Mechanisms for Supporting Worker Voice in China

By Cindy A. Schipani and Junhai Liu


The opportunity for employees to speak-up and participate in decision-making processes has a positive impact on both their individual well-being as well as the well-being of the organization in which they work.[1] Conversely, the inability for employees to speak out may lead to serious unfavorable results for employees’ psychological and physical well-being and lead to negative repercussions for the organization.[2] Even in light of these considerations, workers still face a number of barriers to speaking up in the workplace, including the risk of termination.[3]

In Europe, workers have a non-union option for exercising voice in the European “works councils.”[4] China, too, has long provided—at least in name—non-union institutions of worker participation, called “Staff and Worker Representative Congresses” (“SWRCs”).[5]

There are four defining characteristics of SWRCs.[6] First, SWRCs are defined as “a vehicle of enterprise culture.”[7] Enterprise culture refers to the culture within a specific company. Because of their origins, SWRCs, and by extension workers, have played an important role in shaping enterprise culture in China.[8] Second, SWRCs are identified as “a basic form of grass-roots democracy” because of support for democratic control through SWRCs from the Chinese Constitution and Communist Party documents.[9] Third, SWRCs are “an interface between traditional enterprise governance structure and modern corporate governance structure.”[10] Even though it has no actual legal status, the SWRC continues to be a traditional force in a modern system.[11] Lastly, and most importantly for this work, SWRCs may be one of the main venues through which employees in China can utilize their voices to communicate dissatisfaction, promote constructive change for organizations, and increase perceived fairness of organizational procedures.[12] This manuscript examines the evolution of the SWRCs in China as a mechanism of worker voice (i.e., the mechanism for workers to be heard) and recommends further protections for workers who speak up.

[1] Michael R. Bashshur & Burak Oc, When Voice Matters: A Multilevel Review of the Impact of Voice in Organizations, 41 J. Mgmt. 1530, 1531 (2015); Jian Liang et al., Psychological Antecedents of Promotive and Prohibitive Voice: A Two-Wave Examination, 55 Acad. Mgmt. J. 71, 73 (2012).

[2] See Michael Knoll & Rolf van Dick, Do I Hear the Whistle . . . ? A First Attempt to Measure Four Forms of Employee Silence and Their Correlates, 113 J. of Bus. Ethics 349, 349 (2013); Leslie A. Perlow & Stephanie Williams, Is Silence Killing Your Company?, 81 Harv. Bus. Rev. 52, 52 (2003); see also Michael Knoll & Rolf van Dick, Authenticity, Employee Silence, Prohibitive Voice, and the Moderating Effect of Organizational Identification, 8 J. Positive Psychol. 346, 346 (2013); Fons Naus et al., Organizational Cynicism: Extending the Exit, Voice, Loyalty and Neglect Model of Employees’ Responses to Adverse Conditions in the Workplace, 60 Hum. Rel. 683, 706 (2007).

[3] See e.g., Frances J. Milliken et al., An Exploratory Study of Employee Silence: Issues that Employees Don’t Communicate Upward and Why, 40 J. of Mgmt. Stud. 1453, 1462 (2003); Elizabeth W. Morrison, Employee Voice Behavior: Integration and Directions for Future Research, 5 Acad. of Mgmt. Annals 373, 383 (2011).

[4] Cynthia Estlund, Will Workers Have A Voice in China’s “Socialist Market Economy”? The Curious Revival of the Workers Congress System, 36 Comp. Lab. L. & Pol’y J. 69, 85 (2014). Works councils have not taken root in the United States. Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Li Haiming, The Roles Played by the Staff and Workers’ Representative Congress in the Formation of Work Regulations, 37 Soc. Sci. China 152, 156 (2016).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 157.

[12] Worker voice is “the informal and discretionary communication by an employee of ideas, suggestions, concerns, or information about problems . . . to persons who might be able to take appropriate action, with the intent to bring about improvement or change.” Frances J. Milliken et al., Linking Workplace Practices to Community Engagement: The Case for Encouraging Employee Voice, 29 Acad. Mgmt. Persp. 405, 409–410 (2015) (quoting Elizabeth W. Morrison, Employee Voice and Silence, 1 Ann. Rev. Org. Psychol. & Org. Behav. 173, 174 (2014) [hereinafter Employee Voice and Silence]).