What is The Future of Employee Voice?

HCLI Research
Published 18 September 2017

The boundaries between our personal lives and work are becoming more blurred. As this influences the nature and impact of our voice, we must also ask ourselves the wider implications of the way we communicate, including well-being and autonomy. Louisa Baczor and Wilson Wong of the CIPD also share HR’s role in developing organisational philosophy on the role of voice.

Software engineer James Damore was fired on 7 August 2017 for sending a 3,500 word internal memo that challenged ‘Google’s ideological echo chamber’, which asserted (allegedly) that implicit and explicit biases are holding back women in software engineering and leadership positions at Google. Damore claimed that biological differences in men and women account in part to the under-representation of women at Google. His argument was, ‘We need to stop assuming that gender pay gaps imply sexism’. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai said that in firing this employee, he faced the difficult task of balancing ‘the rights of Googlers to express themselves’ and upholding the company’s code of conduct.

This raises the question of the ‘acceptable’ boundaries of freedom of expression in the workplace, and who or what determines where those boundaries ought to sit. Mr Pichai’s action made clear that gender equality trumps freedom of expression, and as Mr Damore would argue, even if that position marginalises contrarian truths.

On sites such as Glassdoor, people can post reviews and comments about their employers– comments which prospective job candidates can access. Similarly, the new way to raise a customer service complaint is via social media. Some organisations are choosing to engage with the feedback and respond to any negative posts, but this is also a two-way street. For example, some recruiters are known to look at a job candidate’s Facebook page before making a hiring decision. But to what extent is voice ‘owned’ by the individual versus the organisation: where does the accountability lie? With the rise of technology, as our work and personal lives are becoming increasingly blurred, the voice we have in and outside work is no longer necessarily treated differently.

Voice as a foundation for good employee relations

Why is (positive) voice important to organisations? It clearly affects the employer brand both externally and internally. Good employment relationships are predicated on a healthy dialogue both among the workforce and between the workforce and the leadership. In the instance of Google, the company chose to shut down the dialogue and address what it termed ‘sexist’. While sexism should not be tolerated, has Google lost sight of the purpose of its drive for equality? How does the sacking of a software engineer who dared to voice his (possibly sexist) views advance the cause of equality within and outside Google? Would it have been possible to use Damore’s memo to spark an internal discussion on why Google values equality above freedom of expression?

Of course every organisation has a right to determine its values and the ideologies it subscribes to. But having read Damore’s leaked email, it appeared to be an honest expression of his views on Google’s position and an invitation to engage. The unwillingness or inability to engage by the leadership at Google because Damore was offensive and going against the company’s Code of Conduct may have been technically right, but it does underscore his allegation that Google lives in an ‘ideological echo chamber’.

Rather than solely focusing on the traditional HR approach of compliance, it is important that organisations consider the principles that underpin their decisions. Google provides a clear example of what happens when the ‘rule book’ is applied without critical thinking and debate of why the priorities have to be such. Instead, considering the purpose behind the organisational policies, and what they are trying to achieve, can enable balanced decision-making.

In shaping the organisation’s approach to employee voice, a fundamental question to ask is whether voice is purely a mechanism to drive business value, or does it also have inherent value for individuals in promoting freedom and well-being?
Voice: a driver of well-being

Self-expression is a channel for establishing personal identity and autonomy. It is a means of distinguishing ourselves from others and having choice in our actions, rather than being influenced by other people. In the World Values Survey , self-expression is valued more as societal democratic institutions develop, since individuals gain greater freedom of choice in how to live their lives. Providing people with opportunities to openly voice their views in the workplace can increase their sense of autonomy and control. It can also encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work, which is likely to improve well-being and job satisfaction.

But to what extent should people voice provocative opinions at the risk of insulting others? This is a prominent issue with the rise of populism, as demonstrated during the 2016 US election and EU Referendum in the UK. In the cases of some workplaces, this was manifested as people expressing antagonistic political views which bordered on overt hostility and harassment . At the other end of the scale, to some extent such events have led to a polarisation of voice, with those who hold unconventional ideologies being ‘silenced’ and alienated by the mainstream. Voice carries with it certain obligations – both for individuals to be accountable for what they are saying, and to show a level of empathy in listening to other points of view.

Being able to talk to someone when experiencing stress (whether work-related or not) can improve individuals’ sense of wellness. While venting to an empathetic listening ear can be an effective coping mechanism for individuals, management systems often discourage voice that is not constructive or contributing to organisational goals in some way. Listening to people, no matter how challenging their views or feelings may be, is a crucial way of treating them with respect and demonstrating that they are valued as individuals in the employment relationship.

Alternative types of voice

People are likely to use voice for purposes that are meaningful to them, but which are not accounted for in organisational systems. For example, voice can be used to connect and build relationships with other people, which is linked to a fundamental human need for belonging to a social group. While this may create value for the organisation in promoting teamwork and collaboration, it first and foremost serves the needs of the individual. This challenges the current notion of employee voice, which primarily views the purpose of voice as driving employee engagement and therefore organisational effectiveness. For example, involving employees in decision-making is a key element of high performance work systems; this is based on the assumption that employee voice contributes to performance.

An alternative conceptualisation of employee voice suggests that it can have intrinsic value for workers, for example as a driver of well-being and fulfilment rather than solely as a management tool. Creating organisational systems that tap into the human aspects of voice are likely to uncover the ‘missing’ or unheard voices in the workplace. Corporate disasters including the Gulf oil spill in 2010 have demonstrated the potential consequences of employee voice not being heard.

There is also a diversity argument for considering alternative forms of voice, since not all employee voice mechanisms are inclusive of the entire workforce, and therefore do not recognise viewpoints which could provide valuable insight. For example, people who access temporary work via online platforms in the ‘gig economy’ may have limited opportunities to have a say, since they may never meet their employer or colleagues in person. This has led to significant problems in the case of Uber, with workers challenging the company on their rights.

The CIPD’s new research explores different forms of voice and how they might play out in the modern world of work. HR professionals have a key role to play in leading conversations about the organisation’s philosophy on employee voice.

Employers may have voice mechanisms in place for their staff, but it is important that they consider the principles underpinning such mechanisms, to ensure they achieve their purpose.

Existing organisational systems may neglect the ethical aspects of voice which create value for workers, and can enable them to have a more meaningful voice. Developing a holistic approach, which prioritises outcomes for individuals as well as for the business, can drive shared value creation and business sustainability.

To explore the CIPDs latest thinking on the future of voice and a range of world of work issues visit

Louisa Baczor, Research Advisor, and Dr Wilson Wong, Head of Insight and Futures, are running a workshop at the Singapore Human Capital Summit on Wednesday 20  September to explore the CIPD’s latest thinking on ‘voice’.

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