Finding a voice in the workplace: an employer’s survival guide.

The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices gave UK employers a glimpse of the future landscape of the workplace. But there’s no time like the present. Here, Mark McKeating of Kuit Steinart Levy LLP suggests four ways that businesses can help employees find their voice.

The promise of an “effective worker voice” and allowing employees a platform to “hear and influence big strategic issues” may not be at the top of most employer’s ‘things to do’ but they should not be discounted altogether. There are plenty of ways that businesses can improve internal communication and in doing so, reduce workplace disputes.

Establish effective communication channels with employees

Make sure your staff are the first to know about new projects or initiatives in the business. Canvass employee views through steering groups and ‘think tank’ sessions.  Hearing workplace news second-hand can significantly undermine the relationship of trust between the employer and employee. It may also be in breach of an employer’s legal obligations to its employees in respect of consulting on workplace changes.  For example, your staff reading in the press about their employer being in advanced talks to sell their business to a competitor is likely to lead to widespread alarm amongst staff and possible claims.

Methods of communication will be different for every employer and their appropriateness will depend upon the size and resources of the organisation, the significance of the news being circulated, and the impact that it will have on its employees. Useful means of communicating with staff include:

  • Intranet bulletins
  • E-mail updates
  • Newsletters
  • Questionnaires
  • Team briefings

Implement and promote clear workplace rules

Policies such as whistleblowing, grievance and anti-bullying and harassment policies are designed to provide employees with a platform to ‘speak up’ and can help reduce Employment Tribunal claims. Employers should raise awareness of its policies through workshops and training with employees. When employee complaints arise the employer should be primed to thoroughly investigate and resolve any issue in an appropriate and timely manner.

The recent spate of sexual harassment allegations in the film and political arenas has highlighted the necessity of effective workplace rules and training across all business sectors.  Policies should clarify what types of behaviour can constitute sexual harassment, and the consequences for employees.  One of the most alarming aspects of the allegations recently reported is the extent of the longstanding culture of silence. This should prompt employers to ensure that this practice is not reflected in their workplace.

Employers need not be reminded how costly sexual harassment claims can be, whether it be financially, culturally or in terms of the business’ reputation. If employees are made to feel comfortable enough to raise their concerns at an early stage, this can avoid protracted tribunal proceedings further down the line.

Employers can encourage their employees to raise concerns by training their management in how to deal with grievances and ensuring that all complaints are treated seriously, confidentially and investigated thoroughly in accordance with ACAS guidelines. Setting positive precedents will reassure employees that are unsure whether to raise a concern.

Encourage your managers to provide constructive feedback to employees

Praising an employee for a job well done is a great motivational tactic and can create a feel good factor in the workplace meaning that workplace claims are less likely to arise. On the flipside, providing constructive feedback on an informal basis can be an effective method of addressing unsatisfactory conduct or performance without the need of going through a formal process.

It can be used as a means of communicating that there is an issue and how the employee can address it whilst avoiding the employee becoming alienated by formal procedure. Ideally the informal discussion would encourage employees to disclose any reasons that have given rise to the issue so that rectifying measures can be tailored accordingly. Employers should actively encourage their staff to provide constructive feedback as a method of performance management.

Recognise the importance of mental health

A recent study found that around 300,000 people with long-term mental health conditions in the UK lose or leave their job every year, suggesting an inability on the part of employers to effectively deal with mental health issues in the workplace. Worryingly this trend illustrates in some cases an employer’s vulnerability to claims of unfair dismissal and disability discrimination, as well as to issues associated with a loss of productivity and a talent drain. The recent ‘Thriving at Work’ report puts the annual cost to the UK economy at a staggering £99 billion, £42 billion of which is thought to be borne by employers.

Commentators believe that this is largely down to mental health not receiving the same levels of exposure, nor being treated with the same severity, as physical health. Accordingly, employers should ensure that they promote mental health awareness and provide employees with a platform in which to discuss their psychological wellbeing. Employers can achieve this by:

  • Educating their workforce on mental health and training management on how to recognise and deal with mental health issues.
  • Committing to improving mental health to help ‘normalise’ the subject and encourage staff to talk about it in a bid to reduce the stigma.
  • Take steps to improve the workplace. This can be done by simply talking to employees, and through collating information relating to staff sickness, staff turnover and performance.
  • Remaining vigilant and observing changes in employee’s behaviour, performance and appearance.

A study by Deloitte estimates that interventions such as these have the potential to generate a return of anywhere from £1.50 to £9 for every £1 invested. So, clearly, there are no lack of incentives for employers to encourage staff to find their voice.

Employment Solicitor


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