HR Florida

Newswire

Florida State Council Affiliate of SHRM

Employee Voice: Constructive or Destructive? The HR Practitioners Guide to Positive Outcomes

By Dr. Keith D. Holloway

Recent years have brought seismic shifts in ways of working, creating significant challenges for HR practitioners with trends of uncertainty that show no signs of abatement.  Throughout COVID-19, the restructuring in support of remote and hybrid work, the subsequent economic and geopolitical forces presenting as inflation/stagflation, tumultuous election cycles, and conflicts abroad, companies have struggled to maintain an engaged and thriving workforce. In an environment that is increasingly difficult and stressful for employees, feelings of company loyalty are replaced with a self-preserving individualism that damages culture and group cohesion.  Employees have a daily choice of response, with some leaving their company, and others becoming complacent in their current role or sticking it out while navigating the uncertain waters ahead.

It is this arena in which HR professionals find themselves.  On one hand, uncontrollable macro forces threaten to disrupt carefully crafted cultures, teams, and systems.  On the other hand, the microscopic perspectives of each employee provide many individual viewpoints through which each company policy and action is scrutinized and judged.  While HR practitioners cannot control the prevailing winds of the economy or geopolitics, they can glean lessons from scholarly work of the past several decades, pointing to better ways of interacting with employees for improved outcomes, engagement, and retention.

What Scholarship Says About Employee Voice

One area of scholarly work in improving the employee experience has been that of providing mechanisms to promote and manage employee “voice.”  Employee voice has long been a topic of research, finding one of its leading researchers in Hirschman (1970).  Hirschman discussed exit, voice, and loyalty at length, describing how employees can quit (exit) or stick it out and try to positively improve their situation via feedback and involvement (voice), all depending on their feelings (loyalty) toward the company.

When choosing between leaving or staying, Hirschman theorized that the pull toward either exit or voice is influenced by the employee’s loyalty to the company.  He posited that the employee’s decision would be largely influenced by the belief in which their contributions (voice) would make a difference in their work situation. Understanding the influence this belief has on the power of voice is crucial for those helping their workforce maintain a positive attitude toward the company.

In the words of Hirschman, “voice” is the act of making attempts to “change the practices and policies of the company … rather than to escape.”  These attempts could manifest as petitions to management, forcing change, or protests. When compared to employees leaving the company, the use of voice for positive change is the obvious and preferred outcome.  However, Hirschman posited that voice can be “overdone” leading to protests so overwhelming as to be harassing, hindering the very progress for which the feedback would be intended. Additionally, voice may take on ‘silent’ and negative form, such as sabotage, the passing of rumors, neglect (Rusbult et al., 1982) , or more recently, the trend of “quiet quitting.”

New scholarship has supported the notion that voice can be destructive in such a way as to hinder growth and change within an organization (Holloway, 2024).  Voice is expressed negatively when employees stay, yet their voice veers toward destructive rhetoric, rather than constructive criticism. In these situations, employees exhibit behaviors such as withholding information from colleagues or consolidating power, speaking out against change, or speaking against leadership.  When this happens, how does the HR professional facilitate a change toward positivity, helping employees find their constructive voice?

Helping Employees Find Their Constructive Voice

Kotter & Schlesinger (1979, 2012) shed light on helping employees find their way in turbulent times in their seminal paper in the Harvard Business Review, where they offer communication, participation, facilitation, and negotiation as tools for mitigating resistance to change.  Their suggestions are amplified by Marchington (2007) through his application of “task-based participation” and “upward problem-solving” where he instructs that voice can be positively channeled in scenarios where employees act together as teams to directly apply themselves to the process of work. 

As Hirschman suggested, employees must have reason to believe that staying and contributing to the organization will yield positive benefits.  The framework for this belief is to be built into the psychological contract between the company, HR, and the employee.  Marchington suggests that HR professionals must foster systems for voice where employees have multiple avenues for expression (breadth) and deep and meaningful ways to interact within these avenues (depth). 

