Finding Our Voice: Where Did The Concept of Employee Voice Come From? – Source of the Month (April 2023)

‘Employee voice’ is seen as a vital part of modern internal comms. The CIPD’s factsheet says it brings mutual benefits to employers and employees. For employers, it helps to build trust and can lead to engagement, innovation, productivity, and organizational commitment. For employees, it creates a sense of value, job satisfaction, influence, and development opportunities. The CIPD defines employee voice as:

‘the way people communicate their views to their employer and influence matters that affect them at work’

The precise origins of the term ‘employee voice’ are unclear, but it has been used with increasing frequency in the world of internal comms from the 1990s onwards. But is the concept a new one? Or is it just a new term for an old concept?

To investigate whether this concept already existed without the name, we can look for some of the communication methods that go hand-in-hand with employee voice. Formal methods include surveys, suggestion schemes, and employee forums. Employee voice can also mean having an opportunity for one-to-one conversations with line managers. Recently, social media has offered an alternative channel of employee voice.

Some of these methods have been practised for over a century. Occasionally, in fact, they were even talked about in terms of giving employees a ‘voice’, even if the precise term ‘employee voice’ wasn’t used. Suggestion schemes were advocated by the industrial welfare movement that followed World War One. In a 1921 article, the Industrial Welfare Society even justified them on the basis of:

‘the feeling on the part of employees that most employers wish them to do just as they are told and to have no voice in affairs themselves at all. Industrial relations are developing rapidly. Democratic principles are being established and all the most progressive firms realise that success involves their securing the confidence of their workers.’

From The Journal of Industrial Welfare, vol. i no. 1 (Jan 1921), p. 34. Held at Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.303/B19/1/3.

Employee forums and employee surveys were not entirely unheard of in the 1920s. During the war, the government formed the Whitley Councils, in which representatives of both employers and employees sought to improve productivity. Cadbury was inspired to found the Bournville Works Council, which made recommendations to managers and also organised social events. Germany was held up as an example of how works councils could give employees a voice in an Industrial Welfare Society article in August 1928, only two years before the Nazi Party would emerge as a major contender in the Reichstag elections. Likewise, surveys were occasionally conducted, such as Seebohm Rowntree’s review of workplace conditions that shaped his 1921 book The Human Factor in Business.

It was after World War Two, however, that employee councils and surveys became widespread and institutionalised. They also started to be discussed in terms of giving employees a ‘voice’ and were often associated with the notion of ‘industrial democracy’. As such, voice was being understood in terms of workers having collective representation in decision-making, either through trade unions or elected employee councils.

The need for cooperation between the government and industry during the war effort drove industrial democracy in the UK. After the war, there were discussions over how the benefits of this could continue. In the Industrial Welfare Society journal in 1949, James C Worthy (from the personnel department of Sears, Roebuck and Co) talked of industrial democracy in terms of the:

‘right of every man to a voice in his own affairs, which includes his right to contribute to the best of his ability in the solution of common problems’

From The Journal of Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management, vol. 31 no. 3 (May-Jun 1949), pp. 74-75. Held at Warwick Modern Records Centre MSS.303/B19/1/31.

Post-World War Two Britain also saw the rise of employee surveys, which became widespread from the 1950s to the 1970s. Looking at one of the first examples of a survey in 1954, the Industrial Welfare Society magazine posed the question, ‘Do you ever wonder what your employees really think about job satisfaction, wages received, their working environment, attitude of management and similar questions?’ The magazine gave the results of this employee survey:

From The Journal of Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management, vol. 36 no. 2 (Mar-Apr 1954), pp. 58-59. Held at Warwick Modern Records Centre MSS.303/B19/1/36.

So did employee voice already exist after World War Two or, perhaps, as far back as World War One? Yes and no! Like many concepts, it has changed incrementally over time. A key difference with the modern term ‘employee voice’ is its emphasis on the individual feeling empowered rather than represented collectively. Leadership Communication Consultant Dominic Walters says employee voice:

‘is about catering for individuals and that’s one of the crucial roles that line managers play’

Yet this concept did not suddenly appear fully formed out of nowhere. It has gradually evolved out of earlier concepts like industrial democracy that also concerned themselves with giving employees a voice. In fact, the emphasis on the individual is almost a return to the ethos of the humble suggestion box a century ago, moving away from the collective representation of the mid-twentieth century.

While the exact origins of the term “employee voice” may be unclear, it is apparent that the concept of giving employees a say in their own affairs has been around for over a century. Formal methods such as surveys, suggestion schemes, and employee forums have been in practice for decades and were occasionally even referred to as giving employees a “voice” in the early 1900s. The post-World War II era saw the rise of employee councils and surveys, which became institutionalised and associated with the notion of industrial democracy. The modern concept of employee voice places greater emphasis on individual empowerment, but it has evolved gradually out of earlier concepts like industrial democracy. Today, employee voice is a crucial part of modern internal comms, bringing mutual benefits to both employers and employees alike.

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