One of the areas where employee relations professionals can make a real difference is in helping build organisations to positively harness the voice of its employees. This is our “bread and butter” work, but the world has changed so much over the last two years and now is a good time to review your current ways of engaging employees.
The pandemic has highlighted growing income inequality, in-work poverty and the quality of working lives. Some business leaders struggle with dealing with their employees’ views on wider societal issues around racism and sexism and don't like being called out when gaps emerge between what they say and do, even if its way down the supply chain. There have been some examples of organisations trying to close employee dialogue down and seeing this approach back-fire. Leaders are quick to look out of touch with the mood of their employees.
The mood of some businesses is changing too. There is a growing tide of organisations that think that businesses have a significant role to play in creating sustainable value for all stakeholders. The Better Business Act is a coalition of 400 companies plus the Institute of Directors, who are campaigning to elevate the interests of stakeholders such as workers, customers, communities and the environment, alongside those of shareholders. The number of B-Corps is growing and The Purposeful company is a group of 14 large companies pledging to put the well-being of employees, local communities and society higher up the boardroom agenda. We have already had changes to the UK Corporate Governance Code which set out to ensure company boards paid more attention to people management issues such as culture, fair and proportionate workforce pay and employee engagement.
Another interesting development is the willingness of employees to tackle poor employment practices without the support of unions. Organise, an online platform has 1.4 million members. In a few years it is bigger than the biggest UK union. It’s a worker-driven network which provides tools and support to enable people to improve their lives at work. It has already helped employees to call out “bad bosses” and poor working practices in some leading brands. It’s clear that employees are not going to wait to be given a voice. If they don’t feel they have one, they will use their own methods to get their voices heard.
With this context, now is certainly the time for ER professionals to assess their current methods for engaging employees (and if you are relying solely on an annual engagement survey, I’d urge you to do more):
· Are your senior leaders clear on what are you trying to achieve through your channels for employee voice?
· If you have formal meetings, what gets discussed? How is the agenda managed? Is there a good balance of employee and employer items? Is it genuinely a forum for all employees? Are some employees missing?
· If you have employee networks, how effective are they? Is their role clear? Ask them if they need support/access/training? Do they have the genuine support of senior leaders?
· Are you happy that you have complied with the spirit of the UK Corporate Governance code (even if it doesn’t formally apply to your organisation)? How do people issues get discussed at board level?
While the process is important – employee networks, unions, formal structures or a mixture of them all – it’s the culture that makes the difference. If you pay lip service to this, employees will see through it. If you don’t really listen because you think that employees should just focus on doing their job, you are ignoring some fundamental shifts in society. If you really want your organisation to grow, have a positive impact on society and the individuals who work for you, listen to your employees, don’t defend your corner or see employees who speak up as rebels.