Introduction

Employee voice is the means by which people communicate their views to their employer and influence matters that affect them at work. It helps to build open and trusting relationships between employers and their people which can lead to organisational success. For employers, effective voice contributes to innovation, productivity and organisational improvement. For employees, it often results in increased job satisfaction, greater influence and better opportunities for development.

This factsheet explores what employee voice means and its different perspectives and purposes in an organisation. It looks at the changing nature of voice and influence in the employment relationship, and mechanisms for representative participation. It also examines whistleblowing and how employers can create an environment in which individuals feel safe to speak up.

Employee voice is the means by which people express their opinions and have meaningful input into work-related decision-making. In their seven layers of workplace productivity, Acas define strong employee voice as ‘informed employees who can contribute and are listened to’. To enable a genuine two-way exchange between employers and their people, it’s important that management listen to and act on employee voice.

Employees can have their say through individual and collective channels, by directly speaking to management or indirectly through representatives, and via formal and informal mechanisms. Effective voice is unlikely to result from any one single initiative, but rather from a number of complementary channels supported by leadership at all levels of the organisation.

Voice is used in different ways in organisations, such as employee involvement/ participation in decision-making, and as a central pillar of employee engagement. Employee voice can appeal both to those seeking business improvements and to those pursuing employee rights. Our future of engagement work suggests that organisations that seek to promote voice are those that believe that ‘employees want to contribute to the business’ and that ‘for employees to have an effective voice, the important part of the communication process is not what the employer puts out but what it gets back. Good managers recognise that much of the knowledge required for businesses to be competitive is actually in employees’ heads’.

However, employee voice tends to be considered too narrowly, without taking into account individual differences and motivations. Our 2017 HR Outlook survey found that over half of organisations report they are taking steps to improve employee voice, but highlighted that employee attitudes including apathy, lack of engagement and fears around expressing their voice can act as barriers. Some people may choose to remain silent not because they have nothing to say, but because they lack the confidence to speak up, or fear negative repercussions. Diversity concerns should be considered as a core element of voice initiatives, since different groups/individuals may be motivated by different factors to become involved. Some employers are encouraging a particular employee group to have a voice, recognising that certain groups are underrepresented in conventional voice mechanisms. Hearing different voices may not be easy, but can help to unlock people’s potential and drive innovation, while balancing the power between the organisation and its employees.

More important than focusing on the type of voice practice/ mechanism is the nature of the process, its intended purpose and meaning, and the moral standpoint that underpins it. For example, is employee voice seen only as a means to maintaining positive employee relations and driving engagement, or does it have inherent value as a fundamental right of individuals? In practice, employee voice continues to be approached from the instrumental point of view of value in achieving business objectives. Our Best to good practice HR research found that a quarter of practitioners said that the principle ‘People should be able to influence the decisions that affect them’ is one that they never apply in their decision-making, or they merely see it as a ‘nice to have’. Voice was seen as a mechanism to reduce negative outcomes for workers, rather than as a proactive way to include people in the decision-making process, contributing to engagement and well-being.

Our Alternative forms of workplace voice report explores new ways of thinking about voice in the workplace.

Since the early 1980s, there’s been a decline in trade union representation across various European countries, including the UK. While a significant minority of the workforce still have their terms and conditions determined by collective bargaining, overall there’s less reliance on collective agreements as a means of influencing the employment relationship. Our survey found that only 17% of respondents mentioned trade unions as a channel for voice. The most common channel was one-to-one meetings with a line manager. This reflects a general shift away from indirect and representative voice, and towards direct and individual channels.

With the rise of work fragmentation and flexibility, the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices commissioned by the UK government in 2017 highlighted the imbalance of power in the employment relationship, and the importance of effective worker voice for creating good work. Key trends such as remote working, increasing workforce diversity and alternative work arrangements are creating new challenges for individuals’ ability to have a say over their work conditions.

Our report Power dynamics in work and employment relationships explores the complexities of power in the employment relationship and how employees can best shape their working lives.

Direct participation

Direct participation is employees’ ability to influence decision-making themselves (that is, not through representatives). It can take different forms, such as control over the way job tasks are carried out, or influence over wider organisational decisions. The Skills and Employment Survey 2017 found that formal ways of organisational participation (for example, consultative meetings held by management) declined between 2012 and 2017, but the proportion of employees reporting high influence over decisions that affect their work increased.

The Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations (known as the ICE Regs) apply to UK organisations with 50 or more employees. They give employees rights to request their employer makes arrangements to inform and consult them about issues in the organisation. Our guide, produced in collaboration with the Involvement and Participation Association, outlines recent changes to the regulations and highlights effective ways of setting up and running employee forums.

Corporate governance

The UK government’s corporate governance reform requires listed companies to ensure that employees’ interests are better represented at board level. One of the recommended options is to include an employee representative on the board. This is normal practice across Europe, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. In our response to the government, we and the High Pay Centre welcomed raising awareness of employees’ interests at board level, but acknowledge that there’s no single solution to creating meaningful employee voice. Read more on corporate governance.

Social technology

Technology is offering new ways for people to have a voice at work. Some employers have set up protected enterprise social networks as a platform for workers to express their views. These virtual networks allow workers some control over issues discussed, as well as informal networking with colleagues. They allow real-time conversations between staff and management, but there’s lack of evidence on how they can be used most effectively.

