Worker Voice Is A Shared Responsibility

We came across an article from Forbes Magainze about the need for employees to speak up at work.  The author said workers are not speaking up enough and that can have a definite impact on how a worker is perceived.  When workers speak up, he says, it shows the knowledge and expertise they bring to the job and organization.  There are other reasons the author says it’s important to speak up and mentions ideas on changes can also be made in meetings as well as initiating changes to go forward.  The author is absolutely correct about the need for employees to speak up but is it up to only the employee or does the employer have some responsibility with worker voice?

In order for employees to offer their thoughts on workplace issues, employers need to encourage it, too.  As we’ve said many times, who else but those who do the job know better as to what needs to happen.  The more involved employees are in workplace decisions increases productivity, reduces turnover,  helps the organization be more competitive, plus many other great reasons.

The problem with worker voice is it’s not always as easy as what the article implies.  An environment has to exist where employees feel comfortable to speak out.  It’s the same about meetings, too, when  the author includes them as a means to present ideas.  Not all meetings are intended for idea sharing.  A meeting could be set up for one-way  information only.  If employers want employees to speak up, they need to let them know it’s okay to speak up or employees are empowered to start new ideas.

In a report on worker voice published this year from MIT’s  Sloan Management School, a number of reasons are cited as to why workers don’t speak up.  One reason is an increased use of temp workers in the workplace.  Temp workers don’t  feel they have the same voice as the regular workers that work with them.  The study also said that many workers feel insecure and are uncertain about the future so they don’t think speaking up is necessary or that they should.  Those who conducted the survey raised questions as to why workers believed that.  They suggested it could be workers no longer think they have the ability to speak out or it could be all the different channels they have to go through discourages them from trying.  The results of the study  verifies that if employers want to have a culture that appreciates worker voice, they too have some work to do to let employees know their ideas are welcome and it’s okay to speak up with an easy flow of communication.

Employers also need to create a culture that is free of fear and intimidation.  They  need to demonstrate to workers it’s okay to have a voice.  In other words, walk the talk.  This also requires creating a trusting environment and, for some workplaces, that can take a long time and some work.  It’s not something that happens overnight or with an on-off switch.  If the culture didn’t allow worker voice and participation before, it can take awhile.  It will mean patience is needed by everybody.  It also means mistakes will probably happen along the way by everybody which means people will have to acknowledge mistakes happened and make amends.

The article mentions employees need to recognize how they project themselves at the workplace and this is important.  Both employers and employees need to understand they each have a responsibility to be respectful of each other and the worker voice process.   It isn’t about finger pointing or calling each other out.  It’s not about personalities but focusing on concerns or issues.  It’s also important for workers to understand worker voice isn’t necessarily about  wish lists and getting everything that’s wanted.  This is where unionized workplaces are  beneficial because a good staff rep will meet with members to help them understand this and what issues they can and cannot work on.  In non-union workplaces, there may not be anybody to help workers.

Meetings, which the article’s author suggested is a good way to give voice to issues, may be the starting point for culture change.  The meetings could be departmental or cross-functional or both.   A trained facilitator for the meetings can help because they have specific techniques that can bring out participation and focus on meeting process.  It can also demonstrate the employer’s willingness to create the appropriate culture.  Managers and supervisors can take on the role of facilitator but they also provide valuable perspectives to meeting issues so acting as a facilitator could take away their focus on process and allow them to be part of the discussion.

The author mentioned employees should be able to start projects when they bring them up.  That’s great but whether it’s an employee or a group, it’s important for employers to let them know they can make decisions to start projects or they are only to make recommendations.  There’s a big difference between the two, and if individuals or groups think they can make decisions or start projects, when they can’t, it leads to frustration and trust levels also break down which is why it’s important to be upfront about this.

While the author puts more emphasis on individual accountability, it’s important employers provide the tools for employees to succeed so they have that ability to be accountable if need be.  Whether it’s as individuals or as a group, they will be more successful if they have the tools to do so.

If a workplace starts their worker voice process through meetings, it’s good to remember the great myth that exists we’ve blogged about before, putting individuals together doesn’t automatically make them a team.   A team simply doesn’t happen when people may already be part of a department.  In our team development training, we talk about the stages of group development and why it’s important for everybody to understand about them.  A group can appear to be a team one day and the next time they’re not.  Training  gives individuals and groups a better understanding of group process and how to adapt to different situations, especially the more difficult ones.  Training, too, can let people know employers are serious about creating a more conducive atmosphere to worker voice and want their workers to be successful.

Finally, all of this creates the underlying goal the author is conveying, leadership.  He mentions worker voice can lead to career advancement which also means it helps create leaders within organizations.  Time and again, we’ve seen leaders emerge from groups.  They do a great job of communicating and inspiring others to accomplish tasks.  It not only helps individuals but it’s also another positive reason for employers to encourage worker voice. It becomes leadership development.   It wasn’t too long ago, there were a lot of people saying they couldn’t find leaders.  Worker voice helps to eliminate that problem.  By encouraging workers to speak up and providing them with the proper tools, it’s an investment for the organization’s future.   It saves a lot of time and money looking for future leaders.

We can go on and on about the great things we’ve seen when workplaces provide a culture for worker voice to thrive but the truth is, it takes commitment and practice for it to be a successful process.  Employers can’t start and stop it when they feel like it.  It’s the same for the workers, too.  It takes commitment to go through the good AND the bad.  It also takes practice to overcome the imperfections.  Think of sports teams.  They don’t go out there on game day and are perfect.  They’re committed to practice before the big game.  Sometimes their plans work, sometimes they don’t but they learn from their mistakes and apply them.  It’s the same with work teams.  Employers and employees need to realize mistakes will happen but that doesn’t mean the process has failed and it’s time to stop.   Just as we have mentioned and the author wrote, it takes time, trust and a consistent message that worker voice is important.

Workers can sit back if they want just like those identified in the survey and think it’s not worth it but if no one tries, nothing will happen and it eventually could be too late.  There’s another way to look at too.  Worker voice might provide an opportunity for an idea that helps develop that next big product or service that makes the organization successful!  Employers, it’s to your benefit to encourage worker voice.

About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at
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