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Stuart Lauchlan

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Executive deafness to employee voices creating lack of engagement


UK bosses need to start to to listen to the voice of employees as engagement between staff and their employers sinks to a record low. 

That’s one of the key findings of the latest CIPD Quarterly Employee Outlook survey which exposes a worrying deterioration in employees’ satisfaction with their ability to feed views upwards, particularly in the public sector.
The CIPD report comes the day after the Francis Inquiry into the scandal at Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust – in which 1200 died as a result of shortcomings – highlighted lack of responsiveness to employee concerns as one major failing. 
According to the CIPD study, only a fifth (21%) of public sector employees trust their senior leaders, with 53% disagreeing (compared with 43% and 29% in the private sector). 
There’s also significant unhappiness among staff over the extent to which they are consulted by senior leaders about important decisions. Just 19% of public sector staff agree they are consulted about important decisions while almost two thirds (62%) disagree (compared with 27% and 50% in the private sector).
All of this has a knock-on effect of course.  According to the CIPD’s Employee Engagement Index, just 29% of public sector staff are actively engaged, compared to 37% in the private sector and 41% in the voluntary sector. Overall, across all sectors, just 35% of employees are engaged – a record low for the survey.
Other key findings include: 
  • Women continue to be slightly more engaged (37%) than men (34%).
  • Employees who have been with their employer for the least amount of time (up to
six months) are the most engaged (43%).
  • The proportion of employees agreeing or strongly agreeing they achieve the right work–life balance has fallen since the last quarter to 56% from 61%. 
  • Men are less likely to agree they achieve the right work–life balance (50%) than women (61%).
  • The proportion of staff saying they are under excessive pressure either every day or once or twice a week has reduced since last quarter to 38%, compared with 41% for the previous three months.
  • Public sector employees are significantly more likely to report they are under excessive pressure than employees in the other sectors, with 46% saying they are under excessive pressure either every day (17%) or once or twice a week (29%).
  • Some 42% of employees report their organisation has frozen pay, virtually unchanged from the
last quarter (43%). 
  • Public sector respondents are most likely to report a pay freeze, with 71% saying this is the case, a slight decrease from 74% for the previous quarter. 
  • The proportion of private sector employees reporting a pay freeze has remained unchanged at 34%.
Change your ways
But ultimately a lot of this comes back to lack of engagement and an unheard employee voice.“Employee voice is strongly linked to employee engagement and innovation,” says Ben Willmott, head of public policy at CIPD. “If employees feel able to feed views upwards, then ideas from the front line – where staff engage with customers or patients – are more likely to inform organisational strategy and lead to improvements in service delivery or product quality,” 
“For engagement and innovation to thrive, and for whistleblowers to feel protected, it’s important to create an open culture where senior managers consult staff about key decisions and employees trust their managers enough to be able to express their views whether asked for them or not.
“ If you don’t consult staff as a leader you are saying we don’t think staff have a valid opinion and that senior managers always know best. Consultation also has to be meaningful, allowing enough time for the effective consideration of employee opinions before decisions are taken.”
Things must change, warns Willmott.  “Given the importance of trust in senior leaders, we see a need for a fundamental change in the nature of leadership in the public sector,” he argues. “There needs to be a shift away from traditional command and control styles of leadership to a culture in which leadership is distributed across organisations. 
“CIPD research published late last year found that public sector chief executives recognise that the only way public services can be made more efficient and responsive to the needs of service users is if employees on the front-line are trusted to innovate and empowered to act with more autonomy. Leaders across all sectors should recognise this and make sure managers at all levels are equipped with the necessary leadership skills to involve and engage their staff.” 

What to do? 
The CIPD recommends that employers re-examine strategies and bear key factors in mind such as: 
  • Employees will be much more likely to speak up if they receive recognition when their ideas or concerns are acted on and are given feedback when they are not.
  • Some employees are more likely to speak up than others, so employers should consider building in opportunities for employee voice as part of formal performance reviews as well as informal one-to-ones with managers, meetings and knowledge sharing forums.
  • A combination of both direct arrangements for informing and consulting with staff, such as through line managers, and indirect mechanisms, such as staff councils or forums, are the most effective way of providing employee voice in organisations.
  • Organisation values and leadership and management development activities should highlight the importance of employee voice. 
  • Net satisfaction scores refer to the proportion of people agreeing with a statement minus the proportion of those disagreeing. Scores can range from -100 to +100.
The full CIPD report can be downloaded here.