Finding a Voice at Work? New Perspectives on Employment Relations

Finding a Voice at Work? New Perspectives on Employment Relations

Finding a Voice at Work? New Perspectives on Employment Relations

Finding a Voice at Work? New Perspectives on Employment Relations

Synopsis

How much "say" should employees have in the running of business organizations, and what form should the "voice" take? This is both the oldest and latest question in employment relations. Answers to these questions reflect our fundamental assumptions about the nature of the employment relationship, and inform our views on almost every aspect of Human Resource Management (HRM) and Employment Relations. Voice can also mean different things to different people. For some, employee voice is a synonym for trade union representation which aims to defend and promote the collective interests of workers. For others voice, is means of enhancing employee commitment and organisational performance. Others advocate workers control as an alternative to conventional capitalist organisations which are run for shareholders. There is thus both a moral and political argument for a measure of democracy at work, as well as a business case argument, which views voice as a potential link in the quest for increased organisational performance. The key debate for employment relations is which of the approaches "works best" in delivering outcomes which balance competitiveness and productivity, on the one hand, and fair treatment of workers and social justice on the other. Policy makers need pragmatic answers to enduring questions: what works best in different contexts, what are the conditions of success, and what are the drawbacks? Some of the most significant developments in employee voice have taken place within the European Union, with various public policy and employer experiments attracting extensive academic research. The book offers a critical assessment of the main contemporary concepts and models of voice in the UK and Europe, and provides an in-depth theoretical and empirical exploration of employee voice in one accessible and cohesive collection.

Excerpt

For all its ambiguities, voice can perhaps best be seen as the Holy Grail of employee relations; it is the promise of a harmonious and effective employment relationship built on trust, fairness, and respect. Historically, voice was viewed as a means for employees to influence their terms and conditions, or to express dissatisfaction with the employment relationship: ‘voice or exit’ (Hirschman 1970; Freeman and Medoff 1984). Voice in this sense had only limited appeal for many employers. Shifting attitudes occurred when employee voice was seen to be key to employee involvement in the workplace, and employers continue to search for more effective ways of releasing employee voice. Case-study research by Marchington et al. for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in 2001 on Management Choice and Employee Voice found managers were in little doubt that voice had a positive impact on performance, particularly through the number of ideas that emerged from employee feedback. CIPD Employee Outlook Surveys also confirm a relationship between employee engagement and the quality of top-down and bottom-up communications, and highlight the need for organizations to further improve communication in both directions (CIPD 2013). Where they are persuaded that engagement is the objective, employers understandably want to know what practical steps they can take to deliver it. Seen in this context, voice is essentially an empirical question regarding what actions by management, employees, and/or trade unions are best geared to releasing or promoting voice. This will depend in part on organizational history and context.

While there is a significant element of continuity in management interest in employee voice in recent decades, organizations have certainly put more effort into getting messages out to employees. The major influence on the shape of voice mechanisms has been the changing institutional, industrial, technological, and demographic environment to which managers have had to adapt. Despite the decline in collective bargaining and statutory support for consultation on a range of issues from health and safety to collective redundancies, formal consultation processes have continued to be used, particularly in the public sector. However, there is also an irony in that the sector that pioneered and continues to make most use of collective consultation—the public sector—is also the sector where employees are least likely to feel that their voice is being heard, and least satisfied with the way they are managed. The overall balance has shifted towards more direct voice forms. Some kinds of voice initiative, including problem-solving groups, have declined in significance while others, including the use of employee surveys, have increased.

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