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Labouring for Love (Not Money): A paradox of voice through employee-ownership

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Judith Watson, Julie Monroe



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of a conference proceedings (inc. abstract) that has been published in its final definitive form by British Sociological Association, 2021.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


Employee voice is imagined as a fragile plant which needs care and attention for it to flourish (Wilkinson and Fay 2011). Such imagining resonates with a view of voice as a fundamental right (e.g. Budd 2004), encompassing notions of free speech, social well-being and human dignity (Gollan 2013; Wilkinson and Dundon 2010). However, this tends not to be the reality for employees in conventional businesses. Whilst managers are central in helping voice flourish, they can also hinder voice (Ravenswood and Markey 2018). The choices they make tend towards mechanisms considered to be low-level (Croucher et al 2010; Dundon et al 2017) as they confer limited ability for employees to have any influence; information is provided to employees who are not involved with, or have influence over, that information (Watson 2019). As a result, a growing body of work suggests voice can go unheard (Brooks 2018; Gunawardana 2014; Syed 2014; Soltani et al 2018; Wilkinson et al 2018). This paper contributes to this debate by imagining how employee voice could be. We draw on Wright’s (2010) theoretical framework, elaborated in the Real Utopias Project (Wright 2010), and respond to his call to diagnose obstructions in ‘the world of the actual’ to create the context in which to explore ‘the world of the possible’. In this case, the world of the actual means voice through conventional businesses. Therefore, to explore the world of the possible, we examine voice through an unconventional business model, employee-ownership. A key factor which can enable employee voice in this model is through its ‘embeddedness’ in the governance structure (Bernstein 1976). In this context, employee voice is regarded as part of the ‘organisational infrastructure’ (Dundon et al 2017) thus having greater ‘strength’ (Gollan et al 2015). A qualitative case study was undertaken with Care-Co, an employee-owned social care organisation. As there was no tool available that would allow the researchers to collect and organise the data vis-à-vis embeddedness, a novel ‘6-S’ configuration was developed to aid understanding of how, where and with what effect employee voice was channelled into, within and outwith Care-Co. This was achieved by separating out the following aspects of the organisation: sovereignty, structure, strategy, systems, shape and spirit. Employee voice was examined using this configuration as a framework to conduct primary research including observations and interviews and secondary research such as the company’s website. Contradictory findings have been revealed. Employee-ownership certainly provided the possibility to embed employee voice and did enable social care workers’ voice to be expressed. However, their voice was regularly obstructed by senior management. The paper concludes that a reason for this obstruction was a mistaken view of social care employees as calculative and financially motivated. Paradoxically, had social care workers been heard, management would understand that what drives them is a love of the job and a desire to make a difference to the lives of service users.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Watson J, Monroe J

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Published

Conference Name: Work, Employment and Society Conference 2021: Connectedness, Activism and Dignity at Work in a Precarious Era

Year of Conference: 2021

Pages: 87-88

Online publication date: 25/08/2021

Acceptance date: 02/04/2018

Date deposited: 28/09/2021

Publisher: British Sociological Association