New emphasis on employee voice gives unions a huge opportunity, says Nita Clarke

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IT’S fair to say that trade unions have never been the greatest cheerleaders for the concept of employee engagement. Some within the movement have viewed it with scepticism and suspicion; as an ‘employer’s charter’ in disguise. Some have just been outright hostile.


This reaction is predictable if unwarranted. The employee engagement agenda comes from a different ideological background to traditional unionism. That model is predicated on a belief in a fundamental opposition between the interests of labour and capital; employee engagement argues that there is significant overlap between the interests of employers and employees.


Of course there are occasions when the interest of employers and employees will diverge. But most organisations have a vested interest in work that that promotes wellbeing; that stimulates employees and unlocks their potential and creativity. Similarly there can be no argument that both parties do not benefit from a workplace that is efficient, productive and competitive. In today’s world in particular few organisations can survive with an old adversarial model of employment relations: it’s not a good ‘brand’.


Where interests can diverge is on how to share the benefits of increased efficiency; on the balance between pay and investment on the one hand and executive remuneration and profits on the other. It is plain to see that there last decade saw an imbalance here with a short-termist focus on the latter at the expensive both of the former, but also of sustainable business success. Unions play an important role in mediating here. While such arguments have to be had, I would argue they are not what employee engagement seeks to address.  


The advocates of employee engagement are not calling for the replacement of trade unions. Indeed, the new emphasis on the importance of employee voice in effective employee engagement gives unions a huge opportunity, to make sure that collective mechanisms are part of the voice architecture, alongside more individual ways of listening to employees.


Last week we launched Engage for Success, an online resource and movement focused on the promoting and spreading employee engagement in workforces across the country. I’m pleased to say that the TUC has been at the heart of developing this resource – emphasising always the role unions can play and general secretary elect Frances O’Grady attended the launch. Individual unions are increasingly seeing the potential for engagement to benefit their members; both directly and through ensuring the sustainable success of their employer organisation.


Employee engagement and trade unionism serve distinct yet complementary purposes. When done well both benefit employees, both materially and psychologically. I believe this agenda will benefit not just employers, but also employers and the country as a whole.


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