There’s power in employee voice

Employee voice is becoming increasingly important in the modern economy. If a company does not listen to its workforce, it will not succeed. As Brendan Barber explains “the voice of employees, individually and collectively, represents the day to day experience and views of those who really do know what works and what does not work. Successful organisations are those that recognise this.”


Voice is an important but little understood phenomenon. We know that being able to have your say and feeling that your employer listens to you is crucial both to engagement at work and to wellbeing. Yet there has been little work looking at the wider impact of voice on the organisation, the barriers to the expression of voice and the conditions that support it.


Research conducted by the IPA and Tomorrow’s Company, released today, addresses some of these gaps. It highlights some exceptional examples of where, by supporting employees to have their say, trade unions have made a real difference to the success of the organisation and benefitted all involved.


But with membership in decline, some would argue that unions are becoming less relevant. From its peak in 1979 when the majority of the adult population belonged to a union, the figure has now fallen to 26%. The fall has been particularly significant in the private sector where just 14% of employees are in a union. Equally worrying is the challenge unions are facing in recruiting young workers; whereas over one in three people in their fifties are in a union, just one in seven of those in their twenties are. With their membership aging and concentrated in a sector that is set to shrink in the coming years, the future looks difficult.


Perhaps as a result of this declining membership, employers are looking elsewhere to understand the voice of their staff. Our research showed that employers prefer engaging with their employees individually and directly, rather than through unions.


Given these challenges, unions need to adapt in order to remain relevant. They need to rethink how they appeal to young workers, and to those in the private sector. And they need to look at how they work with employers. As well as standing up for worker’s rights, unions need to work in partnership with employers, showing them how they can add value to the organisation. Their role in supporting employee voice must be central to this.


The research carried out by IPA, demonstrates the potential power of unions here. At the BAE Systems plants in Warton and Samlesbury, Unite were instrumental in Working Practice Change, a programme of continuous improvement that, by using the expertise of shop-floor staff, managed to cut the costs of building each plane by 25%. When the business was hit by defence cuts, the union were instrumental in developing an innovative mitigation scheme that prevented hundreds of compulsory redundancies. Both would not have been possible had the union not engaged their members, enabling them to contribute their experience and expertise.


As the IPA research shows, employee voice is obviously good for employees, but it also has benefits for the organisation as a whole. Unions, by supporting employee voice, can improve decision making, strengthen engagement and support innovation. These outcomes are essential for sustainable organisational success.


Unions remain a vital route through which employees can express voice. But if they do not address their challenges and adapt to changes in society and the workplace, their voice will grow quieter.


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