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‘Just listen…!’: employee voice, Bundaberg Hospital & robo-debt recovery

25 January 2017
Adrian Wilkinson
Griffith University News

Giving staff a say in what happens in their workplace in the hope that it will influence their employer’s operations and business affairs for the better is what employers want. Equally, employees wish to put forward views both for this reason as well as asserting their own interests. These are both what researchers refer to as ‘employee voice’.

The assumption cannot be made however, that formalised means of capturing voice (which are usually designed by  managers and can look nothing like they were intended when implemented), resolves all the issues raised.  While yet to make the same impact on global headlines, a series of recent news articles has informally captured the voice of current and former Centrelink workers as the ‘robo-debt’ recovery saga plays out. Whistleblowers have highlighted the ‘deaf ears’ upon which their reported voicing of concerns (using in-house protocols) has fallen.

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And it is often difficult to ensure the integration of the different voices that emerge from different professional perspectives. The expertise of the nurse or doctor takes place against a background of institutional noise that makes it likely that much voice is not heard, rather than deliberately repressed. At Bundaberg, managers heard employees’ voices informally, but under time and resource pressures and sensitivity to issues of power and professional expertise, they either discounted them or set the bar so high that single voices were ignored unless there was corroborating data. (FYI – the managers never sought to get such data).

The BBH case also illustrates the importance of active listening to complaints as part of the employee voice system.  It illustrates how stifled voice can rapidly create a sense of learned helplessness.