The lessons of Kotter, Schlesinger, and Marchington can be applied when creating systems for voice such that company loyalty will be strengthened and attitudes of voice will become more positive.  The practical application of these learnings will help employees find their constructive voice in four ways:

  1. Communication
    Employees should be informed of company information early and often when the power of communication is most efficacious and able to affect change toward positive attitudes.  Changes to organizational structure, leadership, finances, production direction, market position, processes, and ways of work should be deliberately and clearly communicated to employees through multiple channels.  Manager one-on-ones, staff meetings, company intranets, newsletters, bulletin board postings, and the like should be utilized to transparently communicate with employees.
  2. Participation
    While communication consists primarily of information flowing from company to employee, participation provides an avenue for two-way communication and involvement.  Scholarship suggests that the availability of multiple outlets for voice leads to more positive perceptions by employees.  Therefore, HR practitioners should look to find multiple avenues for employees to participate in affecting and managing the direction of policy, team governance, product direction, and culture.  Employees should be invited to participate in panels, working groups, tiger teams, planning committees, quality circles, and in the execution of market assessments.  By being allowed to make early contributions, employees will appreciate that their input is valued and that their expertise is recognized.
  3. Facilitation
    Employees understand that companies invest in assets considered most valuable. This investment can take many forms.  For example, HR practitioners should advocate for training programs to help employees learn new processes and expand their skill sets.  HR professionals must be available to listen and respond to employee concerns.  Employee wellness programs may be established to foster improved mental and physical health, especially during times of stress or change.  Employee assistance programs (EAPs) may be utilized as an aid for employees, providing counseling services and emotional support should be offered to help employees adapt to change in both their work and personal lives.
  4. Negotiation
    Research has shown that employees associate pay and performance with weighting based on the actual results of their work (Yu & Ming, 2008).  Therefore, employee remuneration may be considered a tool for influencing employee voice by rewarding employees who make significant positive contributions, such as expressing their voice through enthusiastic involvement, promoting company initiatives, or being champions of change.  In some cases, bonuses and financial incentives may be useful in encouraging positive employee voice, building trust in the organization, and ensuring improved organizational commitment (Holloway, 2024).

In Conclusion

Communication, participation, facilitation, and negotiation are building blocks for creating effective systems for employee involvement, engagement, and feedback. These systems are crucial to the promotion of constructive voice within the organization and creating them is a challenge that is worth the time and attention of HR professionals.  These systems will build employee loyalty and will guard against destructive voices that can pervasively infect an organization from within.  Positive outcomes such as improved retention, engagement, and employee well-being will act as multipliers within your organization, yielding greater employee and organizational health, while guarding against seen and unseen macro forces that act as headwinds against your workforce, and ultimately, your company’s growth and profitability.

For Further Reading

Hirschman, A. O. (1970). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Harvard University Press.

Holloway, K. (2024). Organizational Cultural Entrenchment: Exploring Cultural Antecedents of Actively Destructive Employee Behaviors as a Manifestation of Voice in Mergers and Acquisitions. Florida Institute of Technology.

Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press.

Kotter, J. P., & Schlesinger, L. A. (1979). Choosing Strategies for Change. Harvard Business Review.

Marchington, M. (2007). Employee Voice Systems. In P. Boxall, J. Purcell, & P. Wright (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Human Resource Management (pp. 231–250). Oxford University Press.

Rusbult, C. E., Zembrodt, I. M., & Gunn, L. K. (1982). Exit, Voice, Loyalty, and Neglect: Responses to Dissatisfaction in Romantic Involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(6), 1230–1242.

Yu, B. T. W., & Ming, T. W. (2008). Effects of control mechanisms on positive organizational change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 21(3), 385–404. https://doi.org/10.1108/09534810810874840

Dr. Keith D. Holloway is a research fellow for the Center for Innovation Management and Business Analytics at the Florida Institute of Technology, specializing in organizational behavior.  He has 28 years of experience in software engineering, leading teams in the creation of solutions for the defense/aerospace, telecommunications, and healthcare industries.  Contact him at [email protected].