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Closing the Worker Voice Gap

Aligning What Workers Want With What Companies Can Do

June 26, 2023

At a Glance

In a shifting economy and an increasingly tight labor market, many corporate leaders are seeking new ways to engage their talent while simultaneously powering business goals. They’re rolling out rewards programs and pulse surveys, hiring consultants for culture assessments, and helping improve managers’ skills to address new business needs.

Carol Azeez Senior Program Manager
Laura Roberts Senior Director
Practices & Centers

In a shifting economy and an increasingly tight labor market, many corporate leaders are seeking new ways to engage their talent while simultaneously powering business goals. They’re rolling out rewards programs and pulse surveys, hiring consultants for culture assessments, and helping improve managers’ skills to address new business needs.

But for many companies, an almost unlimited source of relevant information and solid talent is already within their reach and too often goes untapped: their workers.

Employees possess deep knowledge of a company’s critical issues. They acquire insight into technology and training needs and are often experts in customer behavior. They enjoy unique perspectives that differ from those of managers and executives. And, most notably, they are often highly invested in a company’s overall success.

More and more, companies recognize the potential and power that employees’ voices hold. Efforts to tap into the power of workers’ input have gained momentum in the corporate landscape, from building innovative structures for worker feedback to incorporating workers’ input into organizational decision-making.

This practice of lifting up and engaging the input of workers is often called “worker voice.” At a basic level, worker voice means employees throughout a company’s hierarchy have the freedom and access to discuss workplace issues that matter to them—including safety concerns and opportunities for improvement or innovation—and are valued for their engagement.

When they hear the term “worker voice,” many corporate leaders think of unions. But voice can manifest in ways beyond unions and labor organizations, using channels like surveys, manager feedback, worker involvement in business-line decisions or investments, or online or physical suggestion boxes to hear what workers think about topics like benefits options and business operations.

Worker voice efforts don’t have to tackle the most divisive questions, such as compensation issues. In fact, when starting to incorporate worker voice, engaging workers on topics with lower stakes can be easier. Worker voice efforts can be formal, such as hotlines or human resources (HR)-led feedback loops, or informal, such as floor manager conversations with store staff members. And you can scale them up or down to fit what you’re trying to accomplish—spanning a department, a role, a location, or the whole enterprise.

Worker voice, in other words, is more varied—and often more feasible—than many employers realize.

Jobs for the Future (JFF) has spent considerable time exploring what worker voice means in the modern economic era. A recent report, Invest in Frontline Agency to Drive Business Resilience, outlined the opportunity that lies in worker voice, along with the barriers companies face in tapping into that potential. In the report, JFF Vice President Cat Ward offers actionable and accessible ways to harness the “frontline worker superpower.” For anyone interested in building fluency in worker voice issues, this report is the place to start.

To help employers take their worker voice efforts a click deeper, we’ve also developed road maps for amplifying and incorporating worker voice into corporate decision-making. Through extensive engagement with a diverse group of corporate leaders and workers, we’ve identified how worker voice can take shape and the concrete steps companies can take to support and expedite that process.

What have we discovered throughout this process? The gap between the “voice” workers want and what companies are equipped with and willing to provide is still quite large.

Jess Kutch, cofounder of, reasons that this gap persists due to two central workplace challenges:

  • Iceberg issues: Companies may be aware of these problems but fail to recognize how deep they go and therefore have not acted to address them, such as broad dress code restrictions and mandates to cover tattoos
  • Inconvenient truths: These challenges arise in response to company decisions that affect employee experience but may be uncomfortable to discuss, such as cuts to the workforce

What links these two challenges is that employers lack the culture, structures, practices, and tools to address them meaningfully. Our recent work has revealed this lack has created major barriers to action around worker voice to date, but at JFF, we view this as an opportunity to explore new and promising employer practices.

Shifting Culture

Amplifying worker voice begins with creating an enabling and hospitable ecosystem. As we’ve explored examples of corporate cultures that effectively emphasize and value worker voice, we’ve identified three common actions these businesses have taken:

  • Build a culture that values listening and follow-through. This demands organization-wide efforts to continually promote and encourage listening by making channels for employee input clear. Beyond soliciting feedback, companies must also demonstrate commitment to recognizing and acting on feedback with transparent processes and timelines. By consistently listening and following through, companies signal the importance of worker voice and embed these values in their corporate culture.
  • Devote time to worker voice and find those who want to champion it. This includes everyone from organizational leadership to middle- and frontline managers to frontline workers. For many leaders, supporting the voice of their workers is not front of mind; it’s not often a part of job descriptions, role expectations, or organizational goals, so there’s little incentive for leadership to dedicate time and energy to hearing and acting on what employees have to say. Devoting resources to worker voice and uplifting leaders who make it a priority will ensure buy-in from employees across all levels.
  • Empower workers to engage in worker voice efforts through opportunities for professional development and organizational involvement. In our conversations with workers, we’ve repeatedly heard a desire to have input into organizational decision-making, but they often find it challenging to engage in “corporate speak” or feel they lack the tools to speak to the issues they face. Companies can address this barrier to entry by providing clear and accessible avenues for involvement and input while consistently encouraging engagement.

Embedding Structures

Once companies establish an enabling culture, they can identify ways to embed models for worker voice into the workplace. This begins by addressing fundamental questions: Where will worker voice efforts live in the organization? What role will frontline managers, HR, or corporate social responsibility play in this work? How can you deploy technology to gather and use your workers’ input? Decisions like these set companies up to engage workers meaningfully on the issues that matter to them and to the business.

Vetted blueprints for worker voice are key to driving this work forward. These models should serve as the mechanisms to transform the worker input into action. The next step is to understand exactly how—and in two upcoming publications, JFF will offer guidance on potential paths forward:

  • Amplify the voice of workers. Establishing channels for workers to provide input and feedback improves employee well-being and retention while simultaneously providing company leadership with insights into parts of the business they may not often see.
  • Incorporate worker voice into decision-making. Workers often have deep and unique knowledge of the issues companies face. By harnessing their insight and expertise, you can identify innovative, holistic solutions that improve both your bottom line and the welfare of your employees.

Ultimately, worker voice could be a transformational force, but companies must listen to what workers say and act on that feedback in day-to-day decision-making. This begins with the intensive work of shifting culture to be more inclusive and supportive of worker input, and it accelerates with the adoption of concrete policies and practices that embed worker voice into the core of the business. Over the course of the next year, JFF is committed to helping grow the field of research and tools that can support employers along this challenging—but worthwhile—journey and work toward closing the gap between what workers need and what companies are prepared and willing to provide.

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