Whistleblowing is increasingly recognised as an effective means for workers to communicate important messages to employers. It occurs when an individual raises concerns, usually to their employer or a regulator, about a workplace danger or illegality that affects others. The disclosure may be about the alleged wrongful conduct of the employer, a colleague, client, or any third party. Typically, the whistleblower is not directly, personally affected by the danger or illegality. Personal complaints such as harassment or discrimination are not usually treated as whistleblowing and should be handled according to the organisation’s grievance policy.

In the UK, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 is a key law which protects those who ‘blow the whistle’ in the public interest. Examples include financial malpractice, criminal offences, risks to health and safety, failure to comply with a legal obligation, a miscarriage of justice and environmental damage. Workers who make a ‘protected disclosure’ can make a claim to an employment tribunal if they’re treated badly or dismissed.

Employers should have a standalone ‘speak up’ policy that’s supported by top managers and promoted effectively to the workforce. It should make clear to all staff what to do if they come across malpractice in the workplace, and encourage individuals to inform someone who is in an appropriate position in the organisation to act on the disclosure.

The policy should make clear that:

  • The employer attaches great importance to identifying and remedying wrongdoing in the organisation. It should include specific examples of dangers, illegality or unacceptable behaviour.

  • Staff should inform their line manager immediately if they become aware that any of the specified actions are happening, have happened or are likely to happen.

  • In more serious cases, or if the allegation is about the actions of their line manager, an individual should feel able to raise it with a more senior manager, bypassing lower levels of management.

  • Individuals can ask for their concerns to be treated in confidence and the employer will respect those wishes.

  • Individuals won’t be penalised for informing managers about any of the specified actions.

It’s preferable to deal with whistleblowing separately rather than as an extension to, or part of, an existing grievance procedure, while cross-referencing procedures on discipline and grievance. This is partly because the level of risk to the organisation and to the worker will generally be significantly greater in whistleblowing cases than in other matters.

A climate of open communication, supported by a clear procedure for dealing with concerns, will help reduce the risk of accusations of misconduct and illegalities, and ensure that concerns are dealt with speedily and effectively.

CIPD members can find more on the UK legal aspects, including the rules about the uncapped compensation, as well as recent and proposed changes to the law, in our Whistleblowing law Q&As. They can also use our whistleblowing advice helpline.

Research shows that effective worker voice can lead to positive outcomes for both individuals and organisations. Participating in decisions is important for people's wellbeing and motivation, as it provides a way to improve work experience and overall job quality. Employers can benefit from higher productivity and innovation, and reduced workplace conflict and absenteeism.

Psychological safety, or individuals’ feelings about taking risks and sharing thoughts with others in the workplace, provides a bedrock for voice. Employees are unlikely to speak up if they believe the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits – for example, if they feel that their position in the organisation would be threatened. Power dynamics influence people’s willingness to speak up, particularly on information which challenges the status quo or could be judged negatively by a more senior colleague.

Strong leadership also brings higher levels of both organisational and individual voice. Quality of leadership is particularly important for individual voice which is less likely to be effective when leadership is seen as weak. It’s therefore important that all people managers in the organisation understand the value of employee voice and are trained to facilitate open conversations and demonstrate empathetic listening.

Contacts

Acas - Building productivity: employee voice 

Involvement and Participation Association 

GOV.UK – Whistleblowing 

Protect (formerly known as Public Concern at Work)

Books and reports

DROMEY, J. (2015) ICE and Voice 10 years on. London: IPA.

JOHNSTONE, S. and ACKERS, P. (2015) Finding a voice at work? New perspectives on employment relations. Oxford: OUP.

RUCK, K. (ed) (2019) Exploring internal communication: towards informed employee voice. 4th ed. London: Routledge.

WILKINSON, A., DONAGHEY, J and DUNDON, T. (eds) (2014) Handbook of research on employee voice. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Journal articles

CAROLLO, L., GUERCI, M. and PARISI, N. (2019). There’s a price to pay in order not to have a price: whistleblowing and the employment relationship. Work, Employment and Society. pp1-11. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 93.

ISHAM, R. (2020) Are whistleblowers adequately protected?People Management (online). 15 January.

LI, C., LIANG, J. and FARH, J-L. (2020) Speaking up when water is murky: an uncertainty-based model linking perceived organizational politics to employee voice. Journal of Management. Vol 46, Issue 3, March. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 95.

REITZ, M. and HIGGINS, J. (2019) Helping silenced staff find their voice at work. People Management (online). 30 July.

CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.

Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.

This factsheet was last updated by Rebecca Peters.

Rebecca Peters

Rebecca Peters: Research Adviser

Rebecca joined the Research team in 2019, specialising in the area of health and well-being at work as both a practitioner and a researcher. Before joining the CIPD Rebecca worked part time at Kingston University in the Business School research department, where she worked on several research-driven projects. Additionally, Rebecca worked part time at a health & well-being consultancy where she facilitated various well-being workshops, both externally and in-house. 

Rebecca has a master’s degree in Occupational Psychology from Kingston University, where she conducted research on Prison Officers’ resilience and coping strategies. The output of this research consisted of a  behavioural framework which highlighted positive and negative strategies that Prison Officers used in their daily working life.   


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