Employee voices and social sustainability

Your workforce’s and community’s well-being could depend upon whether workers speak up

Employee voices and social sustainability 

By Cindy A. Schipani, Frances J. Milliken, Norman D. Bishara and Andrea M. Prado

Failing to appreciate the need for employee empowerment and voice not only may lead to widespread employee dissatisfaction, it may contribute to information failures throughout a company’s value chain that can cause far-flung financial and legal harms as well. And such management failures can lead to socially harmful disengagement in employees’ nonwork lives.

Research has shown that employees often feel uncomfortable discussing workplace problems with their managers and others above them in organizational hierarchies. Instead of speaking up about such potentially serious issues, they often choose to remain silent.

Such silence often happens because the workers fear that the more highly ranked individual will react negatively to attempts to bring up a concern. Employees worry that speaking up could hamper their pay, job security and promotion chances, especially if they perceive that their managers might be annoyed by their efforts to bring light to the complications.

Employees also report remaining silent at work because they think speaking up will be futile – that is, they believe that nothing will be done to resolve the problem or issue. Yet another reason why employees may not speak up is that they do not want to embarrass their boss by appearing to be critical.

Researchers also have found evidence to suggest that silence about important issues may be collective. In other words, many employees may know about the same dilemma, but none of them will speak to their managers about it.

You should care

There are many reasons to care about employee silence.

First, employees often have early information about important defects or flaws with products or processes. Such information, if conveyed to managers, could be used solve the dilemmas before they turn into crises. For instance, one can imagine a different and more positive outcome if the GM engineer in charge of evaluating the infamous faulty ignition switches had assertively engaged managers about the issue. As noted in the sidebar, not addressing that issue early was costly – in terms of both lives and money.

Second, as we enter the digital age, knowledge-based work is increasingly the norm. The ability to share information and communicate about issues effectively, both within and across levels of the hierarchy, will be critical for effectiveness in these complex environments.

Finally, employees’ perceptions that they work in an organization where it is safe to speak up about their concerns may have far-reaching consequences for their well-being, both inside and outside of the workplace.

Much has been written about the first two reasons for wanting to create systems that foster a “safe” climate for employee voice inside organizations. Therefore, this article focuses particular attention on the relationship between employee voice opportunities and employee well-being. Creating a culture that enables employee voice can, and should, be seen as an important component of an organization’s learning agenda, as well as of its social responsibility agenda.

Corporate social responsibility

Much of the literature on the effects of an organization’s social responsibility initiatives focuses on the financial and reputational effects of an organization’s social initiatives (e.g., its philanthropic efforts) or on the relationship between a corporation’s social performance as measured by instruments such as the KLD Social Performance Index and the company’s financial performance.


In 2005, General Motors received reports that Chevrolet Cobalts lost power when keys were accidentally bumped. GM engineers, according to CNN, proposed redesigning the head of the key so that things hanging from the key would be less likely to jostle the ignition switch, bumping it out of the “run” position and killing power to the vehicle.

The change was approved but later cancelled because of cost, according to documents reviewed by CNN. Eventually, Delphi, which made the ignition switch, proposed a design change. The redesigned switch was installed on 2007 model cars.

When investigators probed reports that airbags didn’t deploy when Cobalts and Pontiac G5s crashed, they found that the malfunctions happened when the ignition switch was not in the “run” position – and they only happened in cars from the 2007 year and earlier, according to the television news station.

By 2015, the faulty switches had been linked to 124 deaths and 274 injuries, according to various media reports. Car and Driver magazine reported that the venerable automaker recalled 26.8 million vehicles in 2014 and paid $280 million to victims’ families. According to an SEC filing, GM expected settlements to total $625 million.

