The Need for Disclosure About Worker Voice

Larry W. Beeferman is a Fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. This post is based on his recent paper.

An Introduction to Worker Voice

Despite an increasing focus on company disclosures about workforce-related policies and practices, little attention has been given to very important issues of worker voice: the opportunity and ability of workers to speak out and up about their experience at the workplace and how what they say is heard, discussed, and acted upon. At its core, worker voice is identified with freedom of association, unions, and collective bargaining. However, it may take other forms: directly, by solicitation of worker views through surveys, briefings, suggestion or innovation systems, town halls, quality circles and self-managed work teams; or indirectly, by means of staff associations, health and safety committees, works councils, and board representation.

Why It is Important for Companies and for Workers

Why is worker voice important? Large segments of the workforce have strongly expressed their need for voice not only on matters typically within the compass of collective bargaining—such as pay, benefits, job security and mobility, etc.—but also others—ranging from harassment, work schedules, and how work is done, to company strategy as to relates to the impact of technological change and the alignment of company practice with claimed company values.

Companies clearly are attentive to the impact of worker voice on financial performance. Some fiercely resist worker voice in the form of unions; others not only accept but also engage in overall constructive, win-win relationships with unions. Yet others set practices on the premise that “worker engagement, input, and collaboration” can spur “innovation, motivation and productivity” and that “inclusive, participatory workplaces” can enable attraction and retention of “better talent.”

Recently articulated company commitments to “stakeholder capitalism” necessarily warrant workers having a voice in how decisions which concern them as stakeholders are made.

Prominent statements by companies embracing purposes which include but which look beyond profit to other than financial values, e.g., the well-being of their workers, requires their voice as a means for ensuring it.

The current focus on inclusion, justice, and equity, especially as it relates to matters of race at the workplace, has origins in serious disparities in the availability of jobs, the terms of work, the opportunities for job mobility, etc.; but it is also bound up with the need for the “not included” to be meaningfully seen and heard. That need extends in analogous ways to every member of the workforce.

Finally, while voice in the sphere of enterprise may play out differently than in the political sphere, it is consistent with American values of democratic expression.

Reporting on Worker Voice Falls Dramatically Short

Despite numerous efforts at spurring disclosure about workplace-related matters, major ones still have few requirements with respect to worker voice.

For example, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) focuses on matters thought to be “material” to a company’s financial performance. Under its “human capital” category of metrics for direct employees, only two sub-categories—“labor practices” and “employee engagement”—are arguably relevant to worker voice and even then, they do not apply to about 40% of industries. For labor practices, the only direct measure of worker voice is a metric reporting the percentage of active workforce under a collective bargaining agreement. Two related ones concern only the extent of interruptions from work in the context of strikes, lockouts, and work stoppages. The sole engagement metric is both indirect and very weak.

The disclosure requirements of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) are meant to portray companies’ “sustainability” understood in relation to their economic, environmental, and social impacts. With respect to worker voice, there are only two disclosure requirements which seem to entail only (unspecified) narrative material about the risk of violation of rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining and measures taken to support such rights.

The requirements of the International Organization for Standardization—ISO 30414—are largely geared to companies’ understanding of the impact of “human capital” on their operations. Only 10 of its 58 metrics are for external disclosure, with only one of them arguably tied to worker voice, focusing just on the number and types of grievances filed.

Numbers and Narratives: Filling the Disclosure Gap on Worker Voice

In stark contrast, a less prominent standards regime—that of the Workforce Disclosure Initiative (WDI)—asks for reporting which will inform how investors and companies can improve outcomes for both workers and businesses and features extensive provisions under the rubric of “worker voice and representation”. Numerous WDI requirements primarily concern workers’ ability to enjoy the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. However, some offer insight into the extent of communications and consultation with workers and their impact on decision-making at the workplace.

The WDI approach is valuable, though the questions are generally of a narrative nature, with few seeking numerical responses; do not canvas the range of worker voice mechanisms noted above; and are so numerous as to be viewed by some as burdensome. However, the WDI method can serve as a starting point for a more suitable one. That might include company reporting—by selection from a list of possibilities—on predominant forms of direct and indirect voice which operate within a company; and—again from a list—on how a company ascertains the importance workers attribute to those forms. Given the COVID experience, the efficacy of reporting requirements might be tested with respect to a subset of issues of clear importance to workers and companies, those of health and safety.

Whatever the potential details, the time for meaningful disclosure about worker voice is now.

The complete paper is available for download here.

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