Supporting Employee Voice at Work

What tools can your company use to cultivate freedom of expression in a professional environment?

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Voice represents an individual’s ability to influence their network and interpersonal connections — including people they don't even know — to raise awareness, advocate for, promote, protest, or advance a cause or social issue. In recent years, young people have regularly exercised their voices by uplifting issues, convincing peers to vote, calling out for racial justice, and spurring social change. In fact, according to a CIRCLE poll, 27% of young people (ages 18-24) say they have attended a march or demonstration in 2020. This shows a remarkable increase in public expression over past years.

But what happens when personal and professional lives blur? Every day, younger generations are entering the workforce with heightened social awareness and a passion for action. Millennials and Gen Z alike are demanding that brands take stands and are using their own voices to invite others to join them in supporting causes.

Employee voice manifests itself in the workplace in several ways:  

  • Internally, employees may object to business practices that go against stated corporate or personal values. We’ve seen several examples of this, from employees walking out in protest of organizations their employer does business with to employees unionizing in order to demonstrate their desire to work for an employer that authentically lives up to its values.
  • Externally, employees can use their individual and collective voice to demonstrate support for causes they’re personally passionate about and to help raise awareness for the social issues their employer is working to solve. Sometimes an employee’s personal passions may not align with company policy or values and can potentially be construed as distracting if brought into the work environment. Think of recent news stories of employees being prevented from wearing apparel with certain slogans to work or being fired after being outed on social media for participating in violent protests. By contrast, some employers provide paid time off to march, vote, or serve in public office, and some even offer bail funds to employees arrested while peacefully protesting in support of a corporate cause area.

Employee voice in the workplace comes with opportunities and challenges and can highlight a potentially detrimental double standard – when an employer supports employees raising their voice for corporate impact areas yet limits employees from supporting the issues they care about personally. Companies are so diverse in the makeup of their workforce, the causes important to their business, their internal practices and processes and, most importantly, their tolerance for risk. What role do you play in empowering employee voice while also improving specific social conditions based on your corporate social impact strategy? 

To help navigate the timely issue of employee activism, we’ve created a checklist of considerations to guide internal conversations around empowering employee voice and watching for that double standard.

Advocacy Education & Training

Now is the time to integrate opportunities for employee education, not just about the issues in our world but also how and when to use voice in the workplace.

 

  • Do you have resources available that offer the educational foundation and skills employees need to operate as “active bystanders” and engage in inclusive and important conversations? Are you highlighting these educational opportunities and tools as often as possible and sharing them with new recruits? Are there specific teams that need additional training on certain issues like bias and discrimination, whether they deal with fellow employees, customers, or your nonprofit partners and beneficiaries? Are you ensuring that they are informed about the company’s record and actions on any relevant current events? Can these educational opportunities be fully integrated into professional development plans and your company’s learning management system?

Communication & Conversations

There is no question: employees want to hear clearly and unambiguously about the values of their organization and their leaders and be provided with an outlet to share their own.

  • How often are employees hearing from their supervisors or senior leadership team on issues that affect the business but also affect the communities in which the company operates? Have you utilized regular face-to-face (albeit virtual) meetings, town halls, or frontline forums when the C-Suite or senior leaders present changes within the organization and invite employees to ask questions and share ideas? Does that include invitations to be included in follow-up conversations, further thinking, and implementation? How often has the company reiterated having an open-door policy to middle management?
  • If the company has made a public statement in support of a cause like racial justice or in reaction to criticized business practices, are you ensuring that these statements are followed up on with status reports and real change rather than performative actions? Have you explored how employees might be encouraged to add their support?

Internal Networks

Building supportive communities for employees to explore and advance social causes important to the company and important to them personally allows them a place to collectively advocate for change and raise awareness amongst their peers.

  • Are your affinity networks or employee resource groups given the support they need to be effective in their work? Is the company relying on them to solve problems that need to be solved elsewhere or by others? Are they being considered a silver bullet that might mitigate a public-facing issue? For example, ERGs have played an outsized role recently related to racial injustice. So be cognizant of their needs, whether they be additional training, time and space to grieve, or minimizing undue burden. For more guidance, re-read Triple Pundit’s interesting take on the cost of asking too much of ERGs here.

Organizational Policies

Policies provide guidance, consistency, accountability, efficiency, and clarity on how an organization operates. They should be written without bias to ensure that all employees feel they belong and emphasize civility and respect.

  • When was the last time your company policy around social media usage was reviewed? If more risk averse, have you provided boilerplate disclaimers that employees can easily insert into their social profiles as they use those platforms?
  • What about your corporate dress code policy? What does it imply to employees? Have you thought about when and where company-branded or volunteer program-branded shirts can be worn outside of in-person volunteering? Can you create a policy or set of approved guidelines that are easily accessible to all employees and balance the need for personal passions and public expression of what the company supports?
  • Has the company reviewed Paid Time Off policies and enhanced benefits to include taking time off to vote, volunteer, peacefully march, or serve in a public role?
  • Have you provided tools for employees to voice their opinions on these policies and instructions for seeking change?

Technology Tools

For large employers and for those savvy in technology, you might consider using online surveys and regular pulse checks to gauge the internal climate and find out more from your employees.

  • How often are you using these tools to check in and, just as important, how and how often are you sharing the results and the actions the company will take based on those results? Ensure these tools are deployed consistently but not so often that they become unnecessary noise or tedious to respond to. While the notion of a “suggestion box” is old school, is there a more modern version that can be deployed through internal communication channels like Slack or chatbots where employees can see what others are voicing and vote on what needs swift action?
  • After surveying employees, is the company encouraging managers to hold team sessions to review results, discuss top areas of success and improvements, and build action plans together? 

 

This list of considerations will help you in your quest to empower employees to use their voice and feel supported at their workplace. No matter what tools your company decides to implement to support employee activism, embrace transparency and authenticity in words, actions, and practices. Our greatest chance for success at moving the needle on many of the social issues facing our world is for both corporate voices and individual voices to be amplified and acted on to create positive change. 

Voice is just one element of civic engagement that Points of Light will be exploring within our digital magazine, “Civic Life Today.” You can read the latest edition on Voice here. To distribute it to employees, direct them to our website or contact us at info@pointsoflight.org for additional methods. 

What are the pitfalls or roadblocks you’ve experienced when navigating employee voice? What questions have you received from employees, from HR, from Legal when incidents take place? What kind of policies have you helped develop to show solidarity or to lessen the grey space between personal passions and corporate impact areas? Share with us in the comments section below the challenges you’ve faced and the successes you’ve led so that we can better equip the rest of the sector. 

Katy Elder

Vice President, Business Innovation, Points of Light

A member of the Points of Light team since November 2012, Katy serves as Vice President, Business Innovation. She brings with her nearly 20 years of experience in employee volunteerism, community affairs and internal communications. After leading Points of Light’s corporate consulting practice for six years, she is now responsible for developing content and innovative learning opportunities to advance the corporate citizenship sector.
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