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Listen and learn when your employees speak up

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

During 2020, @Organise grew from 79,000 members to over a million. It has provided tools and support to improve the lives of thousands, perhaps millions of working people with genuine workplace grievances. Employees and workers start campaigns, often in well-known organisations such as Waterstones, Clark’s shoes, Ted Baker, Wetherspoons and Amazon. These, on many occasions, have led to pay rises, changed working practices and improved terms and conditions. Campaigns have also been successful across industries such as retailing, affecting all major supermarkets. The latest high-profile campaign calls on the John Lewis Partnership to pay the real living wage to its lowest paid employees. They have already succeeded in getting the Co-Op to do the same. Employees can quickly get an audience with the CEO and employment policy changed.

This style of campaign – using petitions, surveys and letters – can be quick and effective with organisations getting unwanted attention on social media, in the press and via MPs. Each week, 10% of the Organise membership also get surveyed about work in the UK, which gives great insight into how employees are feeling and what is getting them down, including which companies and why.

I find all the campaigns inspiring as employees speak up on issues of importance to them. What really interests is me is how organisations respond to their employees’ petition or survey in the immediate and the longer term.

It often seems that the CEO is unaware of the strength of feeling of their employees. Why did line managers or HR not raise it? Is it not the job of HR and managers to listen to the views of their employees, to develop a positive culture, understand how to build engagement and know what is hindering team performance and suggest ways to improve?

What does the organisation do in the longer term? If a campaign takes off in your organisation it means that your employees have a complaint or grievance and have got support from their colleagues and other Organise members. Do you ignore it and hope it goes away? Do you see it as a one-off, listen but don’t really change? Do you take the opportunity to understand the context, the background, the culture and really take stock of your employee’s views? Avoiding it, ignoring it, pretending it’s not happening, is not going to work for the business in the long run and is not in line with the UK Corporate Governance code.

If you are thinking strategically, you will need to take a number of steps and the first could be a review of how your line managers are selected, trained and performance managed. Your managers should understand their employees, enable them to raise issues in a culture where it is seen as positive to speak up.

You could establish a more regular way of listening to your employees across the company and you should ask your employees what the best way is to do this. This could be via a union if this is the preference of your employees. While union membership has risen over the last few years, the rise is all in the public sector. In the lowest paid and vulnerable sectors, union membership is the lowest. While younger workers are not averse to collection action on issues that matter to them, there is no evidence yet that they see unions as the answer to their problems.

You could decide to have a worker on the board or a shadow board where a group of non-executive employees work with senior executives on strategic initiatives. Electing employee representatives is another option. All require a real and demonstrable commitment by leaders and an investment in training and development.

Covid accelerated the growth of Organise’s membership base as more employees felt isolated and insecure. However, the growth suggests that employees find Organise to be responsive and easy to use, with successful campaigns giving confidence to others to take similar employee-led action. They have plans to build on this growth adding new tools and training to their platform and expanding into the US next year.

There is no doubt that workers historically ignored and under-valued are finding their voice for a variety of labour market issues. Employees in all industries are feeling tired and stressed due to the pandemic. Organise are making it easy for employees to take ownership of their workplace stresses. Organisations must think strategically about how to respond to campaigns.



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