Employee Voice Essay

The development of the different methods used to engage ‘employee voice’ strongly coincides with the timeline that businesses have endured through in the present/ twentieth century. In the UK in particular, the methods implemented could be correlated to the economic and political climate of the country at that moment in time.

This essay will look at various methods that have been used in the historical and modern context to give employees ‘voice’ which include Voluntarism, Trade Unions (TU’s) and their decline, the Psychological Contract, European Works Councils and Joint Consultation Committees (JCC’s), Informing and Consulting Directive (ICE 2004) and the High Performance Workplace. First it is important to look at definitions of voice and why it is so important to the employment relationship. An older definition of employee voice is by Hirschman (1970), who states the idea of employee voice being a form of active dissent due to dissatisfaction.

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This applies rather well at the time this particular academic was writing, as the political and economic climate of the UK at the time was not the most stable. Research has expanded and built on from this, and a definition that is more applicable to modern day employee voice would be “a whole variety of processes and structures which enable, and at times empower, employees directly and indirectly, to contribute to decision-making” (Boxall and Purcell, 2003:162). This definition implies that the ‘stronger’ the voice of employees, the more efficient and productive they will be in the workplace.

The employment relationship at the beginning however was not quite as communicative and well recognised. Voluntarism was the first approach used by the Governments ‘the absence of statutory regulation’ (Hyman, 2003: 40). This was a system whereby the UK state avoided interaction in relationships between employers and employees. However the approach did not proceed fast enough leading both major political parties to introduce a comprehensive legal framework to compel reforms. During these reforms however there was no attempt to put collective bargaining on a legal footing.

The social contract was also introduced around this time by the Wilson/Callaghan governments; in return the unions would control the demands of individuals for increased wages. This policy of ‘laissez-faire’ ultimately failed as unemployment levels increased by 1. 3 million people between1974-1979. Although this is not directly concerned with employee’ voice’, it is beginning to show that the employment relationship is starting to be taken seriously by organisations and the government. The Donovan Report (1968) identified Britain has two systems of industrial relations.

The first is the formal system embodied in the official institutions for example, Trade Unions. The other is the informal system created by the actual behaviour of unionist workers, employers associations, of managers, shop stewards and workers. In the United Kingdom worker representation has traditionally been channelled through recognised Trade Unions. This is a single-channel approach where a recognised union may have a monopoly on worker representation. With the creation of Trade Unions, the notion of employee voice has come to the forefront of academic study.

At the beginning, employee voice and its industrials actions were extremely damaging to the UK’s economy, the Winter of Discontent in 1978-1979 is an extreme example, where multiple unions were on strike at the same time. The Conservative Government Legislation introduced mainly over the 1980’s and early 1990’s was to ‘reduce’ the unions’ voice and power and try to put a restriction on its actions, trying to effectively sever the main route of employee voice i. e. TU’s/Collective Bargaining.

At the start there was no restriction to strike actions; employees could voice their anger and strike against organisations across the country (even if the issue did not affect them), this in turn damaged the relationship between management and the employees. Theoretically, secondary boycotting and picketing could be a never ending spiral; employees voice their concerns on an issue, they strike, companies end up in crippling debt (due to man hours lost), are forced to close, which then causes other organisations to go on strike over the way the previous situation was handled.

The main approach of negotiation by TU’s was through Collective Bargaining. Collective Bargaining is the “negotiation about working conditions and terms and conditions of employment between an employer, a group of employers or one or more employer’s organisations, on the one hand, and one or more representative worker’s organisations on the other, with a view to reaching an agreement” (Farnham and Pimlott 1995).

Collective Bargaining is important in the employment relationship as it recognises the TU’s right to represent its employees for consultative or bargaining purposes and represents a fundamental and irreversible change in the employment relationship (Trade Union Recognition Institute of Personnel Management 1977, p24). The first legislation to try and weaken TU’s was the 1980 Employment Act which was targeting secondary boycotting and picketing. The Government wanted to limit the scale and scope of these activities, to individuals who were only directly involved with the issues concerned.

However the legislation did guarantee some lawful rights for individuals. The first law was, employees were to be protected near their own place of work; it even made provisions for mobile workers, union officials and already dismissed workers. However immunity of protection over secondary action was later retracted in the 1990 Employment which opened up the possibility of legal damages against secondary strikers. Damages against the unions and individuals were setup in the 1982 Employment Act. This discouraged unions and individuals from carrying out unlawful action.

The 1984 Trade Union Act and the 1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act were big steps in regulating the relationship between management and employees and the way industrial action was held. Instead of informal voting by hand in a car park, there was now a balloting process conducted in a secret via post. This in some ways helps to protect employees who did not want to go on strike, as they could not be bullied by colleagues into changing/influencing their vote. It also helped to smooth the whole industrial action process, as everything was given time limits.

For example, instead of instant industrial action soon as any vote had been passed, unions must give the employer at least seven days written notice of its intention to take official industrial action. The 1999 Employment Relations Act also helped individuals effectively decide whether they want to be part of the union process or not. The legislation enabled each individual to have a legal right to be or not to be a union member either by Voluntary, semi-voluntary, Automatic recognition or Recognition by ballot.

