Industrial partnership success

Question 1: Discuss the role that workplace partnership' strategies play in employee-management relations.

Abstract:

This paper attempts to collate popular definitions of the phrase 'Workplace Partnership'. Enlist some commonly used partnership strategies. Highlight its effects and limitations from the IR perspective.

Introduction:

'Modern and successful companies draw their success from the existence and development of partnership at work. Those who have learnt to cherish and foster the creativity of their whole workforce have found a resource of innovation and inventiveness that drives their companies forward as well as enriching their lives.' (Tony Blair, Fairness at Work. Page 3, cited in Knell, 1999)

The concept of partnership at work has garnered a lot of interest in the past decade when debates on enterprise success and workplace innovations arise. Post 1999, there has been substantial growth in workplace partnership agreements in recent years. Government funding and ACAS guidance as well as the EU's preference for employee consultation has helped its cause (Oxenbridge and Brown 2002).

Ackers and Payne (1998) believe that partnership provides a platform for union renewal, enabling them to 'swim among the fishes, and re-enter the mainstream of employment relations' (Ackers and Payne 1998).

A different school of thought believes that partnership agreements may actually undermine workplace unionism John Kelly (1998, 2004 as cited in Dobbins and Gunnigle, 2009). Guest and Peccei (2001) describe partnership as a 'concerted effort by owners and managers to create an environment where employees take a significant psychological stake in the success of the organisation. This is achieved through building high levels of attachment, commitment, and involvement in the enterprise. A partnership philosophy relies on both employees and management to focus on shared goals and interests without being derailed by potentially different positions on specific issues' (Guest & Peccei, 2001). 'As such, partnership represents a philosophy of integration and mutuality, with a move away from conflicting positions and distinctions' (Martinez Lucio & Stuart, 2002).

Guest and Peiccei (2001) have put forth an interesting angle to view and understand partnership from, namely the pluralist, the unitarist and the hybrid. In the first one, there is a clear tug of war between capital and labour. Capital will try to restrict the power of labour. Here direct forms of employee participation are though not openly discouraged, but directly elected representatives are the ones who deal with the employers (Rogers and Streeck 1995 as cited in Guest, D and Peccei, R, 2001:209). The unitarist system tries to integrate the employee and employer's interests at the same time. There is maximum involvement of employees in this system though. There however also is emphasis on sharing the profits with the employees (Blinder 1990; Conte and Svejnar 1990 as cited in Guest, D and Peccei, R 2001:209). The employees have enough autonomy to work, but it ends up being a one sided affair, hence not very popular (Strauss 1998 as cited in Guest, D and Peccei, R 2001). The third system, (hybrid) plays safe and integrates both the unitarist and pluralist systems. This method ensures that the desired goals are achieved through elected representatives to liaise with the managements (Guest and Peiccei 2001).

The Partnership philosophy and Workplace-Partnership Strategies.

Some of the important ends of having the concept of workplace partnership according to Guest and Peiccei (2001) were joint and mutual commitment to success, building trust, recognizing the role for all partners, addressing issues of security and flexibility, sharing success, informing and consulting staff and employee voice and representation. These values have been reaffirmed by the TUC's 'Partners for progress' 1996 (John Knell, 1999).

Research outcomes mentioned in the BSI's report by Dr. Knell, all the firms which were part of the survey voiced that 'trust' was one of their main expectations out of the partnership agreements. It was also a 'behaviour' that all participants wished to have within the workplace (John Knell, 1999).

A strong commitment to mutuality of responsibility between the management, employees and unions was brought out during the study. That was not all. Carrying forth the value of it being a mutually beneficial exercise, the expectations from each stakeholder too were very clear and each was aware of responsibilities of and expectations from the other. Hence, organisations sought to have clear commitments on productivity from the employees, and the employees in turn had a clear vision of the training support, developmental opportunities etc that were to be expected from the management. The importance of formulation and communication of a common vision for the organisation was also high on the priority list (John Knell, 1999).

Another one of the key values found was that of Employee Voice. To be heard while decisions are being made, and to be consulted before important decisions are made go a long way in helping maintain good employee relations and a positive workforce. Case study evidence shows that if employees feel genuinely listened to and heard when they contribute in the workplace, not only will they feel more valued, but they will be more likely help improve the workplace with their own suggestions and value adds. When employees felt they were contributing well to the organisations, they also expected in return recognition and fair rewards. The expectation of job security was also observed from the study (John Knell, 1999).