There is often a perceived pressure to justify an organization’s focus on social responsibility by demonstrating that socially responsible businesses are more profitable than other types of companies. This desire to connect social responsibility and profitability is due, in part, particularly in the United States, to a misperception that the law imposes a duty on directors to maximize shareholders’ wealth, even to the exclusion of providing benefits to other stakeholders. (For more on the legal side of this issue, the authors’ longer article on this subject, published as “Linking Workplace Practices to Community Engagement: The Case for Encouraging Employee Voice,” in the Academy of Management Perspectives, discusses the effects of legal structures on corporate governance systems.)

The academic community has spent much less time studying the impact that organizations may be having on the well-being of communities and societies by how their policies and procedures affect the behaviors and attitudes of employees in their work and their nonwork lives.

Employees, however, are shaped by what they are exposed to and what they experience at work. Research has shown, for example, that organizational practices that concern work demands and work hours are likely to affect employees’ level of stress inside and outside of the workplace, and we know that stress has far-reaching effects on life satisfaction, as well as on such outcomes as physical and mental health.

Accordingly, let’s focus on understanding how organizational practices relating to providing employees with a safe climate for speaking up about their concerns could influence employees’ lives inside and outside of work.

Away from the job

The spillover hypothesis is an important tool to examine the relationship between an individual’s life at work and away from the job. This hypothesis maintains that conditions in one arena of life likely have a direct influence on how people feel and behave in other parts of their lives.

The spillover could be positive or negative. Thus, work satisfaction has a positive relationship to life satisfaction. Conversely, if you are dissatisfied at the office, there is a greater chance of unhappiness away from the office.

Dissatisfaction with life at work can have other, less obvious, effects on life outside of work. Unhappiness at work can affect variables that include self-efficacy, exhaustion, stress and the likelihood of alcohol or substance abuse.

In addition to the spillover of moods, attitudes and feelings, employees also can bring functional skills that they gain at work into their communities, such as skills related to negotiation, decision-making, cross-cultural communication and team management.

Conversely, employees also may “learn” behaviors that are less functional, even dysfunctional, and bring them home and into the community because they have been conditioned to use them in their work lives.

For example, if employees learn that their opinions are not wanted or not valued at work, then there is the possibility that they can take this learned passivity into other arenas of their lives, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

How attitudes are adjusted

The effect of voice opportunities at work on employees’ work-related attitudes and behaviors. Procedures that provide employees with the opportunity to share their input help make employees think that they are valued contributors to the organization and enhance their perceptions of fairness.

In contrast, if the employees believe their organization’s procedures are not concerned with workforce issues or that their managers don’t support speaking up, then they will be more likely to think that other procedures are not fair.

Researchers capture the perceived “fairness” of an organization’s procedures in a variable referred to as “procedural justice.” Procedural justice perceptions are an important predictor of organizational identification and commitment, as well as of job satisfaction, turnover intentions and organizational citizenship behavior. Thus, we argue that voice opportunities are likely to affect perceptions of procedural justice, which, in turn, affect commitment and other employee outcomes.

Furthermore, if employees think it is dangerous to express themselves and their opinions in the workplace, they might experience a loss of their sense of self-efficacy, which can have detrimental effects on an individual’s motivation to participate in work. A prolonged experience of low self-efficacy can lead to “learned helplessness,” where employees come to think as if their voice on any issue is futile.

Therefore, they remain silent.

Cognitive dissonance and a sense of futility are also problematic outcomes that arise from employee perceptions that they cannot share important information out of fear. The inconsistency between what one believes about the self – I am a good person – and the actions that one is taking – I am not speaking up to help solve a problem – can create cognitive dissonance, which can lead to increased tension and stress.

The effect of voice opportunities at work on employees in their lives outside of work. Let’s turn now to the effects that voice opportunities in workplaces can have on the employees’ lives away from work.

Our major thesis is that participative work processes can shape how individual employees interact with their communities. This effect can occur through the spillover of skills, behaviors, attitudes, emotions or moods. For example, participation in their workplace can have positive spillover effects into employees’ community lives because when people think that their voice is valued in one arena of their life (e.g., workplace), then they are more likely to believe it will be valued in other ones (e.g., community).

