Thursday, December 2, 2010

The unitary and pluralist perspectives of employee relations

The unitary and pluralist perspectives of employee relations
            Since the 1980s, there has been a significant paradigm shift in managing employee relations (ER) to one focused on more strategic and integrated frameworks that are based on employee commitment and shared workplace interests, instead of the traditional managerial control and conflicts between employers and employees (Cully et al. 1999: 57; Kaufman 2008: 317). These ER initiatives can be traced back to the 1950s in the United States, where three human resource (HR) models became prominent, namely Fombrun, Tichy, and Devanna’s (1984) ‘matching model,’ Beer et al.’s (1984) ‘Harvard model,’ and Walton’s (1985) ‘control to commitment’ model (Farnham 1993: 34).  Similar ER changes occurred in the United Kingdom (UK), although mainly in larger organisations. Authors argued that the manager’s frame of reference impacts how these perspectives are interpreted and used or not used (Farnham 1993: 36, Ackers and Payne 1998: 533,and Gennard and Judge 2002: 52).  The three common kinds of ER perspectives are: unitarist, pluralist, and neo-unitary (Farnham 1993: 37). This essay critically evaluates only two approaches to ER namely, the unitary and pluralist perspectives and demonstrates the implications for managing successful ER in organisations adopting the unitarist perspectives.
Unitarist perspectives
Fox (1996) stated that there are two major frames of reference for ER, the unitarist and pluralist frameworks (cited in Farnham 1993: 36).  There are several main elements of the unitarist perspective. First, there is only a single source of authority in organisation, which is usually the management, and oppositionary leaders are non-existent (Ross and Bamber 2009: 25).  Second, the role of organisational leaders is to promote loyalty and commitment among workers (Farnham 1993: 36, and Ackers and Payne 1998: 540).  Third, organisations are seen as consisting of teams that are working together for mutual goals, and there are also no conflicts of interests between managers and employees (Leat 2001: 23).  The unitarist perspective believes that employers and employees can join forces for common objectives, interests, and values (Ackers and Payne 1998: 540, and Burchill 1997: 7, cited in Dzimbiri 2008: 2). Fourth, the management should exemplify strong leadership to attain organisational objectives (Farnham 1993: 36).  Fifth, trade unions are not legal intrusions to management objectives (Farnham 1993: 36).   Trade unions are not seen as essential for the harmonious managing of conflicts (Ackers and Payne 1998: 540, and  Dzimbiri 2008: 2). Sixth, conflicts in the organisation are perceived negatively; they are dysfunctional and lead to disloyalty, thereby impairing the well-being of the organisation (Giles 1989: 131; Farnham 1993: 36, and Curseu et al. 2009: 20).   Seventh, the state is autonomous and shapes industrial relations systems (IR) (Giles 1989: 131).
Strengths of unitarist perspective
A major strength of the unitarist perspective is that it explicitly wants to integrate employer and employee interests, so that it can enhance employee commitment and loyalty (Guest and Peccei 2001:209). This can be used as a basis for stakeholder management, wherein employees are seen as important stakeholders of the organisation, and so their well-being is carefully considered in ensuring the welfare of the organisation (Ackers and Payne 1998: 540).
The unitarist perspective also emphasizes the role of managers in attaining win-win situations for employees and organisations, wherein their interests can be properly aligned with each other (Giles 1989: 131). Managers are compelled to go beyond their managerial styles of managing ER and emphasise also their leadership capabilities (Ackers and Payne 1998: 539). If they can be convincing and influential leaders in the organisation, there will be no strong demand for trade unions.
Furthermore, the unitarist perspective assumes that all stakeholders are rational members, who will consider finding common interests. This belief provides a steady rationale for stressing common goals, so that a stable ER system can be achieved (Giles 1989: 131).
Finally, the unitarist perspective is essentially individualist in its ER approach, which works best for individualist IR systems (Giles 1989: 131). Many IR systems all over the world has shifted from the collectivist (trade-union-led) IR paradigms to individualist paradigms, including in the UK, and so the unitarist perspective will be particularly useful for this kind of IR perspective.
Weaknesses of unitarist perspective
A major weakness of this theory is the lack of realization that there are power inequalities between employers and employees which will generate diverse kinds of conflicts (Kessler and Purcell 2003: 315). Managers often exert greater power over their employees in determining work conditions, especially for blue-collar jobs, and instead of the workers acting as owners of power too, they will tend to accept decisions of the management and submit to the former’s power.
Furthermore, conflict is treated too negatively, and not seen as a force that reflects inequalities and which can be used as opportunities to regain work harmony (Dzimbiri 2008: 2, and Kitay & Marchington 1996: 1267). Although there are different kinds of conflicts, some authors say that there are certain kinds of conflicts that are good for organisational development. For instance, there are two kinds of conflict- one that is unhelpful to team effectiveness, also called A-conflict, and the other that is helpful to the team, termed as C-conflict (Esquivel and Kleiner 1996: 43). Task conflict, an example of task conflict, arises when team members have disparities in how tasks are defined and divided among the group, such as major decision areas and processes (Chuang et al. 2004: 28). Studies showed that task conflict can improve positive outcomes for the group (Chuang et al. 2004: 28, and Choudrie 2005: 65). Simons and Peterson (2000) asserted from their study that intragroup trust affected the relationship between tasked-related conflict and relationship conflict (cited in Chuang et al. 2004: 28).  Hence, by ‘demonising’ conflict, the unitary perspective delimits how task conflicts can also be used to enhance performance.
In addition, it is unclear how individual worker sentiments can be adequately integrated into the organisational objectives, because the unitary perspective is very normative and lacks description of how common interests can be identified and shared across organisations (Ackers and Payne 1998: 539). For instance, it does not provide any guidelines for HR, so that it can pursue unitarism effectively (Storey 2000: 12). The unitarist perspective only assumes that members are rational enough to reach solid decisions on how personal and organisational interests are to be combined.
