Why your pay might really be beyond their pay grade

There is abundant evidence that independence, autonomy and a degree of discretion about our work all make a positive contribution to job satisfaction.  Similarly, tightly circumscribed roles and routines governing every aspect of working life are associated with discontent, stress and ill health. So how much influence do employees have over their work?  What can be changed and what's off the table?

Back in autumn 2009, the CIPD Employee Outlook survey asked employees how much influence they had over a number of different factors that potentially affect the quality of working life:

  • How they did their work
  • Job responsibilities and priorities
  • Work environment
  • Changes in company products and services
  • Strategy and direction of the organisation
  • Pay and employment conditions

The headline results for all employees are presented in the graph below.

Nearly three quarters of employees (72%) said they had 'a great deal' or 'some' influence over how they did their work, more than half (54%) said this degree of influence extended to job responsibilities and priorities and almost two fifths (39%) said they could influence their work environment.  But when it comes to corporate matters - changes to products and services, strategy and business model and how the organisation treats its employees - there is a sharp fall in perceived influence.  Just one in seven employees (14%) said they had any meaningful degree of influence over pay and employment conditions.

If we focus on the stronger measure of influence - those saying they had 'a great deal' of influence over their work - the proportions are much smaller.  A third (32%) of employees said they had a great deal of  influence over how they did their work but only 15% had a similar degree of influence over their job role and priorities and the proportions for all the other factors are below 10%.  So while many employees might have the choice over whether or not to put a pot plant on their desk, a much smaller proportion think they can influence the bigger choices, such as open plan versus office working.

Now this might be expected.  Few organisations are run on democratic principles.  The big decisions that affect many people, such as the organisation's strategy or how it treats its people, are commonly centralised, although organisations differ in the degree of flexibility and discretion given to individuals and local units within organisations.

The graph below therefore breaks down the responses by (self-described) management responsibility: whether someone is a member of corporate management ('Board level'), a senior manager, a middle manager, a junior manager or supervisor, or an employee without management responsibilities (about 60% of all employees).

Perceived influence is related to position in the management hierarchy.  Those at the top of the organisation have more influence than those without management responsibility.  While 65% of non-managerial employees have at least some influence over how they do their job and 44% have some influence over job responsibilities and priorities, meaningful influence outside these areas is minimal.

Particularly interesting here are the responses of junior managers/supervisors and middle managers.  Managerial status means that more of them say they have a great deal of influence over how they do their work and their job responsibilities and priorities but, when it comes to having a strong influence over corporate decisions, they feel little more empowered than those they manage.  Looking at middle managers, for example, just 5% of them felt they had a great deal of influence over organisation strategy, pay and employment conditions or changes to products and services.

Even if we step up a level, just 16% of senior managers - which can be anything up to the level beneath the Board - thought they had a great deal of influence over organisation strategy and 13% had a great deal of influence over pay and employment conditions.  It is only among the most senior employees - those on the organisation's decision making body - that we see high percentages stating they had a great deal of influence over the big decisions.

Across the board, pay and employment conditions is the aspect of work where employees feel they are least likely to have influence - only 36% of employees at Board level say they have a great deal of influence over this.  For good or ill, it seems this is an area where decisions are seen to be taken by a relatively small group of people.  When your line manager says he cannot engineer you a pay rise, he or she is probably speaking the truth as he or she sees it, even if they are someone quite senior in the hierarchy.

Does this matter?  While many decisions need to be taken at a corporate level, and while everyone cannot have their say on every single topic, employees who do not feel they have the ability to influence decisions are unlikely to make their voice heard.  Yet the insight they can provide on markets and customers, products and services and how the organisation works in practice might contain the ingredients of both continuous improvement and transformational change.

Line managers are often identified as one of the barriers to workplace change and these data suggest a reason why this may be the case (when it is the case).  The first, second, perhaps even third lines of management may be asked to implement decisions that they feel they have had no real influence over.

These data are from 2009.  The position is unlikely to have changed substantively since then.  Data from a range of surveys suggest that perceived autonomy and influence has been broadly stable over the past decade.

The survey did not ask employees how they exerted influence.  In some workplaces, employees exert influence collectively through trade unions or other forms of employee representative.  Although this particular survey did not collect data on trade union membership, it did ask employees about the availability of a number of mechanisms allowing them to express their opinions about issues affecting them at work, including union representatives.  So next week, in part 2 of this blog, we will examine the impact these mechanisms have on employee perceptions of their influence over work.

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