Employee Voice and Human Resource Management: An Empirical Analysis using British Data


The definition of formal employee voice employed in this paper is a variant of the definition developed by Hirschman (1970) in his seminal monograph and later elaborated and appropriated to unions in the labour market by Freeman and Medoff (1984). What we refer to as formal voice is any institutionalised form of two-way communication between management and employees. This is not the same as information sharing or other types of one-way consultation. Meaningful two-way dialogue, as that found typically in union collective bargained voice, is what formal employee voice refers to.

As we endeavour to show in this paper, these forms of two-way communication typically extend beyond union voice to non-union forms of representation and direct forms of two-way dialogue, such as problem-solving groups and the statutory systems of works council voice developed as part of deeper European Union (EU) integration. Broader definitions of voice can also be invoked for the labour market as a whole or even for society more generally. In this context see recent work by Adrian Wilkinson and his colleagues (Dundon et al., 2004) and also John Budd’s Employment with a Human Face (2004).

Some may take our definition of voice above and simply state that a formal voice system is 'the way workers communicate with management'. For us that would not be a poor workable definition. But how does that play out when we talk about Human Resource Management (HRM) techniques and their role in either abetting or inhibiting voice at work? HRM is not a voice system. Instead we assert that it has a different purpose altogether but may employ voice alongside in order to achieve the end goal of improving worker performance. This assertion flies against most received wisdom and evidence from the US, where union voice (the only real form permitted by the Wagner Act) often sits uncomfortably with HR. In England, up to now, the only thorough evidence by Wood and Machin (2005) suggested no correlation between voice (union) and HRM adoption.

In this paper, however, we offer a new explanation for these findings above and in the process contribute some important new findings of our own.

The principal source of formal employee voice has typically been provided by trade unions. However, in Britain, where our empirical analysis resides, unions have not been the sole, or even main, conduit for worker-management voice relations for more than three decades. Since the 1960s, firms in Britain have been combining traditional collective bargaining over wages and working conditions with independent non-union channels of two-way communication. Practically, this means things like having a non-union employee-employer committee to handle health-safety issues, promotion criteria or disability concerns. In my own university, a traditional collective bargaining process has neatly resided alongside a plethora of non-union administration and staff committees that discuss nearly every aspect of day-to-day work life and even strategic university planning goals.

How these varying types and intensity of voice systems at work can (and do) sit alongside certain managerial innovations for the improvement of employee productivity, is the subject matter of our paper.

Research Discussion Paper 27

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