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What OpenAI teaches us about employee power

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The firing and rehiring of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman dominated headlines, and many HR leads unsurprisingly took a professional interest in it.

Yet it’s how OpenAI’s employees wielded their collective power to secure Altman’s return that will have particularly caught their attention.

Following on from stories of unionising Amazon workers, and those striking in the public sector, this is yet another example of growing employee power. But what’s behind this change? And what can HR and business leaders do to ensure the scales remain balanced and support the long-term success of both employees and the business?


Read more: How to get employees to speak up


The growing power of people

The balance of power between employers and employees tipped in employees’ favour during the pandemic as the Great Resignation and reduction in workforce participation – among other factors – prompted the labour market to tighten. This was quickly followed by the cost of living crisis, which led to a wave of industrial action.

This is backed up by research from EY which highlights that organisations believe employee power has risen to 32% in 2023, from just 24% before the pandemic. While this figure has come down from a high of 37% in 2022, it is a testament to the fact that employees hold more power in today’s workplace, despite a slowdown in the economy and the labour market.

The role of transparency in balancing the scales

In this new world of work where employees are more prepared to speak up on concerns over key business decisions, it’s clear just how important a role trust and transparency play when it comes to navigating these new workplace dynamics. These are two currencies needed by any organisation seeking to maintain a stable company culture, and strike the right power balance.

It’s in the interest of all company stakeholders that senior leadership and HR teams listen to employees and understand their challenges and concerns to ensure they are creating an environment in which people can do their best work.

However, businesses cannot afford to give in to their every demand. Ultimately the needs of the business must still come first, and any demand, concern or request made by employees should be considered against the long-term success of the business.

Here HR professionals can play a critical role in striking that right balance. A key way to do this is by putting transparency front and centre – listening closely to employees, considering their feedback within the strategic goals of the business, and communicating the decisions made by senior leadership clearly back to the workforce.


Read more: How employers can support employees at different levels of engagement


Building day-to-day trust between employees and employers

This is also about building a culture of trust. For business leaders, this is critical to employee engagement and keeping their staff on side; the same research by EY found that employees who report high levels of trust are 40% less likely to quit.

And trust between employees and senior leadership is fundamentally built upon an open and communicative company culture. There are several ways that HR teams can foster this. For example, using surveys to listen to feedback before hosting town hall sessions with senior leaders to discuss and address their findings, can help implement a culture where business decisions are not just scrutinised but explained within the context of where the company is going.

This will only result in positives for the business as a whole. Employees who trust their leaders and the course they set for a business will ultimately be more inspired, motivated and invested in its success.

Learning lessons for better people management

The firing and rehiring of Sam Altman at OpenAI is yet another example of employees wielding greater power since before the pandemic. It serves as a reminder to HR and senior leadership teams not just about the importance of listening to their needs and views, but also creating an open dialogue. It’s by creating a transparent, trusting company culture that HR and leadership teams can balance the scales of power while enabling people to do their best work.

By Pete Cooper, director of people, partners and analytics at Personio

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