The 4th Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) threw out some interesting and contradictory findings regarding partnership. While 65% of companies claimed to have introduced team working, in only 5% cases was it found to be systematic (Cully et al 1999 as cited in Martinez, M and Stuart, M, 2004:418). Guest and Peccei's (1998) Involvement and Participation Association (IPA) survey too found the high usage of partnership strategies were being used widely, but contrary to the companies claims, the workers claimed they rarely applied to the entire staff. 13% of the respondents agreed to the fact the more than half the employees were covered with such partnership activities. Which meant a gap in what was portrayed to be, and what really was. (Martinez, M and Stuart, M, 2004:418)

Workplace Partnership Strategies (John Knell, 1999)

Based on the study conducted on 15 different companies, Dr. Knell's paper throws enough light on what are some of the most commonly used Workplace Partnership strategies. We shall look at the most important ones in this section.

  1. Communication, Trust and Transparency: Many organisations have realized the importance of communication and transparency in doing so between stakeholders. This would include communication on the financial position of the company, the key statistics regarding the functioning of the company, conducting off site days with clear business agendas for management and staff to discuss strategies and targets. Communicating the Vision and Mission of the company by the CEO or Directors of the company to the new recruits etc
  2. Employee Development / Investing in People: Not leaving any employee behind when providing training opportunities. Guaranteeing complete support, financial or otherwise in making sure the assigned trainings go ahead as planned, and employees are released by their supervisors for training programs. The organisation exhibiting commitment in creating an employable workforce instead of covering only its own gains etc are associated with this strategy.
  3. Fair and Timely Performance Management systems: Achieving this by ensuring that employees are trained in setting realistic goals for themselves for the year ahead. Offering total transparency while rating individuals on their performance. Rewarding people according to the pre-set incentives structure in a timely fashion etc.
  4. Employment Security: By either committing explicitly, or by giving assurances from the top most levels to employees that they won't be laid off, or that the organisation will do everything possible to find alternate employment in the event of redundancies being made. Different managements approach this delicate aspect differently.
  5. Flexible Working with Increased Responsibility: Most organisations have the concept of flexi hours, or work from home (during unavoidable circumstances). This leads to the employees feeling cared for by the management of the organisation.
  6. Financial Participation: A majority of the managements that were part of the survey were keen on sharing the success by making the employees (mostly senior or key staff) partners in the success of the company. This boosts morale and motivates others to perform better to achieve higher levels of performance.
  7. Team Culture, Empowerment, and Self Direction: To build a uniform team culture in a large organisation is a challenge in itself. As people are hired from different organisations or agencies, if not molded in one direction, it becomes difficult then to identify the culture of the organisation. A culture that is in line with the organisation's mission and vision, and that enables and empowers its people and encourages them to make decisions regarding the work related matters or the way they need to be performing while on the job is what ideally all organisations look for.
  8. Reward mechanisms: Rewards and Recognitions need to be given as and when employees perform above expectations and beyond their expected span of work. If proper acknowledgement is given time to time, it goes a long way in enhancing staff morale and productivity. Employees thus recognized will also feel pride and ownership with their employer and their current jobs.
  9. Employee Benefits: The benefits that are deserved to be given by the employer, if given on time make a good impression, and create a good image for the employer. The prospective employees too would be attracted due to word of mouth publicity that an employer would thus get.
  10. Trade Union Relations: Most of the 15 organisations studied were unionized, and they belonged to different sectors. Maintaining good relations with the trade unions has always been a good strategy on the part of the employers. Initiating a partnership agreement anyways curtails the powers of the trade unions in such organisations, and if there is harmony and cooperation with the trade union, all stakeholders would reap the benefits.
  11. Continuous Improvement: While this may look like a strategy serving the ends of the organisation, it also helps the employees stay in touch with the latest technology and skills. It helps the company maintain and improve its performance, and at the same time its employees end up becoming more employable due to the skill upgrade.
  12. Occupational Health and Safety: Orgainzations that show keenness in employee health and safety seem like very caring ones to the employees. It's a feel good factor as far as employees are concerned.
  13. Employee Security: Just as the security of jobs is important, the employees would consider their own security as most important, especially for high risk kind of jobs.

These would be the average of all the strategies that the 15 organisations have used while the research was being conducted on them. This forms a good sample for us to identify some of the most important Workplace Partnership strategies. (John Knell, 1999).

