Insights

Employees as Citizens – moving beyond a transactional approach to workplace relations

One of the major challenges at the heart of organizational communication involves how best to define the relationship between employers and employees.

To a large extent, organizations have come to treat their employee relationships as transactional. This is not only true in North America where the hire-and-fire culture and reliance on workplace-provided benefits can lead to an undercurrent of expendability in the relationship, but outside the US where organizations often speak of employees as “internal customers.”

While it may be prevalent to treat workforce relationships as transactional, doing so belies some basic realities of what being in the workforce involves:

  • Agency

Within the framework of established rules, priorities and processes, members of the workforce have the right and opportunity to make their own decisions, particularly when they are working away from detailed supervision

  • Commitment

Employees with long-term ambitions within an organization generally are committed to its long-term success, and have often staked their own personal commitments on the pursuit of a mutually beneficial relationship. Even contract and temporary employees tend to have a desire to perform well, leave a good impression, and perhaps be invited back.

  • Connection

The workplace isn’t simply a place where most of its members go, perform individual transactional tasks, and leave. For many participants, work is where many of the most significant activities and conversations in one’s life take place and where many fundamental relationships form

  • Visibility

Where companies have high visibility, either through wide public brand awareness or because of prominence as a local employer, employees willingly or unwillingly act as representatives of the organization and its brand in the larger community. In that capacity, they engage in conversations about product and service quality, organizational values and the extent to which positions in the organization would be desirable to potential job-seekers.

Given that people in the workforce have considerable discretion over the extent to which they invest their agency, commitment, connection and visibility on the company’s behalf, a one-dimensional transactional model does not neatly apply.

But what is there to replace it?

Citizenship.

The role of an employee within an organization bears much greater resemblance to citizenship than customership because it accounts for agency, commitment, connection and visibility.

Workforce “citizenship” also accounts for the level of “skin-in-the-game” for employees who bet their careers, familial stability and personal reputations on their choice of employer, and because it is sufficiently two-way to balance those factors against organizational objectives, rules, values and governance processes.

A workforce citizenship model doesn’t need to devolve all decision-making to employees.

But it can benefit from acknowledging and addressing the discretion employees do have in executing organizational decisions. Ideally, it can also incorporate the expertise, experience and aspirations of employees as key decisions get formulated.

When I first wrote on this subject nearly ten years ago, both internal and external social media were in their infancy and employee advocacy was anticipated but not yet widely embraced. Indeed, the slower-than-anticipated spread of internal social media and employee advocacy appears to align with organizations’ hesitancy to move beyond traditional and transactional thinking about the broader organizational and social roles of their employees.

At the same time, a shift in thinking combined with access to appropriate communication platforms and tools – tools which allow employees to share ideas, content and opinions appropriately in an organizational context – has the potential to help align internal communication with the lived employee experience, and create platforms where employees can be effective citizens inside and outside workplace walls.

MIKE KLEIN is Principal of Changing The Terms, a Netherlands-based communication consultancy focused on internal and change communication. The 2018-2019 Chair of IABC’s Europe-Middle East-North Africa region, Mike is the author of the research series on the Present and Future of Internal Communication for Happeo.

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