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The Overlooked Role of Worker Voice

Larry BeefermanAn expert on work-life issues and labor relations asserts in this Enterprise Engagement Alliance YouTube Show that worker voice is a generally overlooked source of value creation and risk reduction. This article and webinar provide an overview of the opportunities, benefits, challenges, and steps to success.
Companies frequently say that employees are their No. 1 asset, but what does that truly mean in practical terms? It stands to reason that if this is so, employees would be central to all key decisions related to innovation, continuous improvement, quality, productivity, culture, wellness, and safety. The question is: to what extent do organizations truly engage employees not only in providing feedback on their current level of engagement and satisfaction with the culture but gaining their active participation in crafting critical strategies consistent with the organization’s purpose, values, goals, and objectives.
The answer is very little, says, Larry Beeferman, Independent Consultant and Fellow at Harvard Law School Center for Labor and a Just Economy, which describes itself as a “hub of collaborative research, policy, and strategies to empower working people to build an equitable economy and democracy.” Beeferman recently joined the Enterprise Engagement Alliance as a guest on the EEA YouTube show to share the findings of his recent paper, “Managers: Attuned to Change but Tone-Deaf to Worker Voice?” It provides a compilation of insights from a review of research and papers on worker voice.   

Click here to view the show or here to listen to the podcast version.

Very few companies, he underlines, and that means their CEOs, have a clear understanding of worker voice, the benefits, what it involves, and why it’s so important to organizational success. Here’s a summary of his perspective and recommendations. 

  • Worker voice means all the ways organizations and workers communicate with one another, whether by providing information, consulting on issues or problems, negotiating solutions, etc. The process can include multiple modalities, including one-to-one conversations, suggestion programs, assessment and feedback technology, worker committees, union activities, and in connection with worker ownership and profit or gainsharing (in which employees share in the gains made in process or quality improvements), etc. 
  • The return on investment includes increased engagement in organizational purpose, goals, and objectives resulting in a greater likelihood of goal achievement and lower risks due to more active identification of dangers. Other benefits are higher retention, referrals, productivity, quality, innovation, and increased trust and understanding when organizations must make difficult tradeoffs. 
  • Success depends upon CEO and C-suite commitment, or the process will likely be viewed as a charade, and must include management all the way to the front lines for maximum impact. That means baking worker voice into the formal operating system of the organization so that it is aligned with communications, learning and job mobility, rewards and recognition, management coaching, performance evaluations, and compensation, etc. 
  • Once a CEO and management team are onboard, it makes sense for most organizations to create a committee of employees representative of all the various aspects of the organization to help identify the purpose, goals, and objectives of the worker voice initiative and the most natural channels to implement a sustainable process to achieve them. This process should include what Beeferman calls a “voice map” that looks at all the ways in which employees can have input, formally and informally, and how the company processes, disseminates, and uses it – if at all –in response to what employees communicate. It also is important to map how customers and stakeholders can provide input as well. Most importantly, he emphasizes, is to determine what is currently done with or could be done with information received from employees and other stakeholders. 
  • To achieve sustainable results, Beeferman stresses that the process must be strategic and systematic, continually reinforced in a holistic manner throughout all aspects of the employee experience. Worker voice must be baked into the fabric of the culture; little will come of another program “du jour.” An ongoing committee or multiple committees may be needed to manage the worker voice effort, as it can come in multiple forms. 
  • Two-way feedback is critical, even if an idea or input is rejected. People expect to have management disagree; what’s important is that they are heard and that their effort is dignified with a thoughtful and respectful response. 
  • Rewards and recognition for contributions, he points out, must be commensurate with the value created. For input that results in concrete benefits, having rewards appropriate to the benefits increases the chances that others will step forward to make suggestions. Formal gainsharing programs are ideal for team efforts or departments.
  • Measurement is critical. It makes sense, he recommends, to start with a clear purpose, goals, and objectives for the process of formalizing employee voice, along with metrics that measure outcomes but also related potential benefits, such as employee satisfaction, retention, referrals, etc. 
  • Continuously improve.  As with any other business process, periodically review processes and results to identify strengths and weaknesses and opportunities for improvement, as well as a reassessment in preparation for planning for the future year. 
For More Information
Larry Beeferman; 
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Click here to learn about the EEA’s bi-partisan petition to keep politicians out of business management.

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