Outcomes of Workplace Partnership

A core assumption is that partnership brings benefits to the stakeholders. Although partnership might bring positive benefits to the employer such as low absenteeism, fewer industrial conflicts, high employee commitment and morale etc. The employees seem to be getting only a psychological advantage, and hence seem a bit unfair (Guest and Peccei, 2001)

Kochan and Osterman (1994) however are the staunchest believers in the positive power of Workplace Partnership. They identify mutual gains, direct employee participation etc. These are most effective when combined in bundles, and not alone. They claim that higher commitment, increased productivity, lower conflict, and higher innovation occur due to partnership. Other benefits are enhanced employment security and representative voice at strategic decision making levels. At the same time, according to Guest and Peccei (2001), 'the balance of advantages' leans towards the managements' (Dobbins and Gunnigle, 2009)

But critics such as John Kelly would cast doubts and argue further, as to whether these are clear-cut benefits for the employees after all? His stance was that their (employees) fundamental position was weak because it constantly clashed with the nature of IR in a market economy John Kelly (1998, 2004 as cited in Dobbins and Gunnigle, 2009). 'Many critics view Workplace Partnership as a vehicle for recasting management control over workers and argue that while it may deliver significant benefits to employers, it delivers few to workers and may even entail significant costs such as work intensification or job insecurity. Also that employers are intent, at best, on incorporating unions into a managerial agenda, and, at worst, on marginalizing and even eradicating them.' (Danford et al 2005 as cited in Dobbins and Gunnigle, 2009)

Paul Edwards (2003) elaborates on the contradictory nature of the relationship between so called 'Workplace Partnership' and Industrial Relations as we know it. Employers he says, have to deal with the economic uncertainties as well as internal Industrial Relations. On one hand they have to try and keep employees distressed, and on the other hand they are made to do extra loads of work under the guise of team work and with carrots such as performance incentives etc (Paul Edwards, 2003 as cited in Dobbins and Gunnigle, 2009)

Workplace partnerships are under constant threat from market pressures. (Belanger and Edwards 2007 as cited in Dobbins and Gunnigle, 2009). Durable workplace cooperation needs to be supported by hard legislative constraints such as the German co-determination laws and voluntary co-operation in liberal markets is overly dependent on employer approval and market conditions (Streeck 1995 as cited in Dobbins and Gunnigle, 2009).

Conclusion:

It is apparent that workplace partnership cannot exist in isolation. It needs many other factors well in place in order to thrive and be beneficial. The advantages of partnership in IR are many. But on reviewing the evidence, they seem to be tilted in favor of the managements more as opposed to workers. There is also mounting evidence that suggests partnership strategies are only used to weaken the unions hold on employees and have greater control and a psychological edge over the employees.

At the same time, it would be a grave mistake for organisations and managements to not run with the partnership agenda. In the absence of such partnership strategies, the dissatisfaction from the workers and unions would be detrimental to the existence of the organisation. The perfect balance however can be managed by making efforts to ensure that the workers are not made to live in a feel good illusionary bubble, but are looked at from a more human perspective. The values or trust and transparency are observed to the hilt in very few organisations these days. When that changes, it will be the closest match to the literal meaning of the phrase 'Workplace Partnership'.

References:

  • Ackers, P. and J. Payne (1998). 'British trade unions and social partnership: rhetoric, reality and strategy.' International Journal of Human Resource Management 9(3): 529-550.
  • Dobbins, A and Gunnigle, P (2009) 'Can Voluntary Workplace Partnership Deliver Sustainable Mutual Gains?' British Journal of Industrial Relations, 47(3):546-570.
  • Guest, D and Peccei, R (2001) 'Partnership at Work: Mutuality and the Balance of Advantage', British Journal of Industrial Relations, 39(2):207-236.
  • Knell, J. (1999) 'Partnership at Work'.Employment Relations Research Series No. 7. Department of Trade and Industry.
  • Martinez-Lucio, M., Stuart, M. (2002), 'Assessing partnership: the prospects for, and challenges of, modernisation', Employee Relations, Vol. 24 No.3, pp.252-61.
  • Martinez-Lucio, M and Stuart, M (2004) 'Swimming against the tide: social partnership, mutual gains and the revival of 'tired' HRM', International Journal of Human Resource Management. 15(2):410-424.
  • Oxenbridge, S. and W. Brown (2002). 'The two faces of partnership? An assessment of partnership and co-operative employer/trade union relationships'. Employee Relations 24(3): 262-276.

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