4.2 Employee Voice

Major decisions are discussed openly with employees, and feedback influences outcomes
Employees are represented effectively in discussions with senior management
Employees are involved in technology investment decisions

There are many reasons why employee knowledge, insight and opinion from every level of the organisation should be heard by senior management teams and in boardrooms, not least because this leads to better decision making. Employee Voice describes the alignment of strategic priorities and decision-making at senior levels with the practical knowledge, experience and engagement of employees throughout the organisation. It brings together direct participation through, for example, self-managed teams and improvement groups, with representative participation in the form of employee or union-management partnership forums.

Partnership between management, employees and trade unions can take many forms, but always requires openness, transparency and two-way communication. At the very least it can be an effective tool for positive industrial relations, minimising conflict and resistance to change by ensuring early consultation on pay and conditions, employment changes and organisational restructuring.

Yet partnership can also transcend the industrial relations sphere. Partnership forums look for win-win outcomes for the organisation and its employees, creating times and spaces where senior managers and trade unions or employee representatives get together to tackle big issues in a climate of openness and trust.

Creating a successful forum

Bringing employee representatives together for the first time requires careful thought and preparation. You will need to anticipate potential anxiety, lack of confidence and scepticism.

People need to feel confident that they can speak openly and without fear of recrimination. An important rule for successful dialogue is that ‘the best argument wins, no matter who makes it’, and it’s worth adopting this as the forum’s guiding principle.

Honest and open feedback from frontline employees can make uncomfortable listening for senior teams, and the temptation to challenge its authenticity may be strong. This is certain to undermine the legitimacy of the forum! Effective listening and constructive questioning are vital skills for forum members to acquire, not dissimilar to those associated with coaching behaviours. Regular use of the Evaluating Meetings questionnaire will also help you to keep people engaged.

The table below suggests some guidelines for successful forums, and you can also download our Short Guide.

Successful partnership forums . . .

  • Support employee representatives. Make the role attractive by giving reps sufficient time and resources to do the job properly – rather than letting it become a burden that they must carry in their own time.
  • Train together to acquire the knowledge and skills to make the forum effective and sustainable.
  • Define ground rules and apply them consistently. Here is an example from a partnership forum:
    • This is a two-way process
    • Share ideas and information rather than give advice
    • Be prepared to listen to criticism of yourself
    • Acknowledge past mistakes
    • Make all comments constructive
    • Use evidence to support an assertion
    • Keep calm and don’t shout.
  • Start and finish at the bottom. Employee representatives need times and spaces to engage colleagues in reflection and dialogue about work issues, including forthcoming challenges, corporate policies and their ideas for improvement. They also need to bring issues from the forum back to employees. Access to team meetings, whiteboards and other resources is invaluable.  Without this bridge to the whole workforce, partnership forums soon become stale.
  • Identify objectives and boundaries. Be clear about how the forum fits in with the organisation’s decision-making structure and define its remit.
  • Be imaginative. Have fun, be creative and never let meetings become boring.
  • Find quick wins to show everyone that it’s working. But demonstrate that you can also tackle sticky issues together.
  • Don’t put ‘tea and toilets’ on the agenda. Partnership forums can be locked into endless discussions about minor issues that are better resolved elsewhere.
  • Understand the difference between boxing and dancing. Some issues may still give rise to adversarial bargaining between management and employee representatives, but the partnership forum isn’t the place to do it. Save contentious issues for another type of meeting and focus on potential win-win outcomes.
  • Learn from others. Establish contact with other organisations trying different ways of making partnership work through Fresh Thinking Labs.
  • Anticipate setbacks. It is highly unlikely that partnership working will always run smoothly. Change is a messy and if you find that initial enthusiasm and excitement begin to wane, recognise that this is common. If, at the start of the process, you anticipate that you will encounter obstacles and disappointments you will be better prepared to deal with them.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Celebrate successes, keep everyone informed about logjams and explain failures.
  • Plan for succession. Avoid collapse when key people leave the organisation. Don’t let it just become ‘the usual suspects’.

Be inspired!

Kaiser Permanente, one of the biggest healthcare providers in the US, offers a particularly striking example of this. Its Labor-Management Partnership has driven improvements in the quality of care through employee-led innovation, leading to win-win-win outcomes for patients, management and employees.

In Ireland, proactive intervention by the union-led IDEAS Institute and local shop stewards reversed several years’ underinvestment in Becton Dickinson’s Drogheda plant, saving over a hundred jobs and creating several more. By unleashing the knowledge and creativity of frontline workers, productivity and performance improved to the point where the parent company recognised that the plant had been transformed from an increasing liability to a major asset.

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Forum topic: How can employee voice become a real influence in organisational decision-making?

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