This is important as it allows the organisations and individuals to decide whether they want to voice their opinion strongly enough to join TU’s. Although TU’s have had various successes and failures, and are now in steady decline, total membership of union members in the UK in 2004 was still 6. 78 million people in employment (DTI, 2005). With TU membership levels having fallen by over 4. 8 million people since 1979. Documented reasons that have been identified for the fall in trade union membership are due in part to a fall in employment in highly unionised industries, like the construction industry.

Modern workplaces (are now mainly service orientated) which tend to lean towards non-union status: as the organisations are smaller, employ more part time and less skilled/qualified staff. There is no doubt that TU’s are/have been critically important in the development of the employment voice and relationship. After all Collective agreement is more efficient for employers than individual agreement. Benefits of recognising TU’s for individuals and organisations are as follows, they were an important basis for co-operation in change between workers and management. This allows individuals to voice ideas and rticulate thoughts, for example, improving working conditions within organisations and improving competitiveness. It allows individuals to form together in large groups, to create a ‘union voice’. Individuals can feel empowered, as this voice allows them to express their views via representatives, which cannot be ignored by management (at the risk of strikes). TU’s can also be effective as a powerful lobbying groups against government policies, and can act as an independent ‘policeman’ of policies/procedures to ensure that employees are not being taken advantage of by organisations.

This in turn reduces the number of tribunal cases as the issues are dealt with at work rather than at court. Another process of the employment relationship that can help individuals decide whether or not they feel their ‘voice’ or rights are being breached is via the psychological contract. The contract was mainly around in organisations in the 1990’s. It is the psychological contract that enables employees to see what is required from them in order to meet their side of the bargain, and what they can expect from their job.

Whilst there are the obvious strategic implications of this, the focus here is on the management of employees expectations, their attitudes and the fairness of the process. The impact of organisational change has led some academics to believe that a re-haul of the contract needs to be introduced (Brotherton 2003; Guest 2007). If employees interests are important to the organisation, or at least being considered, then they are far less likely to voice concerns over the current operation. This in turn could be an easy way to measure employee attitudes and manage their expectations at the same.

If organisations are willing to be informed and consulted by employees then overall job satisfaction is most likely to increase. However, missmanagement of these situations is where the concern lies. The cost of failing to fulfil employee expectations may cause alienation to the organisations by indivduals. The search is now on for new deals for new times (Herriot and Pemberton, 1995) In these new times, the shift of representation for the employment relationship there has been towards Indirect Participation.

In this modern context, the employee relationship is started to being governed by Worker representation on joint union management bodies like JCC’s, European Works Councils, Informing and Consulting Directive and the High Performance Workplace. Joint Consultation Committees (JCC’s) were implemented into organisations to address issues not covered by collective bargaining . They focus on consultation rather than negotiation. They represent 14% of workplaces in the UK. JCC’s consist of employee representitaives and management, they can complement or substitute for TU’s.

JCC’s have declined in popularity over recent years as organisations have moved their emphasis to direct communication. Examples of modern day companies that use JCC’s at the moment would be BMW (Hams Hall) and the BP (Employee Forum). European Works Councils were implemented in 1996 in Europe, and then extended to the UK in 1999. The legislation entitles organisations that have more than to create EWC’s is that the companies must have more than 1000 employees and with at least 150 employees in at least two member states.

The council main directive is to ensure that employees have a right to information and consultation and the councils act as ‘vehicles’ for employee workplace representation in many countries. They are designed to increase pressure on employers, in particular transnationally to consult with employee representatives over a range of EU and national specific issues. Arrangements for EWC’s vary considerably from country to country (making it hard for direct comparisons) and organisation to organisation.

The most notable variation is whether it is trade union based or employee based (voluntary or statutory provision). Compliance is higher in larger companies. Approximately a third of companies covered by the directive have EWC’s in place. Factors affecting the levels of employee voice depend on the strength of employee side within the organisation, the country of origin (especially countries with strong tradition of worker involvement), the diversity of operation and company industrial relations effect i. . longer tradition of work councils within the country. (Gilman and Marginson, 2002). Depending on the content of the agreement, different EWC’s will have different roles/powers meaning individuals in some organisations may still lack the power and voice they require. In the UK, workplace consultation structures can be traced back over a century. In 2004 just over 42% of all employees were located in a workplace with a workplace joint consultation committee (Kersley et al. 2005: 14). The UK also has long standing issue specific health and safety as well as requirements over redundancy and transfer. In comparison to other European countries, the levels of Work Council Systems implemented in the UK is far behind other counties, like Germany Weaknesses identified in Work Councils by academics are firstly that there is a lack of managerial commitment to consultation, with employees also demonstrating a limited willingness to developing them effectively.

Weiler (2004) identifies limitations in the practice of EWC’s, specifically, the frequency of meetings, inadequacy of training on consultation, language barriers, the widespread use of EWC’s to inform workers rather than consultation of decisions and discussions are more likely to be over implementation. Kelly (1996: 54-7) also finds that the dangers for employees in EWC’s lie in the ideological and power issues in the operation of work councils, namely: encouraging employees to identify their interests ever more closely with employers’ and therefore acting as road block for effective unionism.