Pluralist perspectives
First, pluralist theory believes that the workplace is composed of diverse sets of beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviours (Giles 1989: 131). Second, there are opposing sources of leadership and attachment in organisations (Farnham 1993: 36).   Third, conflicts are inevitable because there are inherent competing interests (Dabscheck 1989: 59, and Dzimbiri 2008: 3). Conflicts can even be helpful, if identified and controlled within institutional responses (Farnham 1993: 36).   Fourth, the role of the management is to mediate among competing interests (Farnham 1993: 36).   Fifth, Trade unions are legitimate representatives of employees, and they are viewed positively because they help employees emphasise their decision-making power (Leat 2001:23).   Sixth, the state promotes public interest (Kaufman 2008: 320). Seventh, ER stability can be attained through a series of concessions and negotiations between managers and employers through the collective bargaining process (Bacon and Storey 2000: 410 and Kaufman 2008: 321).
Strengths of the pluralist perspective
Unlike the unitarist, the pluralist theory emphasises that effective IR interventions can resolve conflicts (Dzimbiri 2008: 3). A consultative approach can be used by the management in responding to conflicts. Furthermore, it also considers other alternative decision-making processes (Dzimbiri 2008: 3 and Giles 1989: 131).
Conflict is not overlooked, but managed effectively through stakeholder participation (Hunter 1998: 560). Conflict can then be used to understand underlying tensions, so that they can be identified and properly addressed (Kessler and Purcell 2003: 315, and Bacon and Blyton 2007). The pluralist perspective makes use of conflict management strategies to engage groups that are in conflict, so that resolutions can be discussed and implemented (Kessler and Purcell 2003: 315).
The pluralist perspective embraces a wider array of employee relations policies (Gennard, and Judge 2002: 56). Some companies can adopt no-union policies, as long as there are employee organisations, while other companies can motivate the use of trade unions. The girth of employee relations policies can make pluralism specifically beneficial for diverse organisational and national cultures (Gennard, and Judge 2002: 56). For instance, trade unions can be effective allies also in aligning individual and organisational interests compared to the unitarist approach to ER (Badigannavar and Kelly 2005). The pluralist perspective is also suitable for collective IR systems, because it does not disregard the role of trade unions in managing employee-employer conflicts (Badigannavar and Kelly 2005).
Weaknesses of the pluralist perspective
The weakness of the pluralist theory is the inclination to dwell on on rules and procedures and disregard the processes that also contribute to the resolution of conflicts. For instance, through IR, laws can be made that impose certain ways of resolving workplace conflicts. These rules, however, cannot adapt to emerging and different workplace conditions (Gennard, and Judge 2002: 56).
In addition, the pluralist perspective is incapable of realising that the state also represents commercial interests and not just public interests (Kitay & Marchington 1996: 1267). The pluralist perspective may focus too much on worker interest, which can lead to the inefficiencies of collective bargaining processes.
Managing unitarist ER successfully
            There are different ways of managing successful ER that has adopted the unitarist approach. First, the management can focus on providing financial incentives and shared ownership, so that the former can integrate employer and employee interests (Guest and Peccei 2001: 210, and Singh and Loncar 2010).  The management can stress on different kinds of profit-sharing and share ownership that are made to ensure that every employee is provided the chance to have a “financial stake” in the company (Blinder 1990, and Guest and Peccei 2001: 210).
Second, the management can also focus in different kinds of direct employee participation and involvement in daily work activities (Guest and Peccei 2001: 210). This can include different empowering and participatory approaches to workplace management, so that individuals feel that they can have wider latitude in controlling their work processes and results (Guest and Peccei 2001: 210). The worker empowerment and participation can permit higher forms of autonomy that can maximise worker contribution (Guest and Peccei 2001: 210). The management should ensure, however, that it is not providing a superficial kind of participation, wherein major job processes are still provided top-down, because this can only decrease employee satisfaction, instead of increasing it (Chan et al. 2006, and Gollan 2006).
Third, the management can concentrate on the systematic use of “progressive, high-performance, or high-involvement” HR practices in domains of selection, training, job design, communications, performance evaluation, rewards, and others, so that they can be designed to maximise individual-organisation relationships and to produce high levels of employee commitment, loyalty, and satisfaction (Danford et al. 2008; Seibert, Silver, and Randolph 2004, and Schmidt 2009)
            The management follow different kinds of frame of references when dealing with employee relations. This essay focuses only on two perspectives, the unitarist and the pluralist. These perspectives have their own strengths and advantages, and they also fit different kinds of company objectives and IR systems. Unitarist perspectives assume that there is only one source of leadership and that conflict should and can be avoided through the alignment of individual and organisational interests. Trade unions are seen negatively by unitarists. This perspective also fits individualist IR. Pluralists believe that there are competing interests and that conflict can be properly managed. This perspective asserts the large role that trade unions can play in the collective bargaining process, which makes it appropriate for collectivist IR systems. Organisations that have unitarist ER can make it more effective for organisational goals through having a wide array of efforts that improve employee satisfaction, motivation, and loyalty. Some of the suggested means are profit-sharing methods and other ways that result to high-performance work systems.

Reference list
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