Empowering Employee Voice: Tools and Strategies for Workplace Engagement

Sep 5, 2023

Voice represents an individual’s ability to influence their network and interpersonal connections — including people they don’t even know — to raise awareness, advocate for, promote, protest or advance a cause or social issue.

In recent years, young people have regularly exercised their voices by uplifting issues, convincing peers to vote, calling out for racial justice and spurring social change. In fact, according to Cause and Social Influence’s Influencing Young America to Act 2022 Year in Review, two of the top five actions that young people (aged 18-30) took were signing a petition and posting and sharing content on social issues via social media.

But what happens when personal and professional lives blur? Every day, younger generations are entering the workforce with heightened social awareness and a passion for action. Millennials and Gen Z alike are demanding that brands take stands and are using their own voices to invite others to join them in supporting causes.

Employee voice manifests in the workplace in several ways:

  • Internally, employees may object to business practices that go against stated corporate or personal values. We’ve seen several examples of this, from employees walking out in protest of organizations their employer does business with to employees unionizing in order to demonstrate their desire to work for an employer that authentically lives up to its values.
  • Externally, employees can use their individual and collective voice to demonstrate support for causes they’re personally passionate about and to help raise awareness for the social issues their employer is working to solve. Sometimes an employee’s personal passions may not align with company policy or values, which can be construed as distracting if brought into the work environment. Think of news stories of employees being prevented from wearing apparel with certain slogans to work or being fired after it’s revealed that they participated in protests. In contrast, some employers provide paid time off to march, vote or serve in public office, and some even offer bail funds to employees arrested while peacefully protesting in support of a corporate cause area.

Employee voice in the workplace comes with opportunities and challenges and can highlight a potentially detrimental double standard – when an employer supports employees raising their voice for corporate impact areas yet limits employees from supporting the issues they care about personally.

Companies are so diverse in the composition of their workforce, the causes important to their business, their internal practices and processes and, most importantly, their tolerance for risk.

What role do you play in empowering employee voice while also improving specific social conditions based on your corporate social impact strategy?

To help navigate the timely issue of employee activism, we’ve created a checklist of considerations to guide internal conversations around empowering employee voice and minding that double standard.

Advocacy Education & Training

Now is the time to integrate opportunities for employee education, not just about the issues in our world but also how and when to use voice in the workplace.

  • Do you have resources available that offer the education and skills employees need to operate as “active bystanders” and engage in inclusive and important conversations? Are you highlighting these educational opportunities and tools as often as possible and sharing them with new recruits? Are there specific teams that need additional training on certain issues like bias and discrimination, whether they deal with fellow employees, customers or your nonprofit partners and beneficiaries? Are you ensuring that they are informed about the company’s actions on any relevant current events? Can these educational opportunities be fully integrated into professional development plans and your company’s learning management system?

Communication & Conversations

There is no question: employees want to hear clearly and unambiguously about the values of their organization and their leaders and be provided with an outlet to share their own.

  • How often are employees hearing from their supervisors or senior leadership team on issues that affect the business but also affect the communities in which their employer operates? Has your company hosted meetings, town halls or frontline forums when the C-Suite or senior leaders present changes within the organization and invite employees to ask questions and share ideas? Does that include invitations to be included in follow-up conversations, further thinking and implementation? How often has your employer reiterated having an open-door policy to middle management?
  • If your company or CEO has made a public statement in support of a cause like women’s rights or in reaction to criticized business practices, are you ensuring that these statements are followed up on with status reports and real change rather than performative actions? Have you explored how employees might be encouraged to add their support?

Internal Networks

Building supportive communities for employees to advance social causes that are significant to their employer and important to them personally allows them a place to collectively advocate for change and raise awareness amongst their peers.

  • Are your affinity networks or employee resource groups given the support they need to be effective in their work? Is your company relying on them to solve problems that need to be solved elsewhere or by others? Are they being considered a “silver bullet” to mitigate a public-facing issue? For example, ERGs have played an outsized role recently related to racial injustice. So be cognizant of their needs, whether that means additional training, time and space to reflect, or minimizing undue burden. For more guidance, re-read Triple Pundit’s interesting take on the cost of asking too much of ERGs here and Sector Executive Media’s recent take on paying ERG leaders here.

Organizational Policies

Policies provide guidance, consistency, accountability, efficiency and clarity on how an organization operates. They should be written without bias to emphasize civility and respect and ensure that all employees feel they belong.

When was the last time your company policy around social media usage was reviewed? If more risk averse, have you provided boilerplate disclaimers that employees can easily insert into their social profiles as they use those platforms?

What about your corporate dress code policy? What does it imply to employees? Have you thought about when and where company-branded or volunteer program-branded shirts can be worn outside of company-organized, in-person volunteering? Can you create a policy or set of approved guidelines that balance the need for personal passions and public expression of what the company supports?

Has the company reviewed Paid Time Off policies and enhanced benefits to include taking time off to vote, volunteer, peacefully march or serve in a public role?

Have you provided tools for employees to voice their opinions on organizational policies and instructions for seeking change?

Technology Tools

For large employers and for those savvy in technology, you might consider using online surveys and regular pulse checks to gauge the internal climate and find out more from your employees.

How often are you using these tools to check in and, just as important, how often are you sharing the results and the actions the company will take based on those results? Ensure these tools are deployed consistently but not so often that they become unnecessary noise or tedious to respond to. While the notion of a “suggestion box” is old school, is there a more modern version that can be deployed through internal communication channels like Slack where employees can see what others are voicing and vote on what needs swift action?

After surveying employees, is the company encouraging managers to hold team sessions to review results, discuss top areas of success and improvements, and build action plans together?

This list of considerations will help you in your quest to empower employees to use their voice and feel supported at their workplace. No matter what tools your company decides to implement to support internal and external employee activism, embrace transparency and authenticity in words, actions and practices. Our greatest chance for success at moving the needle on many of the social issues facing our world is for both corporate voices and individual voices to be amplified and acted on to create positive change.

Voice is just one element of civic engagement that Points of Light explores in our digital magazine, “Civic Life Today.” You can read the edition on Voice here and we encourage you to share it with employees.

Katy Elder
Vice President of Corporate Insights, Points of Light

Spending 20 years in the corporate social responsibility sector, Katy mixes creativity and strategy with expertise in employee engagement and corporate citizenship to develop resources and learning opportunities that advance corporate social impact.