However Hyman (1996: 80-2) argues that assertive work councils could still offer an effective channel for employee voice in the place of union weakness. The European Commission allowed member states discretion in the introduction of regulations in the interests of existing mechanisms for consultation or bargaining (Hall, 2005: 107-8) meaning organizations’ were given time to adapt, and the change was not just forced upon them. Jenkins, J and Blyton, P. (2008) go on to speculate in their work whether ‘Works councils offer a new opportunity for a stronger labour voice to develop?

Or whether they provide employers with greater scope to marginalize and undermine unions and incorporate worker representatives’. Essentially the argument is here that the new forms of representation are actually reducing employee’s ‘voice’ and putting the power back in the hand of management. Work Councils are not the only effective form of employee voice in the modern day, other employee representation legislation has been implemented in the EU. The Informing and Consulting Directive 2002/14/EC established a general framework for informing and consulting employees in the European Community.

The legislation implements the EC Directive on Informing and Consulting employees. This was expanded by ICE 2004. It is based on a framework agreed with the CBI and TUC. From the 6th April 2005, employees in organisations with 150 or more employees have a right to be informed and consulted on a regular basis about issues in the organisation they work for However the requirements in the legislation do not apply automatically to organisations. Employers can initiate the process themselves, or an employee request must be made by at least 10% of employees in the organisation (subject to a minimum of 15 employees and a maximum of 2500 employees).

Already existing agreements on information and consultation may also continue currently where they enjoy the support of the workforce. Specifically looking at employee voice in the I&C Directive however they may be a means of employer avoidance of formal negotiation and bargaining by delaying the process as long as possible – leading to frustration-. The new law is designed to encourage employers, employees and their representatives to agree information and consultation arrangements that suit their particular circumstances – it does not spell out the subjects discussed, the timing of them and of the arrangements that are agreed.

Arrangements may cover more than one company, or establish different processes in different parts within the same organisation. Dundon et al. (2004) suggests in their research that ‘With the passing of the I and C Directive, the issue of further regulation in the area of employee voice is likely to be an on-going concern. This will impact directly and indirectly on the nature of, meaning and purpose of employee voice… there remains a rising tide of legal regulation and more sympathetic…support for trade union representative forms of employee voice”.

This may even be suggesting that there might be a shift back to the traditional ways of employee representation in negotiation. The definition for the High Performance Workplace is ‘high levels of performance, profitability and customer satisfaction by enhancing skills and engaging the enthusiasm of employees. ’ In Freeman and Lazear (1995) their research indicates: ‘Firms can increase production by giving employees a voice in management and production decisions.

However, they do so at a cost; the more voice they give to employees, the greater the share of opinions the employees will appropriate’ In an ideal world the HPW will help to create and generate powers of workers so that they can regularly produce new businesses and improve existing systems. This should strengthen communication between employer and employees. It is essentially through the establishment of improved dialogue and trust between the parties that more satisfactory outcomes are likely to be achieved for both employers and employees. In organisations where no system is currently in place.

Non-unionised representative bodies are likely to lack experience and to look for support from TU’s. Implementation of the new regulations could over time reinforce the decline in collective bargaining. However, many employers will prefer not to disturb existing negotiating arrangements where these are already working satisfactorily. In conclusion there has been discussion and recognition of the main changes in the Employment Relationship in its historic and current state. With European influence becoming more involved in UK state law there have been some identifiable trends.

Employers have sought greater flexibility in hiring, firing, and deploying workers. There has also been changes to institutional systems to protect workers (Benson, J. and Brown, M. 2010). Furthermore it is important to note that all legislation that has been passed on employment regulations by both previous Labour and Conservative governments has never been scrapped. The legislation has simply been ‘added’ or adapted to. There has been a move from ‘Collectivism’ to ‘individualism’ in labour markets and negotiation strategies.

From direct social conflict to informing and consulting, the decline of TU’s/ traditional industries and the choice of individuals on whether they wish to participate in industrial action. The waning of trade unionism, and the appearance of a purported representation gap (Towers, 1997) is why groups like Works Councils and HPW’s will probably continue to grow and expand in the UK. Academics have recognised that employee voice has a larger positive effect on productivity when it is done in the context of unionised establishments (Black, S. and Lynch, L, 2004).

McCabe and Lewin (1992) also state that organisations “recognise the importance, even the necessity, of maximising employee voice”. Marchington, M. , Wilkinson, A. and Ackers, P. (2001) also mention in their work that the importance of employee voice is growing and that: ‘organisations that seek to promote voice are those that believe that employees want to contribute to the business’ and that ‘for employees to have an effective voice, the important part of the communication process is not what the employer puts out but what it gets back’.

Work Councils and HPW’s and other forms of employee representation will only successfully represent employee voice effectively if implemented and monitored correctly. Laulom (2010) states after a negative report on the EWC directive that current restructuring exercises demonstrate the necessity of full and active representation for employees at an European level, to future conflicts.


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