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How Corporate Leaders Can Invest in Worker Voice

September 6, 2022

At A Glance

As the economy continues to experience a historic labor shortage, employers face a pressing need to investigate the ways in which they can retain and attract talent.

Contributors
Carol Azeez Senior Manager

As the economy continues to experience a historic labor shortage, employers face a pressing need to investigate the ways in which they can retain and attract talent.

That’s proving harder than ever—the Great Resignation has shown us that workers aren’t satisfied with the current state of work. Since 2021, people have been quitting their jobs at rates not seen for over 20 years. This wave of resignations has illuminated systemic issues in workplaces that are negatively impacting people’s daily experiences on the job. A Pew Research Center survey found that low pay, a lack of opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected at work are the top reasons why Americans quit their jobs in 2021.

It’s clear that the need for workers to have a say in how they experience work—from the way company HR policies affect them to their day-to-day sense of well-being on the job—is more critical than ever. Power dynamics and the ways in which workers view their workplaces have shifted at a foundational level, and employers need to change how they see, treat, and hear their employees if they want to remain competitive.

Companies are beginning to respond to this trend, but current efforts aren’t keeping pace with what workers want and need. Corporate leaders need to act with urgency and implement bold solutions that are responsive to worker interests and give employees equitable opportunities for economic advancement.

At Jobs for the Future (JFF), we see this as a unique moment to define worker voice more expansively. We believe that we are in a moment of real change and opportunity that could offer new, different, more productive models and mechanisms for workers to have a greater say in how they experience and engage with work and their employers. We believe these new models could work in tandem with more traditional worker organizing efforts (such as unionization, for example) but should be intentionally focused more on internal changes within companies to better support the worker experience.

Over the past several months, we have surveyed corporate leaders, labor organizers, and advocacy organizations for their take on this topic of “worker voice” and what it means. We’ve also assembled a first-of-its-kind Workers Council, which is composed of individuals with a diverse set of professional and personal experiences who are looking to help us shape the future of this conversation.

We’re in the early stages of exploring this challenge and pushing the boundaries of what we think about as mechanisms for increasing worker voice and agency, but we’ve identified two important questions leaders must ask:

  • What are new ways to hear and respond to employees?
  • How can my company develop innovative new models that increase our value to our workers and our customers?

‘Listening 1.0’ Isn’t Enough

Many companies are beginning to listen to workers and ask for feedback, which is a strong starting point—but we consider this “Listening 1.0.”

With the rise of what’s being called “stakeholder capitalism” (an approach to business in which companies aim to serve all of their stakeholders—including employees and the communities they live in—not just customers and shareholders), we see corporate leaders describing their employees as customers, and worker voice efforts as “listening” efforts. But many worker voice programs still take a traditional route—having people fill out surveys or speak to their supervisors, for example.

These efforts are most often motivated by one driver: retention. The goal is to appease or please employees, not to engage them. And clearly, based on the current state of the labor market, this isn’t good enough.

Here’s a finding that illustrates why employers need to find new and innovative ways to engage their employees instead of merely “listening” to them: According to a 2018 study published by the Industrial and Labor Relations Review, most workers expect to have a say in the conditions of their employment, how they work, the quality of the products and services they produce, and the values of the organization.

Going beyond Listening 1.0 will require real and meaningful engagement of employees. Corporate leaders who do more than collect feedback have a clear focus on effectiveness, social good, equitable economic opportunity, and creating sustainable solutions to the problems that employees face.

These leaders see worker voice efforts as a way to improve not just the business but also the lives of their employees. This surpasses efforts to retain talent by simply appeasing people and instead works toward bringing about sustainable change and making progress to foster positive improvements in the way that employees experience work.

Worker voice, from this point of view, is a tool for problem-solving, collaboration, or employee development efforts.

Real Employee Engagement Leads to Real Results

A few corporate leaders have offered early examples of how to go beyond listening and act on what their employees say they want and need. JFF’s profiles of Corporate Changemakers highlight the work of two of these leaders: Jacalyn Chapman at Salesforce and Lisha Bell at PayPal.

As senior director of employee advocacy and belonging at Salesforce, Chapman spearheaded the launch of Warmline, an employee advocacy program that collects employee concerns anonymously and allows company leaders to design solutions based on direct feedback from employees. Salesforce was able to incorporate employee feedback gathered via Warmline into the development of a leadership networking pilot and career navigation support and into the addition of new employee benefits to their Success from Anywhere hybrid work initiative.

The story of Bell’s experiences engaging with the CEO at PayPal offers another example: Following the death of George Floyd in 2020, Bell, then a product manager, worked in partnership with the company’s Black Employee Resource Group and their allies to prepare a plan of action for how PayPal should respond to Floyd’s murder and the resulting racial reckoning the nation was experiencing.

She presented the plan to the company’s CEO, Dan Schulman, at a listening session that Schulman had scheduled to hear the concerns of Black employees. In her JFF Changemaker Series profile, Bell recalled that Schulman “was intentionally listening and absorbing our comments.”

That outreach and subsequent engagement between company leaders and employees resulted in PayPal making one of the largest financial commitments any company made to address income inequality: a $530 million pledge to support Black-owned businesses, businesses owned by other people of color, and businesses in communities that experience a lack of public and private investment.

Pioneering leaders like Chapman and Bell show us what authentic, meaningful worker engagement can look like. But the road map is far from fully laid out. To change the dynamics of the current labor market—to authentically incorporate the needs, wants, aspirations of employees in the day-to-day operations of a business—will require a fundamental reimagining of what it means to engage workers.

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) is a national nonprofit that drives transformation of the U.S. education and workforce systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all.