Relevance of unitarism to employment relations
‘Employee relations’ is the modern term used by organisations today and has largely replaced the phrase ‘industrial relations’ (Rose, 2008). Industrial or employment relations describe the relationship that exists between employers and employees in an organisation (Rose, 2008). In order for a company to achieve its objectives, managers need to work hand in hand with the front-line employees to create employee engagement in the company (Mullins, 2002). Employee engagement can be created through team work, training and development, employee involvement in decision making and policies to favour work-life balance (Rose, 2008). Communication in an organisation is very important for organisations in order to create a strong relationship between employers and employees. In short, employee relations can be described using three main perspectives that can be used to understand workplace relations; Unitarism, Pluralist and radical (Godfrey 1999: Rose, 2008). Each has a different perspective regarding conflicts, job regulations and role of unions.
The concept of unitarism is an American model that assumes that every member in the organisation belongs to a team or group that works towards a common goal by sharing the same objectives and working in harmony (Benedix, 2000). This means that conflicting objectives that arise in the teams or the organisation as a whole are seen as being negative with regards the organisation’s success. The organisation is perceived as being a happy family where the management and other members of the organisation have common objectives and work together to achieve these objectives (Muller, 1996; Benedix, 2000); loyalty and trust are the basis of such an organisation that practises unitarism (Muller, 1996). In this case trade unions are arguably not necessary because there is mutual trust and loyalty on both the side of the employer and that of the employees, and conflict is always looked at as a negative attitude (Benedix, 2000). This is the opposite of the pluralist perspective where different groups or teams have different objectives from each other and where the role of the manager is to persuade and co-ordinate. Conflicts in the pluralist model are dealt with through a process of collective bargaining (Muller, 1996). According to research carried out by CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development) in 2005, those involved in employee relations should be able to know and understand the following:
- understanding labour law in the country where the organisation is operating
- Negotiation skills to negotiate with trade unions and employees
- Understanding and being aware of employee feelings and attitude towards work and personal life
- Having a good knowledge of the business operations, culture, values and goals
- Understand how trust and respect can be developed in the organisation between the employer and the employees
- Understanding and knowing the work structure
- How to facilitate communication within the organisation and between managers and employees
- Being aware of employment laws
Unitarism tends to create an environment where employees can trust employers and take what they say at face value, without any doubt. Unitarism is arguably mostly practiced in Arabic countries where the relationship between employees and employers is based on trust and loyalty, though this can facilitate corrupt practices through a lack of transparency. Managers are hired based on their loyalty and not solely their experience, and this can encourage cronyism and nepotism. Trust and loyalty are very important aspects of unitarism and therefore needed by organisations to understand how employees feel and their attitudes towards work and the organisation as a whole.
Unitarism in organisations with be relevant to employee relations in that conflicts will be regarded as affecting the company in a negative way and, therefore, employees will not want to create any conflicts within the company. Unitarism can also help an organisation to come to a mutual understanding in case conflicts arise. Unitarism creates an environment where both the employer and the employees agree on working towards a common goal from the beginning. This reduces the probability of conflicts occurring in the organisation – in theory, at least. Communication is always the key to creating a unitarist organisation, and therefore influences the way employee relations in the organisation are established. This helps managers to understand their business and make sure the all employees in the organisation clearly understand what the goals of the organisation are. Communication in unitarism also helps the organisation to understand employment laws and create negotiation skills that will help the organisation in enhancing its labour relations.
Creating an organisation that carries out unitarism is very rare in most European countries today. This is because most large organisations have trade unions that are there to support employees to keep their jobs, ensure good working conditions, and carry out salary negotiations. Many organisations today are finding it difficult to create good employment relations because they have already broken the most important factors that make an organisation unitarist: trust and loyalty. However, in a globalised economy, and a world recession, the pressures are multifarious. A great many organisations such as the Royal Mail and British Airways, and various UK railway companies, are facing problem with their unions today because the employees do not trust their managers and employers; but arguably, all tensions are caused by cheap foreign competition in the market too. This has not created or maintained good employment relations in these companies, perhaps because managers do not understand their employees’ feelings and attitudes anymore; there is a lack of trust on both sides, communication has been limited, and negotiating has become irrelevant for both parties to exercise. It seems rather as though managers and employees in the companies are working towards different goals at the moment. While managers are trying to reduce expenditure by cutting down jobs or reducing salaries, employees are trying to save their jobs by asking the companies to keep employees and give them their jobs back. Both parties have different interests now and seem unable or unwilling to compromise.
It is difficult to identify a company that practices unitarism in the UK today. This can mostly happen in small family businesses and countries that have strict laws that do not allow for trade unions to be established – i.e. corrupt dictatorships. It is rare to find a large organisation where everyone in the organisation has just one objective. Most companies encourage employees to be creative by empowering them – for example, via training and other incentives and rewards. This creates competition and sometime conflicts between groups of employees. One must, of course, remember that conflict can actually be positive in that it encourages groups and individuals to work harder and be more innovative. Negative conflicts that can also arise within a group might also be a good way for the company to understand how employees feel and also their attitudes – and provide evidence of the need for change and new management thinking and leadership. This means that the pluralist perspective can be a useful and productive influence on employment relations.
Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (2005). What is Employee Relations? Change Agenda
Godfrey, Baldacchino (1999). A Double Dose of Unitarism: Employment Relations in a Small Firm in a Small Island State. International Journal of Employment Studies. Volume 7, Issue 2
Muller, M. H (1996). Unitarism, pluralism and human resource management in Germany; A comparison of foreign and German-owned companies. London Univ. (United Kingdom)
Mullins, Laurie (2002). Management and organisational Behaviour. 6th Edition. Harlow, Prentice hall
Rose, Ed (2008). Employment Relations.3rd edition. Pearson Education
Benedix, Sonia (2000). The basics of labour relations. Juta and Company Ltd