Further, if employees believe their input is being treated as valuable by their work organization, then they are more likely to experience positive emotions regarding work. This, in turn, can make them feel more committed to their work, along with having a positive spillover in their lives away from the office.

Conversely, when employees’ voices are ignored and not valued at work, the negative perceptions can bleed into their lives away from the job. There is evidence, for example, that individuals who are experiencing strong negative emotions in one arena of their lives may tend to overestimate the likelihood of bad outcomes in other arenas of their lives, all while underestimating the likelihood of positive outcomes.

In other words, negative emotions spill over. Employees who perceive that they do not have the opportunity to voice their work-related concerns in their work organizations freely might experience higher levels of work dissatisfaction, along with higher levels of life dissatisfaction and stress. They also may be more reluctant to try to participate in local government and even in elections, feeling that their opinions do not matter.

In earlier work, we suggest that employees who perceive that they do not have the opportunity to speak up about their work-related concerns or issues in their work organizations may be more likely to score high on measures of variables such as cynicism, alienation and helplessness with respect to the social institutions in their lives. People who report high levels of these negative feelings in terms of their ability to influence social institutions also will be less likely to be actively engaged members of their communities.

Stress is another mechanism that connects the emotions associated with the lack of “psychological safety” to speak up at work with outcomes outside of work. Feeling that it is unsafe to discuss problems that one perceives as important can be a difficult and stressful experience.

Not surprisingly, stress also has been associated with some negative mental health outcomes, including depression and substance abuse. Evidence suggests that people who struggle with health problems, such as depression, substance abuse and physical complaints, are less likely to be actively engaged members of their communities.

Battle perceptions by finding reality

In sum, employees’ perceptions of the degree to which their voices are heard and valued in the workplace have important consequences for their productivity at work and for how they participate in their work organizations. These issues can carry over into the employees’ well-being more generally and for how they participate in life at home or in the community.

Conducting a survey of employees to assess their comfort level in speaking up about issues is a first step toward finding out whether your organization might have a problem. Many top-level managers who do not believe that they have a problem are surprised when these surveys reveal that employee silence is, in fact, widespread in their organizations.

Some organizational practices that could be useful in encouraging a culture that values employees’ input include practices such as having employees serve on advisory boards, training managers to understand the importance of employee voice and in the use of more participative and inclusive management styles, and providing opportunities for employees to provide anonymous feedback on difficult issues through surveys or through ombudsmen.

Finally, it is important to note that some of the recent efforts to measure the social sustainability of organizations (e.g., B-lab’s survey and the Global Reporting Initiative’s G4 guidelines), in fact, include questions that ask companies and other employers to report about policies that facilitate fair employee governance, including providing employees with voice opportunities.

Conveying care for the opinions of employees is not only good for employees, it is good for the organization. Such care also might have important positive implications for the social sustainability of communities more generally.

Cindy A. Schipani is the Merwin H. Waterman Collegiate Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Business Law at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Her research interests are in the area of corporate governance, including fiduciary duties of directors and officers, sustainable peace and leadership pathways for women. 

Frances J. Milliken is a professor of management and holds the Arthur E. Imperatore Chair in Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stern School of Business of New York University. Her current research interests include understanding the effects of power on cognition, the dynamics of upward communication in organizations and environmental sustainability. 

Norman D. Bishara is an associate professor of business law and ethics at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. His research covers corporate governance and human capital law and policy issues, with a focus on the role of restrictive covenants in employee mobility, welfare and knowledge transfers. 

Andrea M. Prado is an assistant professor of strategic management and sustainability at INCAE Business School, Costa Rica. She holds a Ph.D. in management and organizations from New York University. Her research interests include sustainable business strategies and industry self-regulation, with a focus on companies operating in developing countries.