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Having a say is not enough

I’m researching employee voice at the moment. This is a term that is probably better known in HR circles than internal communication departments. It is often associated with unions and work councils, though it is now being seen as a right for every employee to have the opportunity to have their say. In the “Engaging for Success” report that MacLeod and Clarke produced for the UK government last year, they describe voice as “employees’ views are sought out; they are listened to and see that their opinions count and make a difference. They speak out and challenge when appropriate”. It is all part of a recognition that stakeholder engagement is beneficial for all organisations and employees are, of course, a very important stakeholder group indeed. The way that the UK coalition government has asked for citizens to make suggestions for tax cuts is an example of giving people a say in what might happen.

However, at work, the approach assumes that employees are willing to express things that senior managers may not wish to hear. Internal communication academics Tourish and Hargie point out that “senior managers have a tendency to over-critique negative feedback, while instantly agreeing with positive feedback”. There is also another problem with employee voice, or any stakeholder involvement. The problem is that employees are not always provided with enough relevant, detailed information about what is going on in the organisation to be able to provide a suitably informed employee voice. The same point may also apply to suggestions about tax cuts; how many of us can really say we have a strong enough grasp of all the relevant data to make a considered suggestion? According to research carried out for the CIPD in 2006, only 32 per cent of employees feel that they are both fully/fairly well informed and also have opportunities for upward feedback. This is group is, unsurprisingly, highly engaged. Worryingly, 42 per cent of employees say that they are not kept very well informed about what is going on in their organisation.

In a more recent report (CIPD Research Insight, Voice and engagement: how does collective consultation contribute?), the CIPD notes that there is an appetite for a collective voice at work that is similar to partnership working where “employees are at the heart of strategy development and delivery”. The report suggests that employers are “increasingly looking to OD specialists to develop internal communications” though it does not explain how OD consultants are more qualified to do this than corporate communication professionals. Though collective voice may be enjoying a renaissance (albeit through non-union forms), it is the appetite for critical upward feedback that is the nub of the matter – and that’s a challenge for HR and internal communication professionals to work on together.

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