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Walk in your employee's shoes to make work better


Increasingly leaders are out of touch with their employees (https://www.reimagine-leadership.org/leaders-out-of-touch-with-exhausted-employees). The gap between a leader’s understanding of what employees want and need and the views of their employees is widening. The pay gap is also widening. In the UK, many people in work regularly rely on food banks to feed their families. According to a recent CIPD report , the UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, with higher levels of income inequality than all EU member states except Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Romania (CEO pay and the workforce: how employee matters impact performance-related pay in the FTSE 100 (cipd.co.uk).


In many organisations, leaders need to start walking in their employee's shoes.


When leaders do listen, they often only listen to those on their “talent” list, focusing on their development and progression. If you aren’t seen as “talent”, how does that make you feel?


If you work in industrial relations or employee relations, it is common to talk about “sides” – the management side or the staff/employee side. It doesn’t bode well if leaders see their employees as being on a different side. Sometimes it can feel like different planets, not different sides.


Inequality at work is not good for any of us and its where we spend so much of our time. Many people I speak to are reassessing what work is about, what its purpose is. Many can’t afford to leave their jobs although some are. For some people, the pandemic was positively life changing. For others, it magnified the “them and us” culture in organisations. Not everyone can work at home all the time or even some of the time, buy a peloton or base ourselves somewhere exotic for months on end.


As the CIPD says "workers who are fairly paid and fairly treated at work, and feel they are contributing to a meaningful project while progressing their careers and having a sense of ownership and agency in their working lives, are likely to be more engaged, committed and productive. This is borne out by several studies" (see above).


Unrest at work can take many different forms. It can manifest in resignations, poor productivity and industrial conflict. We are seeing more ballots and strikes particularly among those who were on the frontline during the pandemic such as NHS workers including GPs, refuse collectors, train drivers and delivery drivers. The university and college sector is also looking like being impacted by strikes this winter. The recent protests against Amazon were organised on a global scale between unions and activist groups and on a range of issues such as climate change, union recognition, pay and working conditions.


Leaders need to make sure they talk to people in their organisations, including those who don’t find work fun or enjoyable and listen to the reasons why. This is harder than listening to those who tell you everything is great. Many people in organisations, whatever job they do, have ideas on how work could be better. But this will remain bottled up – or not -until someone listens.


I’ve worked in companies where when a senior person makes a visit to a workplace, a red-carpet visit is arranged or a staged “town hall” event to which only “talent” are invited. In others, the leaders want to meet a range of employees and have created the right environment for individuals to openly share the frustration of their daily working lives without fear and with hope that by speaking up, something will change. In others, employees don't have to wait for the leader to turn up, they are empowered to do the right thing every day.


Employee voice, whether through unions or employee representatives is a good thing for organisations and for society as a whole. Involve your employees in planning and shaping solutions and listen more. Leaders who listen also inspire others. It changes the culture. Not only will you retain your employees, you will improve their performance, manage conflict constructively and make work better.

Also, a recent report from the Financial Reporting Council says that there is an increasing appreciation amongst investors and boards alike of the value the workforce brings to the company and the importance of employee engagement (FRC-Workforce-Engagement-Report_May-2021.pdf.)


I would like more employers to elevate the voice of their employees in a real and genuine way:


  • Employees are as important to the organisation as their customers and suppliers. The organisation must take a stakeholder rather than shareholder view of their business.

  • Leaders at all levels genuinely listen, they act and they change. They have created a culture where it is safe to speak up. This is about recognising that well-being, inclusion and diversity are good for business and for people.

  • Leaders understand why its important to stay connected to those who deal with their customers and suppliers at the front line and who have ideas on what can be done differently because they know the job better than they do.

  • Managers do not hide the real facts and feelings from their bosses for fear of reprisals so nothing should surprise the CEO when employees speak up.

  • Mechanisms exist throughout the organisation for employees to share their views and get answers and explanations for decisions made. This is not a series of “top-down” or “tell” bodies but a genuine two-way exchange where employee’s voices are valued and heard.

  • Employees and their representatives are included regularly in problem solving groups to ensure that employee’s voices are included in the development of future plans and changes.

  • HR teams are encouraged to challenge the prevailing culture and learn from others inside and outside their organisation. They have a voice on the board and present clear analytical evidence about people and culture.

  • Differences of opinion and diversity of viewpoints are celebrated – employee networks, unions, employee reps – and conflict is seen as an opportunity to learn and collaborate.


With this type of culture, where employee views are sought, not ignored or tolerated, the values of the company will change for the better. Employees will feel valued, better decisions will be made and productivity will improve.



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