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Frontline staff less able to raise safety concerns with employers

As people begin to return to work amid the Covid-19 pandemic, new research has revealed the divide between office and frontline workers in feeling able to speak up about their concerns.

Man working in a factory
Operational workers have less channels to enable them to speak up about concerns

Researchers at the Centre for People, Work and Organisational Practice at Nottingham Business School (NBS), in partnership with the CIPD, explored employee voice in a variety of organisations. They found that people who work on the frontline in operational roles – including manufacturing and construction – were less likely to have access to channels which allow them to speak up about issues and worries.

The study also found that the ‘command and control’ structure of many operational roles often led to a culture of verbal abuse and management structures which did not allow for employees to raise concerns without fear of repercussions.

In contrast, office-based staff were more likely to feel confident to speak out and had communications channels, such as computer systems, which enabled them to access information and communicate to others. Significantly, they were also often managed in ways that made it more likely to elicit voice.

The study was carried out in two parts. Phase one, led by Director of the Centre for People, Work and Organisational Practice, Professor Helen Shipton, questioned more than 2,370 employees across the UK on their experience of speaking up at work.

Professor Daniel King, Professor of Organisational Studies at NBS, led phase two, which examined case study organisations and further highlighted the divide between workplaces. He said: “Our research shows that even before the outbreak of the pandemic, these divisions between office-based and operational staff were significant, particularly regarding employee voice.

“It’s not just technological issues creating barriers – it’s also existing societal divides such as education, language and gender. For example, many people in operational workplaces don’t have English as their first language, how do they receive key information and feed-back? New divides have also been created, which areas of the business are safe? How do people travel to and from work?

“Frontline staff, for most organisations, are mostly likely to be some of the most challenging roles to continue socially distant ways of working and simultaneously are also the ones that are also most likely to not feel about to speak out.”

The findings of the study have highlighted the importance of an effective dialogue between line managers and employees during this time of risk and change. Recommendations from the analysis include managing upwards from line managers to more senior managers, creating time for discussion and collaboration, and ensuring that real concerns are acknowledged.

Professor Helen Shipton commented: “The pandemic has created a number of issues that employees in the past may not have felt comfortable taking to their employer about, such as their personal life, family, finance and health circumstances. Workers are differentially impacted by shutdown, including their psychological and emotional wellbeing, and cannot just expect to go back to normal without being able to raise concerns about their workplace being Covid-secure.

“If the organisation or particular department has had poor levels of employee voice before the crisis these problems cannot be fixed overnight, particularly in command and control cultures, but it is possible to encourage active listening and start to form a culture of collaboration.”

The study was carried out by Professor Helen Shipton, Professor Daniel King and research associates Dr Sarah Smith and Jack Rendall from Nottingham Business School, part of Nottingham Trent University, in conjunction with the CIPD.

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    Nottingham Business School

    Nottingham Business School is internationally recognised as a business school which combines academic excellence with impact on business and society. It creates globally responsible leaders through ethical, responsible and sustainable management education.

    NBS subjects are ranked in the top 15 in the Guardian’s 2020 league tables. NBS is amongst the top 20 for both graduate level employability (DLHE) and for student satisfaction (NSS) and as part of NTU holds the TEF Gold award.

    It holds international AASCB and EQUIS accreditation. NBS has held 4* overall QS Stars rating since 2013, with 5* in five categories for the quality of its curriculum, teaching, research, business connectivity and international links.

    It is ranked in the top 95 of the Financial Times European Business School Ranking 2018 and its MSc in Management has also been ranked by the Financial Times as the 97th best Masters in Management in the world (MiM).

    NBS is a PRME Champion, a status given to institutions which have contributed to thought and action leadership on responsible management education in the context of the United Nations sustainable development agenda.

    It was recently reaccredited for the Small Business Charter (SBC) for the next five years, a mark of support for businesses and SMEs, engagement with the local economy and entrepreneurship education.

    NBS provides a transformational experience for its students through personalised and experiential learning. Each student has their learning experience tailored to their aspirations through academic and industry mentors, analytics, and a comprehensive range of personal development and experiential learning opportunities.

    About the CIPD

    The CIPD is the professional body for HR and people development. The registered charity champions better work and working lives and has been setting the benchmark for excellence in people and organisation development for more than 100 years. It has a community of more than 150,000 members across the world, provides thought leadership through independent research on the world of work, and offers professional training and accreditation for those working in HR and learning and development.

Frontline staff less able to raise safety concerns with employers

Published on 13 May 2020
  • Category: Press office; Research

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