Monday, March 19, 2012

The Value of Employee Voice

I write this from 30,994 feet over the North Atlantic on the way back from London where I had the pleasure of participating in the Voice and Value 2012 conference at the London School of Economics. This engaging conference brought together academics, human resources professionals, and trade unionists who believe in the importance of employee voice and share an interest in the role of employee voice in promoting not only workers' goals, but also organizational goals. This year's focus was therefore on voice and employee engagement. My presentation outlined the implications for engagement and voice that flow from the conceptualizations of work that I developed in my book, The Thought of Work. In return, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing HR professionals from several companies describe how formal voice arrangements in their organizations foster employee engagement.

The global technology consulting company Capgemini, for example, has a collective consultation unit called a "Forum" for each of its major business units in the UK. Where there is significant union membership, there are union seats in the Forum, and the rest of the seats are nonunion. The Forums, in turn, feed into a UK-level works council, which in turn feeds into an international works council. It is common for unionists to see nonunion consultation mechanisms and works councils as hollow exercises, and common for managers to see these bodies as unnecessary obstacles to effective decision-making. And yet the Capgemini experience seemingly disproves both views. There are examples where the works council has been able to exercise power, for example, by walking out and thus forcing corporate leaders to engage in more meaningful consultation. At the same time, the corporate leaders have come to see the value that the Forums and works councils can provide because the joint solutions that are reached have been better than the plans that the executives wanted to unilaterally implement before consulting with these bodies. And many at Capgemini apparently believe that the success of these voice mechanisms further enriches their efforts to achieve high levels of employee engagement. Yes, even at a technology consulting company with many professional employees.

Admittedly, these efforts face significant challenges. Representatives must be trained and supported. Representatives and managers must take time away from what's typically considered their "real jobs." There are meeting expenses, and delays in decision-making. There are risks to employees if works councils are manipulated by managers, and risks to managers if works councils become stepping stones to unionization. But as the presentations at the Voice and Value conference attest, they can be richly beneficial for companies and their employees where everyone is willing to put in the work necessary. Except in many sectors of the United States economy where they are illegal.

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