In an era of increasing income inequality, questions of worker voice and power are both important and timely. In the five worker voice research projects described on this page, the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative is helping scholars illuminate the issue of employee agency in the workplace in the 21st century. About what work-related issues do working people want more say? How would they prefer to be engaged? What mechanisms do working people utilize and value as means to present their needs, preferences, and ideas in the workplace?
Worker Voice in America
Researchers: Thomas Kochan et al.
One of the major research efforts under the auspices of the Initiative focuses on worker voice in the United States. The decline of unions, coupled with shifts in the organization of work, have effectively reduced the agency of working people in their jobs. The underlying questions this project addresses are: How do workers in the 21st century think about and exercise influence in the workplace? What are their preferred means for taking actions to improve their economic, psychological, and social outcomes and experiences at work?
Launched in 2017, the worker voice project gathered new data about the degree to which employees can make themselves heard and have influence in the workplace. Led by MIT Sloan Professor Thomas A. Kochan, the research team also included MIT Sloan Professor Erin L. Kelly as well as two MIT Sloan graduate students, Duanyi Yang (who received her doctorate in 2020 and is now an assistant professor at Cornell University ILR School) and William Kimball. The project involved a survey, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, of a representative sample of nearly 4000 U.S. adults of working age, asking a range of questions about how they feel about their influence in the workplace.
Two results particularly stood out. First was the size of the gap between how much say workers felt they have with regard to workplace issues vs. how much they felt they ought to have—a difference the researchers called the "voice gap." Second, compared to two surveys in prior decades, there was a significant uptick in the percentage of nonunionized workers who expressed interest in joining a union; in the two previous surveys, roughly one-third of those workers indicated they would join a union if given the chance, but nearly half (48%) said that in the 2017 survey.
This research project resulted in a paper published in the journal ILR Review as well as a worker voice workshop held at MIT in November 2018 and a workshop on involving workers in technological change held in June 2019. The Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative also synthesized the study's findings in a practical, accessible digest intended for practitioners and policy makers. In addition, findings from this research have been mentioned in major media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN.com, Vox.com, Fast Company, and The Boston Globe.
2018 Worker Organization Survey
Building on the insights of the 2017 worker voice Survey, the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative in 2018 helped conduct a second major worker voice project. This project, the Worker Organization survey, used conjoint analysis to examine what characteristics U.S. workers find more or less appealing in a labor organization. The research team consisted of Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; MIT Sloan graduate student Will Kimball; and MIT Sloan Professor Thomas Kochan. The team fielded a survey in 2018 to a nationally representative sample of more than 4000 U.S. workers.
The researchers discovered that two of the features workers would most highly value in a labor organization are collective bargaining on behalf of workers and the provision of portable health and retirement benefits. Other features that workers would highly value include unemployment benefits, training opportunities, and job search help. Workers also would be somewhat more likely to join a labor organization if it offered legal representation or input into corporate decisions, through means such as representing workers in joint labor-management committees or formally on a company board.
This study has resulted in an article published in the journal ILR Review. The research has also been presented at a number of venues, including the 2019 Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA) Annual Conference, the Economic Policy Institute (July 2019), and the LERA sessions at the Allied Social Science Associations 2020 Annual Conference.
Labor in the Boardroom
Researchers: Simon Jäger, Benjamin Schoefer, and Jörg Heining
The study, co-authored by Simon Jäger, Benjamin Schoefer, and Jörg Heining, estimates the effects of a mandate allocating a third of corporate board seats to workers (shared governance) in Germany. It analyzes the effects of a reform in Germany that abolished this mandate for certain companies incorporated after August 1994, but locked it in for slightly older companies.
By analyzing the results of this natural experiment, the authors find that granting workers representation on the board raises capital formation. This finding is in sharp contrast to an economic theory known as the hold-up hypothesis, which predicts that increasing labor’s power reduces owners’ capital investment. On the contrary, the researchers found that, compared to their counterparts without workers on the board, companies with shared governance shifted their production process towards higher capital intensity, and this effect was not driven by greater outsourcing of labor-intensive production steps.
Jäger is the Silverman (1968) Family Career Development Assistant Professor of Economics at MIT, Schoefer is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and Jörg Heining is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Employment Research in Germany. A draft of "Labor in the Boardroom," the paper resulting from the team’s research, was published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper in November 2019; the paper has since been accepted for publication in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. (A draft of the paper is also available on the MIT Department of Economics website.)
The research has already received press coverage. It was highlighted by Bloomberg and The Washington Post in August 2019 and in an article by the researchers for VoxEU.org in April 2020. The research has also been mentioned on WBUR/National Public Radio and summarized in an animated video available on YouTube:
Junior Employee Voice and Influence in Modern Firms
Researcher: Raquel Kessinger
Kessinger, an MIT Sloan doctoral student, is studying how employees with less experience use voice at work, and the tools managers use to engage junior employees in modern workplaces. She is doing research in two firms: an Atlanta-based digital media agency, where the majority of employees are under the age of 35 and real-time data is used to monitor work; and a San Francisco-based start-up that has created a new digital communication tool aimed at making workplace conversations more transparent and inclusive. In Atlanta, Kessinger is employing ethnographic methods and, in the San Francisco-based project, she is interviewing different stakeholders to capture their perceptions, attitudes, and experience.
Employee Voice in Technology Companies
Researcher: Raquel Kessinger
Kessinger is also working on a project that will involve reviewing existing research about how employees’ opinions and concerns are voiced and addressed in contemporary technology companies.