Last week I had the pleasure of giving a keynote address at a program on "Strengthening Democracy at Work: The Promise of Employee Voice" organized by Andrew Timming and sponsored by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute. The theme of my talk was "The (Potential) Benefits of Employee Voice." To adequately assess the benefits of voice, it is important to avoid the common trap of narrowly defining voice simply as a complaint mechanism. Rather, employee voice should be seen more broadly as expressing opinions and having meaningful input into work-related decision-making.
This broad form of voice can be seen as having four key elements:
- Employee free speech--the right to freely express opinions and views
- Individual self-determination--Autonomy in one's job, e.g., influence scheduling of work and discretion over how tasks are done
- Consultation, codetermination, and social dialogue--Exchanges of views between employers and employees that stop short of formal bargaining
- Countervailing collective voice--A voice mechanism with sufficient power to act as a countervailing balance to employer power, e.g., a labor union
All four of these dimensions can, when conditions are ripe, benefit individuals, organizations, and societies. Employee free speech protections can benefit individuals by facilitating improved decision-making via the exchange of information while also promoting intrinsic benefits because "the ability to hold opinions and beliefs, and to communicate them with others, is what makes us fully human" (Lucy Vickers, Freedom of Speech and Employment, 2002: 17). Employees with higher levels of autonomy, locus of control, and self-determination have higher job satisfaction and greater psychological well-being. And strong forms of collective voice can yield higher wages, increased frequency of health insurance, pensions, and other employee benefits, the presence of protective work rules and grievance procedures with due process protections that promote respect for dignity in the workplace, as well as greater compliance with statutory regulations.
Employee voice can benefit organizations because all forms of voice can yield process improvement. Moreover, individual self-determination and collective consultation can improve employee engagement which can enhance productivity and organizational performance. Peak-level consultation can also foster macroeconomic stability and growth, as was seemingly the case when Ireland's social partnership contributed to the Celtic Tiger prior to the financial crisis. Lastly, it is possible that unions can boost productivity, promote economic stabilization by taking wages out of competition, and stimulate economic growth via increased purchasing power though in practice these effects are controversial and the evidence is mixed or debatable.
At a societal level, employee free speech can strengthen democracy because the workplace is one of the key locations in which individuals are exposed to diverse perspectives and debates. Employee free speech protections can also provide a balance to the political activities that employers are increasingly bringing to the workplace (e.g., using company e-mail systems to direct employees to sites that show candidates' business ratings). The greater well-being that can result from individual self-determination and collective consultation has benefits for local communities, and autonomous workers with a well-developed sense of agency presumably make better citizens. Employee voice mechanisms can also enhance the participatory and deliberative skills and norms needed for a healthy political democracy. Successful peak-level social dialogue that promotes macroeconomic stability and prosperity has clear societal benefits, as do labor unions when they promote greater economic and political fairness.
We don't need to look far to appreciate that these are important issues. To take just one example, the tragic Bangladesh garment factory collapse in April that killed and injured thousands of workers might have been prevented by stronger employee voice. And debates over employee voice are central to debates over ways to prevent future tragedies, with some lobbying for greater labor union rights while Wal-Mart and Target plan to rely on nonunion voice via confidential employee hot lines and "Worker Participation Committees."
But all of these benefits are contingent and contested, not universal. The conditions for employee voice to deliver these benefits are not yet fully known and are not always present. Indeed, these are highly contested issues because various forms of voice--especially labor unions--are frequently seen as serving some while harming others. So competing groups seek to structure the environment in ways that promote their desired models of employee voice (or lack thereof), such as when Republican politicians seek to shut down the National Labor Relations Board or when labor unions lobby for card check elections. As such, employee voice potentially has great benefits, but we need to continue to deepen our understanding of these benefits, and the conditions that make them possible.