Interview on Employee Voice

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While a visiting professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, I was interviewed at Voice Project by my friend Professor Paul Gollan. Here are some excerpts.

Question. In one of your recent journal articles you mentioned that "there has been a sharp increase in interest in employee voice and participation among academics, practitioners, and policy-makers in recent years." Can you shed some light on that? Why is that happening?
Answer: Traditionally, employee voice was largely seen as a collective phenomenon delivered almost exclusively through trade unions. Consequently, academics, practitioners, and policy-makers who were interested in voice were primarily those whose research or areas of practice involved trade unions.

Over the past couple of decades, however, the power and reach of trade unions have declined in many countries. This has led many academics to explore alternative forms of voice, and today employee voice is seen more generally as the expressing of opinions and the ability to have meaningful input into work-related decision-making. This includes individual forms of voice as well as both union and nonunion forms of collective voice.

At the same time, policies for managing an organization's human resources have become more sophisticated in many private, public, and nonprofit organizations. Many organizations don't simply want workers who punch the time clock and do as they are told, they want committed employees who are engaged with their work and willing to share ideas for improvement. There is increasing recognition that giving employees a voice at work can create the higher levels of engagement that many organizations are seeking.

So we have witnessed increased interest in employee voice because of a broadening of how we think about voice combined with a greater recognition of the importance of diverse forms of individual and collective voice in practice.

Question: What do you see as the major value of employee voice for organisations and employees?
For organizations, the major value of employee voice is creating an engaged workforce that is committed to its work and to the organization, and that is willing to share ideas for improving organizational practices and products. A workplace without voice is likely to be one where workers simply put in their time and keep their ideas to themselves.

For employees the major value of voice is being able to participate in shaping one's work life. People generally dislike being told what to do. They want input, they want some degree of autonomy. They want to be able to make decisions. They want to be respected as human beings. Workplace voice allows all of these needs to be fulfilled.

Question: The purpose of Voice Project's "Change Challenge" is to motivate and measure real change in work practices, employee engagement and business outcomes. What do you see is the place of 'voice' in achieving change in organisations?
Answer: In many organizations, it's hard to force change from the top. Workers who have not been consulted and included are more likely to be resistant to change, will view the changes cynically, and might only go through the motions. Employee voice can allow for a more robust change process in which employees are consulted about the need for change, can share their ideas for improvement, and can take ownership in the change process.

Question: You talk in your book about balancing efficiency, equity and voice: Do you see them in competition? What are the factors working against Vvice in organisations?
Ideally, efficiency, equity, and voice can be mutually-supportive. Productive organizations can afford to provide fair terms and conditions of employment along with robust voice mechanisms. Workers who are treated fairly and given opportunities to exercise voice can be committed and productive. But I also believe that there is a tension between efficiency, equity, and voice. Some organizations might want just a little more productivity at the expense of the workers, and workers might want more generous benefits and more extensive voice mechanisms at the expense of profits. So from my perspective, organizations and employees need to continually strive for a balance that supports efficiency, equity, and voice. This can be hard work, but that's what makes human resource professionals, and in some organizations, trade union leaders, so important.

One factor working against voice is a perception that participation and consultation can be time consuming, especially when compared to a traditional method in which a manager makes a unilateral decision. A second factor working against voice is a perceived loss of managerial control because employees have input into decisions.

Question: Voice Project's research has found two core organisational factors that drive employee engagement - 1. Purpose - a strong sense of organisational identity, purpose and values; and 2 - Participation - which includes involvement in decision-making (voice!), and a sense of belonging. Did these themes emerge in your research on the "Thought of Work"? How can we build more Purpose and Participation in work practices?
Answer: My research on the thought of work uncovers 10 fundamental ways in which we can think about what work is. For example, we can see work as a curse, as something we endure solely to earn income, as a source of personal fulfillment, or as a way to care for others. One key finding that emerges from this is that work can mean different things to different people. Moreover, work can mean multiple things to one person! Sometimes my job seems like a curse, but more often it's rewarding. So what does this mean for building purpose and participation? It means that we need to create multiple strategies for building purpose and participation. Not everyone is looking for the same things from their work. We need to be careful not to homogenize a workforce; rather, we need to see workers as individual humans with different aspirations and goals, even within the same workplace or workgroup. Consequently, we need to create voice mechanisms that are diverse enough and robust enough to fulfill the different needs of individuals who are looking for diverse things from their work. More research on voice is needed to help make this happen.

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About this Blog

Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.