Employee voice — the opportunity for employees to raise concerns — has
long been championed as a fundamental right for workers. In fact, the
earliest trade unions were born as a way of representing workers’
viewpoints in an era of little protection against dangerous conditions.
More recently, the UK Corporate Governance Code (July 2018) has ruled that a company’s
board is responsible for ensuring that workers can raise their concerns:
The board should ensure that workforce policies and practices are
consistent with the company’s values and support its long-term
sustainable success. The workforce should be able to raise any
That all sounds good in practice but, in reality, employees are often
reluctant to voice their opinions at work. One of the main reasons is
that they are given so few opportunities to speak. On average, employees
only give feedback in performance conversations once or twice a year.
Our research has shown that only 11% of employers survey their
employees more than once a year, and 25% of employers survey them
every other year or less frequently.
Employees want more opportunities to participate — to have a real voice
rather than just a tick-box exercise for HR. 80% of employees who
had completed a staff survey in the last year felt like it made no
difference to their working lives. When employees aren’t heard, they
don’t feel valued. When that happens, they leave their jobs.
Employee turnover is a problem that companies can prevent.
A Gallup study showed that 52% of quitting employees said that their
managers or organizations could have said or done something to stop them
from leaving. Another 51% said that in the three months before they
left, no one in their company had spoken to them about their job
satisfaction or future. Listening to your employee’s voice is the first
step in addressing the growing employee retention problem.
Employee Voice in the Workplace
Employee voice is how employees communicate their views to their
employers and influence matters that affect them at work. For employers,
an effective employee voice contributes to productivity, innovation and
overall workplace improvement. For employees, it brings about greater
job satisfaction, influence and opportunities for development.
From the employer’s perspective, it is often feared that employee voice
opens up a Pandora’s box of negativity. However, this is largely
unfounded. Yes, there may be bad news, but it is always better to
address it in a timely manner before it festers. Having open, honest
conversations with employees often invites more creative ideas and
A recent report by the CIPD found that 13% of employees share their feelings
about work on social media. Because of this, some companies have opted
to engage with their employees over social media to create a discussion
on the issues affecting them. However, the bigger concern for companies
is when employees share their anonymous opinions on platforms like
Glassdoor, which can directly impact recruitment. Because of the
anonymity, they speak plainly and honestly which can bring about
You can’t stop people from talking. They’re going to find a place to
say what they want to say, and technology now enables this more than
ever. However, you can change what they say about their experience of
work. Work is often the hardest place to talk about work. Good leaders
encourage employees to overcome their instinct to keep their heads down
and stay quiet.
Giving Your Employees a Voice
Here are a few tips on how to create an environment where people feel
free to share their ideas and thoughts about work — before it goes viral
A positive work culture permeates an entire organization — from the top
floor to the shop floor. Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, in her
work with Google, coined the phrase “psychological safety,” which she
defined as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for
speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” In other
words, a safe space for people to speak freely.
What this is not is a carte blanche anything-goes setting. There is
still an important need to respect others, take responsibility and be
accountable. Reaching a point of safety for employees is a varied
process that takes time. Many employees have had experiences where they
have been punished or embarrassed for sharing how they really feel, so
it’s natural that it takes time for a relationship of trust to be built
that makes them feel safe.
Be patient. If you are genuine in your approach, they will trust you and
open up eventually.
Speaking at the Team Level
In practice, where the speaking needs to happen is at the team level.
Most of people’s day to day experience of work is with the people they
work the most closely with — the team. And because the team is made up
of faces and people they know, this is where employees need to express
themselves and overcome silence the most.
In this light, it’s incredibly important to establish a communication
norm or a normal level of openness that is socially acceptable within
the workplace. At Amazon, for example, the communication norm is for
employees to challenge each other’s ideas to drive innovation. In this
setting, speaking up is accepted and has positive outcomes. However,
that kind of confrontation may not be acceptable in more hierarchical
cultures where speaking directly may not be viewed positively.
As a starting point, have regular discussions about how well people are
working together in addition to what people are working on. A small
shift in topic will reap huge dividends.
Leaders Need to Learn to Use Silence
Ironically enough, one of the best ways for leaders to help their teams
overcome silence is to use silence. The next time you hold a team
meeting, notice how often you fill the silence with your own stories and
anecdotes. We tend to be uncomfortable with silence and fill it with our
noise, which leaves little room for others.
To overcome this, try the following:
- Ask open-ended questions
- Leave space for people to answer
The second step is the most crucial. That space can get long and
uncomfortable (even five seconds can feel like an eternity!), but the
discomfort is what helps draw out answers from the team.
"Do any of our quieter members have anything to add?"
Some people are genuinely comfortable in silence and team leaders need
to make sure that the quiet ones are heard as well. A little nudge can
help them speak up, and they often have a different viewpoint than more
extraverted team members. Sometimes a nudge won’t work. If you feel that
a team member is holding something back, it might be prudent to seek
them out and see if everything is ok. You might even risk saying, “I
might be wrong, but I had a feeling that you might have something to
Again, creating that communication norm and a place of psychological
safety where the quiet members feel safe to speak up is critically
important. Remember, employee voice is not just for extraverts, but for
the introverts as well.
Giving your employees a voice doesn’t mean having to give in to all
their demands, but rather it opens up a dialogue with them — an open
place of discussion. The risk of losing great ideas to silence, and the
chance of explaining why things aren’t what they always seem is very
Friday Pulse is a platform that gives employees a voice every week
by asking them to rate their experience of work as well as share ideas
about how to improve their work experience.