When Employee Voice Goes Wrong

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IBM Kenexa’s Employee Voice survey platform provides a powerful and far reaching set of tools that enables companies to gain a deep understanding of what their employees really think on a range of issues, forming the basis for ongoing growth and development.

It’s no accident that IBM chose the name Employee Voice for the platform – it’s one of the four enablers of employee engagement identified by Engage for Success. But why is Employee Voice so vital? Why does it matter so much that employees are not only listened to, but truly heard?

Researchers[1] used the term ‘pseudo voice’ to describe what happens all too frequently in organisations: managers ask their employees for the opinions and feedback, but completely ignore it. It’s a classic case of saying one thing and doing another, and the effects of this can be devastating. The researchers make an important point that giving employees voice can have negative as well as positive effects – because the outcome “depends on how employees perceive the motives of their manager to provide them with such an opportunity.”

Not surprisingly, the research found that employees who believed their managers were only paying lip service to listening to them became increasingly reluctant to give their input.

Another – and more surprising – finding from the research was that when employees voiced their opinions less frequently, there was more conflict between colleagues. The researchers suggest that this could be because employees took frustrations our on their colleagues rather than their managers, which would be more risky. Whatever the cause, conflict between colleagues has been shown to have a direct negative impact on organisational performance.

There are many ways in which Employee Voice can be sought and heard by each individual manager, with minimal effort and often at no financial cost. For example, one manager added a slip of paper containing simple questions into his employees’ pay packets each month, which the employees could then answer and post in a suggestions box; the manager then actively pursued those answers and followed up with action and/or feedback during the following month.

At an organisational level the principles remain the same, but the logistics are more complex. That’s where IBM Kenexa’s Employee Voice platform comes in to its own. AS IBM Kenexa partners, emenex provides opportunities for a full census (ie organisation-wide annual survey) interspersed with quicker and more frequent self-managed Pulse surveys. It also provides the ability for employers to poll their whole organisation very quickly, to gauge opinion of all employees on a particular topic. And because employees can interact with it via a wide variety of means (computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone) response rates are high.

Inviting contributions implies that some action (however small) will be taken as a result and thus that the contribution will be acknowledged. So Employee Voice is vitally important to every organisation; however, if a manager is only seeking pseudo voice, then it would undoubtedly be better to not listen at all. As the researchers conclude: “When employees perceive pseudo voice, they stop talking and start fighting.”


[1] de Vries, G., Jehn, K.A. & Terwel, B.W. When Employees Stop Talking and Start Fighting: The Detrimental Effects of Pseudo Voice in Organisations. Journal of Business Ethics (2012) 105: 221. doi:10.1007/s10551-011-0960-4

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