‘Have British Workers Lost Their Voice?’

06/08/2013; By dr Stewart Johnstone, lecturer in Human Resource Management and researcher at the Human Resource Management, Work and Employment (HRMWE) subject group at Newcastle University Business School.

“My research is broadly concerned with the management of work and people, and past research has examined a range of HR and employment relations issues.   However, one of my core interests is the notion of employee voice.  Put simply, employee voice is concerned with workers having a say and input into organisational decision-making.  For employers, interest in employee voice might be driven by a belief that it makes good business sense to capture the ideas and knowledge which resides within the heads of everyone working within their organisation.  For employees, having an opportunity to express opinions and ideas can potentially make work more interesting and satisfying, as well as providing a chance to improve the overall experience of work.  A central assumption is that both employers and employees stand to benefit from giving workers a voice.”

“Traditionally, employee voice was synonymous with trade unions negotiating terms and conditions of employment, and perhaps given this focus, the default relationships between unions and management were assumed to be hostile.  However, over the last ten years, I have conducted extensive research exploring the concept of ‘partnership’ between employers and trade unions, where employers and unions commit to work together and engage in dialogue regarding a wide range of issues for the overall benefit of the business.  Much of this has involved case studies of employment relations in the UK financial service sector.  The central idea of partnership is that both sides work together to increase the size of the overall pie as well as fighting over the size of their slices.  However, many organisations, especially in the private sector, no longer recognise trade unions and as such  some of my research has also explored other options for collective employee representation such as in-house ‘staff councils’ and ‘employee forums’.  While in many European nations consultation with employees over workplace and business issues is a normal part of workplace life, the UK has often seemed to lag behind in this regard leading to concerns that British workers have lost their voice.  I have written a range of articles on these themes, I am currently editing a book ‘Finding a Voice: Employee Representation in the New Workplace’ which will be published by Oxford University Press next year (2014).”

“Current research, funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, continues this line of enquiry by exploring the dynamics of workplace relations in tough economic times, with a particular focus on issues of employee voice and employee engagement in light of the global financial crisis.  I’m particularly interested in finding out more about how periods of crisis affect workforce relations: can crisis actually bring an organisation closer together, or does it inevitably have a negative impact on employee engagement and voice?”

Stewart is Lecturer in HRM at Newcastle University Business School.  Prior to this he was on the faculty in the School of Business and Economics at Loughborough University. His research and teaching interests traverse human resource management and employment relations. Recent projects have examined various issues concerned with the management of work and people.