, then, quite simply it's managerial culture, not HR policy. Anything that you impose from HR that feels like kind of an additional loop in the process to getting stuff done, will face resistance. Whereas if it's just how you do business, then I think it embeds and you get some upside out of, in terms of engagement, from involving people and voice processes. And there are little things you can do as leaders and businesses to embed that. Which is, you know, if someone comes to you with a plan, ask where it comes from, ask what the team thinks, send signals that this is how we work. I think a lot of this is about behaviours in the business rather than what we expect from HR.

Sarah: So training people, both the managers and the reps to do voice well, trust your workforce, respect their choice to join a union and also focus on influencing managerial culture.

Well, thank you so much, Paul, Neil and Gill for a fascinating conversation about voice, how we strengthen it and why it matters for all workplaces now.

You've been listening to the Acas Podcast. You can get into more depth on voice on our website and I've put links to two policy papers in the episode notes, covering how we build back better from coronavirus and a deep dive look at consultation. But also, we can help. If your workplace is facing issues with voice, then please do call us and I've put the number for that in the episode notes as well. Thanks for listening.