Five minutes with…Adrian Wilkinson

Adrian Wilkinson
Professor Adrian Wilkinson

Professor Adrian Wilkinson is the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing’s long-serving (foundation) Director. He’s a pretty darn good captain of the WOW-ship with his ‘open door’ style and keen interest in seeing workers’ voices not fall on deaf ears, so we spent five minutes with Adrian (because it looks like that’s all he’ll have for a while with all those projects on the go!), to learn a little more….

In what area/s does your research interests lie?

I have a wide range of research in human resource management/ employment relations (HRM/ ER) but a central focus has been on employee voice. This is an issue which faces us on a daily basis in relation to having a say and influencing issues that affect our work. The notion that people should have a say in matters which concern them and affect their work stretches back hundreds of years. Today, it seems to be common sense that workers should speak-up when there are problems which need to be brought to the attention of their employer and in recent years many organisational disasters e.g. the Space shuttle Challenger disaster, United Airlines 173, Bundaberg (‘Dr Death’) case, could have been averted if there had been effective voice.

But voice can also be seen as a fundamental democratic right for workers to extend a degree of control over managerial decision-making in an organisation. Thus, the notion and practice of employee voice has proved contentious. Many managers see worker participation and voice as irksome or unnecessary.

Are there ongoing or emerging trends in your field/s of research?

Research on employee voice in the area of HRM draws on several disciplines but research diverges across these disciplines and remains largely stuck in self-contained silos. In some strands of literature there is an underlying assumption that workers want to speak up, to provide ideas to management, and that management should value voice because of its business benefits. In contrast, other research sees voice as the expression of worker interests that are separate and distinct from those of the [employer] and regards formal institutions, such as trade unions, as important in facilitating genuine employee voice. A key trend is to explore what can be gained from integrating different perspectives.

From a practical point of view, most organisations have some structures for voice, but the way voice initiatives actually work may depend on whether participants perceive them as authentic; that is, are managers actually interested in hearing their voices and will they do something about their concerns or suggestions? Other challenges include designing voice for a diversity voice agenda to include the many missing and neglected voices from parts of a labour force; and voice in a digital world where modern generations of workers will not be easily silenced. Some argue that when employees do not speak-up this can be a type of protest in the form of active employee silence. This is the “thunder in silence” in the Chinese sage Lao-tzu’s philosophy about how to voice discontent.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m finishing an edited book on employment relations for Routledge and am working on two other books, one for Oxford University Press on HRM and another (edited) for Elgar on the Future of Work. I also am editing five special issues of journals and in various stages of research and writing on two ARC grants.

I am also doing a pilot study of voice in a hospital and there’s lots of other stuff simmering away which I should keep better track of before it all boils over!

Finally, are there challenges in your field/s in trying to bridge the gap between research, practice and policy?

HRM and ER research has always tended to have a strong practice and policy emphasis meeting the double hurdle of rigour and relevance. It is about making better workplaces and much of the research has been working with organisations to help them and also a lot of policy work for government departments. The new [research impact] agenda probably doesn’t change what we do, but it suggests we should document our impact better!

It’s also worth noting though that the outcomes of research can emerge over time in rather surprising ways: some research I did was used by Kevin Warsh (former member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System), in relation to evaluating transparency practices in a review of the Bank of England and the same piece of research was cited in an historical paper on the fall of the Roman Empire!