Communication within an organisation includes both the leadership team feeding information out to front line staff, and ideas and feedback being fed back from the ground level. Studies looking at joint decision making in Australian organisations suggest that this two-way communication is currently pretty poor, and is resulting in a lot of lost potential in terms of efficiency and innovation. Additionally, previously unionised workforces have been left with a much softer voice that may not reach those at the top of the organisational chart.
Providing employees with a voice is not just a “nice thing to do”, but can have tangible financial and strategic benefits for an organisation. An increasing number of organisations are becoming more committed and creative in how they give their employees a voice and encourage this communication. One fairly unique initiative is to establish a formal staff representative group. Staff committees or advisory groups are often short-term structures for specific projects and initiatives, however, they can also exist as a more formal structure at an organisation-wide level over a longer period of time. Suncorp Group has used this particular model to ensure their staff have a strong voice within their organisation, and its effectiveness was recently examined in a chapter of Gollan et al’s (2015) book Voice and Involvement at Work (Routledge).
The Suncorp Group includes several banking, insurance, and superannuation brands across Australia and New Zealand, which collectively service nine million customers. The constant change associated with large mergers, acquisitions, and restructuring has left Suncorp Group with a complex employment relations environment that would make it easy for employee voice to get lost in translation. Factor in legislative changes and a Global Financial Crisis, and this environment becomes even more complex.
Why an Employee Representative Group at Suncorp?
Since 1988, Suncorp’s approach to employee voice has been a dedicated employee council. It began in Metway Group (which was later merged with Suncorp) after Unions failed to negotiate with Metway management. A group of employees stepped in and successfully negotiated a favourable agreement with management. This group of employees went on to form the first incarnation of the SunCorp Group Employee Council (SGEC) that still exists in Suncorp. Today, the group is a legally independent, employee-elected committee that is funded by Suncorp Group. The council describes its mission as being a mechanism for employees to manage and resolve workplace issues, and as a representative voice for employees. The group provides free advocacy and advisory services, representation on major issues of concern, HR information sessions, and grievance resolution to all employees. The councillors on the committee, who report to an executive team, represent all business units within the Group.
The Suncorp Group moved towards this model in part because management wanted a more direct dialogue without a third party. There is currently strong support for this model within the Suncorp Group, with the last staff survey indicating that most respondents believe that their employee elected committee should play a very important role in negotiating increases in pay and benefits.
How effective is Suncorp’s Employee Council?
An examination of three waves of employee surveys and interviews at Suncorp group, along with questions about employee perceptions of the SGEC, have provided some interesting insights into its effectiveness in providing Suncorp Group employees with a voice.
Meeting employee needs
Employees have clearly indicated through interviews and surveys that they feel the SGEC is meeting their needs. This is also evident in the number of people joining and using the services provided by the group, with membership rates and cases handled both increasing substantially over time.
Impact on climate and employee/leadership relations.
The workplace climate, perceptions of relations between employees and management, and confidence in leadership have steadily been rated highly in surveys completed by employees. This is consistent with other literature suggesting that employee elected committees foster a more collaborative workplace culture than unions.
Decision making power
Suncorp has found that its model tends to fall down in its ability to influence decision making at the organisational level. While the committee has clear value for employees, committee members indicated that they felt they had limited pull in terms of decision making within the Group. Ensuring that the employee voice is not just heard but has a direct impact on decision making should be a goal of any employee voice strategy.
So, you want to give your employees a voice…
The success of Suncorp’s strategy to give its employees a voice largely hinges on the leadership’s investment and commitment to it over time. The ability of staff to elect their representatives also contributes to its support amongst employees. A key learning from Suncorp is that in addition to leaders seeking out the voice of their employees, they also need to consider what an employee group or committee’s role might be within the organisation and how this voice will influence decision making.
Data from Voice Project’s engagement survey consistently demonstrates the importance of voice strategies, such as Suncorp’s, for employee engagement and organisational outcomes including quality, innovation and achieving objectives. Suncorp Group’s strategy offers one example of how organisations can encourage employee involvement and participation. Regardless of the mechanism, the important thing is that leaders are proactive, creative, and constantly thinking about how they can seek out this voice.
Find out More
- Watch Below Voice Project’s research partner Prof Paul Gollan interviewing Chris Bath, Suncorp Group Employee Council, at a Voice Project’s breakfast event.
- Or, read more in Gollan, P. & Xu, Y. (2015). NER at Suncorp Group: the SunCorp Group Employee Council. In P. Gollan, B. Kaufman, D. Taras, and A. Wilkinson, eds., Voice and Involvement at Work (Routledge).