Truly hearing your employees

We call our fourth component Employee Representation and I believe it is helpful to unpack what that looks like in practice.  I attended an excellent roundtable on the topic recently, run by Tortoise Media with Kate Bell from the TUC as the speaker.

The key is to not only provide opportunities for employees to express their opinion, voice complaints, concerns or suggestions – it is to ACT on that information and show your workforce that you are listening!

We recently did a survey at another charity I am involved in and this week we skimmed through the free form comments given by our volunteers as part of the survey.  We committed to read every single comment and made sure we were aware of any issues, identified who needed a specific response, and picked up where multiple volunteers raised the same situation and discussed what we might do to improve it.

I know surveys get a mixed reaction – but there is nothing wrong with a good survey as long as someone actually looks at the responses and then REPRESENTS those people to the relevant managers who can act to improve a situation (though the roundtable reflected on the fact employee surveys have failed to innovate in the same way consumer surveys have).  That has been the focus of our questions – ensuring GBC accredited organisations have mechanisms to ensure all employees are represented (including forums and surveys) and, crucially, that what comes out of these mechanisms goes to senior leadership level.

Sometimes it is the sheer number of workers raising an issue that makes a difference … and we have seen that strikes can be an effective part of that. Sometimes it may be one individual who has raised an issue, but that issue is so significant, immediate action is taken (bullying and harassment are good examples of this).

The roundtable contained a very interesting discussion about the merits of a non-Exec Board member who ‘represents’ the employees and an actual employee who is also a Board member who represents the workforce more widely.

I used to be a Governor at my children’s infant school and I believe that the Governing Board in a school can provide a good model for true representation.  There is always a member of staff who is also a governor, thus able to represent the employees (not just relying on having the Headteacher there) and then one or two parent-governors which means you always have parental insight into what is being discussed.  Of course, the view of that particular parent may be skewed toward a particular area – such as sport provision or special educational needs – but it is still a huge improvement on no parent at all.

When I imagine an employee representative on a Board (who is not an employee) arguing the importance of real living wage – and then an actual worker who finds themselves, or colleagues, genuinely struggling to make ends meet and expressing that from the heart – I know which is more likely to get a Board’s attention.  It is surely harder to bat that out of the way when someone round the table has lived experience of the impact of low wages.  It is an effective way to ensure the Board remains connected to what is really happening within the organisation.

There are some good arguments against bringing an employee onto the Board, including the responsibility they would then have to carry in that role, but surely we can get more creative about inviting employee representatives from certain groups to attend a section of the Board meeting and present their case – what a fantastic way to amplify the voice from marginalised and under-represented groups and hear the issues face-to-face.  That will help mitigate against things getting lost in translation from employee forums to the Non-Exec Director representing them.  Ensuring your Head of People is part of the senior leadership team is also an excellent way to elevate the voice of the employees – it is one of the late realisations that the scandal-hit CBI has made and is looking to rectify.

At the roundtable there were some interesting discussions around the CEO pay ratio and I wonder too if employee representatives were in the room for that discussion whether it might help rein in some of these high salaries – and the huge inconsistency in increases and benefits for the most senior people compared with everyone else.

It strikes me that we have employee representation as a separate component in its own right.  When fair pay and fairer contracts have been implemented in an organisation, employee wellbeing is protected and EDI policies and practice in place, employee representation is still required.  There is comparison across companies and to attract the best talent, ensuring employees are heard counts.   Advances in technology continue apace and it is important to hear how that is impacting on the workforce, and recent intelligence shared at the roundtable was of employee concerns around the NHS and access to healthcare, leading to more companies offering private healthcare to all employees, not just senior staff.  Such discussions would not even occur if employees were not given an opportunity to air their views, and have those views considered.

It is more important than ever that our workers have a voice, know how to use it, and most importantly, have confidence that they will be heard and, where appropriate, action will be taken.  When that doesn’t happen, trust and confidence in an organisation soon unravels.