Informed employee voice and advocacy

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and editor/co-author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

All organisations would love their employees to post positive comments about them on social media; this is good for their reputation. It is especially important in an era of flat lining trust in CEOs, as reported in the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer.

However, just as pursuing happiness is not likely to lead to happiness, pursuing advocacy is not likely to lead to authentic advocacy.

Advocacy or brand champion ‘programmes’ are sometimes akin to cortisone injections that enable a player to perform better in a game, but the long term solution means addressing the root cause of the problem. Worse still are advocacy programmes that aim to turn employees into games show hosts on speed, as if advocacy is doing what you normally do only faster and with false energy.

Organisations that prepare messages for employees to use in their social media are really missing the point. Followers, friends, family and consumers are cute readers of tweets and status updates – they read carefully between the lines and can spot a ‘placed’ message a mile off.

So, how do organisations get to the point where employees are more likely to post positively about their organisation in an authentic way?

In my research, two principle internal communication practices were identified that are strongly correlated to organisational engagement; keeping employees informed and giving them a say about what goes on. The empirical evidence for this in my research corroborates other studies that consistently point to the importance of employee voice inside an organisation (for example, the MacLeod and Clarke review, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and Involvement and Participation Association reports).

What I have found is that there is limited value in giving employees a voice unless they are well informed in the first place. This has led me to develop a new concept: ‘informed employee voice’ as the basis for strong organisational engagement. My research also suggests that advocacy is strongly correlated with what employees think and feel about the organisation. In other words, keeping employees informed and giving them a voice is associated with how engaged employees are with their organisation and this in turn is associated with advocacy.

There is no simple shortcut to authentic advocacy. Kay Carberry, Assistant General Secretary of the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) made this point at the CIPD and London School of Economics (LSE) Voice and Value conference – she said that structures have to be in place to capture what employees say and ensure that responses are provided. It is only when we have got strong internal employee voice processes in place that employees are likely to post positive comments on social media without being prompted to do so.

So, how good are organisations at keeping employees informed and giving them a say about what goes on? There are examples of good practice that can be seen in some case studies, although they may not necessarily tell the full story. I love a good case study as much as anyone and we have some great free resources in the UK, such as those provided by Simply Communicate and AllThingsIC. However, case studies are sometimes written without close scrutiny and they are often not supported with hard evidence. Case studies therefore need to be put into the context of broader, empirical, research to generate an objective assessment of the situation.

A recent Weber Shandwick ‘employee activism’ study found that ratings for communication are low; fewer than three in 10 employees report that they are being communicated with, listened to and kept in the loop. Fewer than one in five (17%) highly rate communications from senior management.

Satisfaction with employee voice is measured in a large scale Work and Employee Relations Study (WERS) in the UK. The latest figures from 2011 are:

  • 52% employees rate organisations as good or very good at seeking their views
  • 46% employees rate organisations as good or very good at responding to suggestions
  • 34% employees rate organisations as good or very good at allowing them to influence decisions.

The Towers Watson 2013/14 Change and Communication ROI Study Report found that 58% of employees said that their organisation was effective at helping them understand the business, however, only 37% of employees said that their organisation was effective at asking for rapid feedback about their opinions on the company.

When it comes to internal social media, a recent CIPD Social technology, social business? report found that the reason that employees use social media at work is for collaboration, knowledge sharing and networking, rather than to build the profile of the organisation. Where internal social media platforms exist, in 26% of organisations, they are used for one-way employee updates rather than for collaboration or collecting employee views.

My reading of this data and other reports is that employees are not nearly well enough informed about what goes on as they could be. Senior manager communication is patchy, and generally not that trusted. Satisfaction with employee voice is gradually improving, but satisfaction with responses made to voice falls behind satisfaction with the opportunities given to have a say about what goes on. Employees are using social media more, although internal social media is still at an embryonic stage and where it is available it is generally being used as an alternative broadcast system rather than for gathering employee views. This is not to be pessimistic or to pour cold water on great initiatives, the review of data is simply to put ‘advocacy’ into a more objective context.

When it comes to ‘employee advocacy’ I think it is time for a new definition. Instead of this being what organisations do to prompt employees to post positive comments, it should mean what organisations do to put employees first in every way, including keeping them informed about things that they want to know about and giving them a genuine say in what goes on. This approach is illustrated in Nayar’s book, Employee First Customers Second. Paradoxically, this internal focus is what will lead naturally to employees posting genuinely felt positive comments on external social media.

This post was also provided as a contribution to a great PR Conversations debate about employee advocacy.