Workers’ voice, job satisfaction and productivity
Julian Teicher, Central Queensland University
Bernadine Van Gramberg, Swinburne University of Technology
Greg J. Bamber, Monash University
Brian Cooper, Monash University
Peter Holland, Monash University
Amanda Pyman, Deakin University
The literature on workers’ voice and productivity has limitations, including its focus at the individual level and its lack of theorisation of the relationship between voice and performance. Our paper advances understanding of the relationship between the concepts of employee voice (EV) and productivity at the organisational level. In doing so we investigate: 1. how and why that relationship varies across different voice channels; and 2. whether voice is present and effective.
EV and its impact on organisational performance and productivity has received increasing attention by employment relations (ER) and human resources management (HRM) scholars since Freeman and Medoff (1984). EV refers to the variety of ways in which employees attempt to have a say and potentially influence issues that affect their work and the interests of management (Wilkinson et al. 2015). The literature is distinguished by its philosophical and discipline-based standpoints. From an organisational-behaviour (OB) perspective, it has been argued that voice is a predictor of individual and organisational productivity (Mowbray et al. 2014). Through this lens, voice seen as a pro-social behaviour of workers where they communicate information and ideas to managers for the benefit of employing organisations, which then translates to better performance outcomes.
Whilst the relationship between job satisfaction and individual performance is well established, individual performance does not neatly aggregate to the organisational level in a way that suggests increased productivity (e.g. Farndale et al. 2011). Similarly, the literature on high performance/high involvement work systems typically examines the effect of EV interventions on organisational productivity (Harley 2014). In the ER and HRM fields, the relationship between EV and performance is often considered through the relationship between voice and job satisfaction, with the latter used as a proxy for performance. It has also been proposed that EV through unions may channel discontent and reduce exit, thereby improving productivity (Barry & Wilkinson 2015). Nevertheless, the relationships between EV, job satisfaction and organisational productivity in the ER and HRM literature remain elusive (e.g. Purcell 2014). Job satisfaction is a much-studied construct and there is evidence linking it to a range of desirable performance outcomes. Such evidence however, tends to be either individually based or used to draw inferences based on the effects of measures such as motivation and commitment, which are viewed as leading to improved organisational outcomes. There are fewer studies that attempt to theorise the links between voice and performance, which we do through job satisfaction and the use of two aspects of voice: structural voice and experience voice. Thus, it is important to conduct research on the effect of voice on organisational productivity.
We use a large dataset, the Australian Workplace Relations Study (AWRS 2015) constructed from a national survey, the first linked manager-employer survey in Australia this century. The dataset comprised survey responses from 3,592 employees from 648 private sector enterprises We adopt two measures of EV, structural and experience voice. Structural voice identifies the voice channels available to employees and experience voice refers to the actual usage of these mechanisms by employees.
We find a positive relationship between the exercise of employee voice and workforce productivity that is mediated by job satisfaction. The actual use of voice in workplaces is associated with more satisfied workers and, consequentially, job satisfaction plays an important mediating role in increasing workforce productivity. However, our data shows that the mere presence of voice mechanisms is not usually sufficient to generate satisfaction. Nevertheless, in practical terms, voice cannot be expressed easily unless voice mechanisms were present. We conclude that, first, having voice structures enables managers to offer employees a variety of ways in which to provide advice that could lead to increased productivity. Second, encouraging voice leads (indirectly) to improved performance through job satisfaction. The latter conclusion supports conventional wisdom, but combines it with the strength of managerial perceptions of workforce productivity, our measure of performance.
Even though voice is not related to increased job satisfaction, we argue that the greater the number of voice options available to employees, the greater the chance that employees will use them. However, this leaves us with a conundrum, as most Australian enterprises surveyed reported only a modest level of voice. We argue that these enterprises are failing to realise potential productivity gains by not providing and promoting a larger suite of voice mechanisms. The finding of a dearth of voice mechanisms is all the more surprising given the extensive research on voice in the HR field, which considers links between such communication channels and workforce productivity (Heery 2015).
How can we explain the modest number of voice channels and low uptake of various forms of voice, particularly indirect forms of voice reported in this and some other studies? Returning to the conceptualisation of EV by Wilkinson and colleagues (2014), employers may be reluctant to enable voice channels because they may be used to challenge managerial authority. In the absence of a legal requirement to implement particular forms of voice, such as the European Works Council Directive, managers in Australia may draw from a more limited menu of voice options, weighing the uncertain gains in performance unfavourably in comparison to their perceived potential for disruption. The reticence to use these channels is more than an issue of union avoidance, as there are many non-union channels available to management. Rather, it is likely to reflect a management choice to restrict the number of voice channels available to employees.
Our findings offer a nuanced and important contribution to the literature on voice, job satisfaction and organisational performance that has implications for HRM and ER theory and practice. We make theoretical and practical contributions to the ER and HRM literature. We contribute a better understanding of the relationships between EV, satisfaction and organisational productivity and particularly investigate how and why those relationships vary across voice channels. This is novel because the ER literature tends to overlook the organisational performance relationship with voice, while the OB literature concentrates on the relationship between a limited set of voice channels and individual performance.
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