Legitimacy to employee voice: role of process intervention.

AuthorSrivastava, Bhupen


The concept of employee voice was first introduced by Hirschman in his book "Exit, Voice and Loyalty" in 1970. Attempts have since been made by researchers to identify organizational and individual factors that encourage employees to express their voice to their managers. Employee voice has been recognized as an important source of organizational adaptation to challenges of change. Thus the need for creating an organizational climate in which employees are encouraged to speak the truth becomes imperative (Collins, 2001). Conversely, lack of employee voice "can exact a high psychological price on individuals, generating feelings of humiliation, pernicious anger, resentment, and the like that, if unexpressed, contaminate every interaction, shut down creativity, and undermine productivity" (Perlow & Williams, 2003).

Historically, trade unions have been seen as the major institutional form that acted as powerful channel for employees to voice their grievances and dissatisfaction relating to conditions of employment and treatment at workplace. Expression of employee voice through the unions enabled employees to air their concerns and protected them from being penalized. During the past two decades or so, it has been increasingly realized that employees voice through unions has its own limitations and needs to be broad based to include direct voice mechanisms within a variety of non-union settings (McCabe & Lewin, 1992; McLoughlin & Gourlay, 1994; Terry, 1999; Benson, 2000; Gollan, 2003, 2006; Butler, 2005; Dietz et al., 2005; Dundon, et al., 2005; Machin & Wood, 2005; Taras & Kaufman, 2006; Bryson & Freeman, 2007; Dundon & Gollan, 2007).

With increased emphasis on employee participation organizations have instituted formal mechanisms such as suggestion schemes, grievance redressal system, quality circles and even open door policies. Many of these mechanisms often are not able to achieve the desired objectives if the management does not have the will to take appropriate action. In the UK Workplace Industrial Relations Survey (WIRS), it has been observed that the nature of voice channels has changed considerably in the 80s and 90s (Michie & Sheehan, 1999). There has been more of direct non-union voice mechanisms such as joint consultation, management employee meetings, project teams and self management teams serving as collective form of employee voice. These notions challenge the view that trade unions are the only source of collective voice and that other voice mechanisms may be more appropriate at different levels of the organization (McCabe & Lewin, 1992; Benson & Brown, 2010).

Over the years, the scope of employee voice has expanded to include efforts by the employees to improve working conditions. Rusbult, et. al (1988) have defined voice as "actively and constructively trying to improve conditions through discussing problems with a supervisor or co-workers, taking action to solve problems, suggesting solutions, seeking help from an outside agency like a union, or whistle blowing". It has been further observed that employee voice can act as "promotive behavior that emphasizes expression of constructive challenge intended to improve rather than criticize" (Gordon, Infante, & Graham, 1988). In the same spirit, Detert's & Burris '(2007) have conceptualized voice as "verbal behavior that is improvement oriented and directed to a specific target that holds power inside the organization."

Employee Participation as a Voice Mechanism

It was during the 60s and 70s that trade unions in India emerged as a powerful force in maintaining and improving the terms and conditions of employment of their members in private and public sector undertakings.

To achieve this aim, the unions were able to mobilize resources at the local, national and international level and seek active support of political parties and the government. As a result, unions through their collective representational role (Webb & Webb, 1897) have been able to provide a wage premium and better working conditions for their members, influence the wider distribution of income within society and provide support for workers in developing nations (Flanders, 1952; Bloom & Northrup, 1965). The employee voice thus was equated with unions signifying collective representation of employees.

In order to ensure wider employee voice not only restricted to conditions of service, the government of India has taken initiative in formulating various joint forums for giving legitimacy to employee voice in management of public enterprises. So far as institutional mechanisms for employee participation are concerned, the joint forums of management and employees can be formed at various levels for different purposes. The possible types of participative mechanisms are presented in Table 1.

Employees' participation can be voluntary or statutory. Usually government sponsored schemes bring compulsion or involuntarism through statutory and other means. Alternative approaches to participation like direct participation and parallel organizations like quality circles are normally voluntary. In either case, it is imperative for organizations to institutionalize employee participation as a voice mechanism to cope with the myriad changes in the environment and make the ever increasing expectations of employees compatible with the requirements of high performance.

Government Policy & Participation

In India, more than the employers and workers, the government has been at the forefront in encouraging workers' participation in management in response to the compulsions of meeting the objectives of planned economic development, improving industrial productivity, maintaining harmony in industrial relations and above all in upholding the ideals enshrined in the Constitution. Since Independence, various schemes have been formulated by the Government of India to encourage workers' participation in management, such as Works Committee 1947, Joint Management Councils 1958, and Employee Directors in Nationalized Boards 1970. These forums although well intentioned, could not become effective instruments of employee voice in organizations primarily due to unclear scope and functions of these multiple committees and lack of support from unions and management (Venkata Ratnam, 2006).

It was in mid seventies that there was a renewed initiative on the part of the government to give legitimacy to employee participation in management. The need for the initiative arose due to the growing distance between the management and the employees, confronting stance resulting in increased number of strikes, industrial disputes and man days lost. The worsening IR scenario had its visible impact on productivity and efficiency of practically all major public sector undertakings. Several PSUs were on the verge of being declared sick. The overall decline in revenue from PSUs with heavy investment led to a sort of economic crises in the country. Besides, rampant indiscipline, low morale, absenteeism and growing alienation of employees were the psychological fallout of industrial unrest. It was in response to this crisis that the government renewed its initiative to provide a mechanism for enlisting support of employees in improving productivity and efficiency of PSUs by giving them a voice in decision making.

In 1975 the Constitution was amended and Section 43A was inserted in the Directive Principles of the Constitution. This section provided that "the State shall take steps by suitable legislation or in any other way to secure the participation of workers in the management of undertakings, establishments or other organizations engaged in any industry". In accordance with this amendment, the Scheme of Workers' Participation in Management in manufacturing and mining industries was introduced in 1975. The scheme provided for formation of joint councils at shop and plant levels and covered only those manufacturing and mining units...

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