Employer or employee? Who holds the power?

Steve Bridger

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Community Manager

7 Sep, 2016 13:14

‘Fairness’ is subjective… or is it?

Back in May,  asked “Can you be fair and treat people as individuals?”, which kicked-off some very thought-provoking exchanges.

…and in July I recall  asking “If there are two employees at the same level..." and effectively the employer can invest in only one, how do you move proceed in a 'fair' way?

I’ve picked out these two discussion threads after reading new CIPD research which shines a light on the relationship between employers and employees: Attitudes to employability and talent

One of the authors of the report, Louisa Baczor, wrote in a recent blog post...

"Our research on employability explores the balance of power, which is further shifting towards employers, who are no longer providing job security, but are still selective about which individuals receive job and development opportunities. At the strategic level, employers need to clarify the organisational responsibility and proposition to employees against the business strategy. For example, if the organisation cannot guarantee job security, should it provide more diverse and externally-focused development opportunities to staff, to create a fairer ‘deal’?"

Some might say, 'Hey, life is unfair'!!

Anyway, the report covers some very interesting ground exploring the ‘psychological contract’ between employer and employee: developing them as employees and equipping them as individuals for a lifetime of employability - whether it be at current job or future jobs.

The report unpicks workplace relationships and where the power lies when it comes to employability. It talks about how we operate a ‘threat-based’ relationship model with our jobs (I’ll leave vs I’ll sack you), which is a model we don’t repeat in any other area of our lives, so asks how we move beyond that to have a more open and honest relationship that works for both employers and employees.

As  said on Lizzie’s thread I mentioned earlier...

"HR all to often has set itself up as the gatekeeper / doorman who interpret the need to protect the business by restricting the opportunity to treat people as individuals."

Tons to ponder... what do you think? 

  • The attitude that 'life's unfair and that's just the way it is', that Steve mentioned, is something I've been thinking about. We can't blame organisations for favouring 'talented' employees when it comes to job and career development opportunities, or for focusing on developing the skills that are useful to the organisation, rather than skills that boost people's prospects externally. But they may miss out on spotting individuals who can provide a lot of value to the organisation, but are not given the chance to demonstrate their talent - whether that's because of their relationship with their line manager, or because of their previous career history.
  • Steve Bridger

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    Community Manager

    7 Sep, 2016 15:12

    In reply to Louisa Baczor:

    "because of their relationship with their line manager..."

    Indeed, Louisa. Unfortunately, our members have shared plenty of heartfelt personal experience on these forums over twelve years :(

    Fortunately, their peers 'have their back', and have been able to help on many occasions :)

    Great things have happened, sometimes starting with a cup of tea.

  • Interesting area for debate.
    I must say that I disagree with the notion "I’ll leave vs I’ll sack you....a model we don’t repeat in any other area of our lives"
    In any purchasing market, when mutual interests do not coincide the buyer has the right and the power to change suppliers ; similarly a supplier has the mirror possibility and power of not selling to specific customers - and all of this for a massive range of reasons.
    Going back to the heart of the question, the final argument for me in favour of investing in people is that there needs to be a perceived and agreed mutual benefit in doing so.
    In many situations I have the strong conviction thath it is entirely possible (but sometimes difficult) to identify and agree on this mutual benefit- as HR professionals it is our responsibility to help manages identify these opportunities. On the other hand, in a handful of situations (a company going to the wall for instance) the mutual benefit of investing in development is difficult to identify.
  • In all mature organizations - that is, ones consisting of a good number of people with an established, non-fluid hierarchy (also identifiable by the presence of an HR department, however small) - the balance of power is going to lie with the employer because of simple mathematics:

    There are many employees, but only one employer. Ergo, if a single employee is failing or absent or removed, the employer is hurt, but not removed from the equation. If the employer is removed from the equation - the business goes bankrupt or otherwise disappears - then *everyone* follows it.

    The march of progress over the last five hundred years has given more weight to the influence of the employee, through trade unionism, legislation, academic analysis and smarter people management. Like Xeno's arrow, every new step takes the employee up the power line and brings the employer down (except the introduction of tribunal fees, which did the opposite), but I don't believe it is either desirable or even possible to develop a relationship close to full balance outside science fiction.

    There are rare exceptions in which a single employee is so business critical that to remove him or her would lead to the failure of the whole business. But where this happens, it's a failure by the business to properly manage its resources, so could reasonably be framed as the business opting to remove *itself* (weird but possible).
  • Steve Bridger

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    Community Manager

    7 Sep, 2016 17:13

    In reply to Robey:

    Quite. But as  put it...

    Going back to the heart of the question, the final argument for me in favour of investing in people is that there needs to be a perceived and agreed mutual benefit in doing so.

    Discuss ;)

  • We get a lot of American films and TV series over here that are set in the workplace and I have often wondered what it is like to work in a system where you can simply tell someone, "We're letting you go." What stops managers from firing people left, right and centre when employment protection is organised around protected groups, not the rights of the individual? Also, is it ok to have dismissals on your CV in the US when it is so much easier to be 'let go'? I wonder how a psychological contract can exist in the face of so much uncertainty, yet clearly it must be possible. I believe that in the US people negotiate their exit terms as part of the contract of employment when they join an organisation, but that surely only applies to professional and managerial jobs. I can't believe you get to negotiate an exit package when you start work on the shop floor at Walmart.

    On the other hand, I think the pendulum has swung too far the other way in some countries in Europe. I have never had an international remit, but I have been told that in some countries in Europe (the Netherlands, Italy) the process for dismissing someone is akin to getting a divorce.
  • In reply to Elizabeth Divver:

    I think we are all just looking at a few symptoms whilst ignoring the patient as a whole: our lives and work are shaped by the last industrial revolution but the times they are a-changin' - and very rapidly indeed now and Society / the world of work will either be dragged along kicking and screaming and most people helpless or must make revolutionary changes in adaptation - think the unthinkable, for many.

    See for example

  • In reply to Elizabeth Divver:

    @Elizabeth - divorces are probably easier in the Netherlands than dismissal ;-)
    One of the first dutch HR colleagues I met about 25 years ago, joked that where in England people will give silver spoons and christening mugs to babies, in the Netherlands they will get a copy of the latest guide to their labour rights! It's a very consuensual culture that requires fair rules coupled with almost unwavering adherence to their application. If the rules are badly drafted, then they are still applied and the result is generally accepted - whichever way the result swings.
    When the bad drafting dosn't produce the intended result, the "bad" rule is often still applied (that was after all the deal everyone had agreed to) ; the consensual culture then calls for a better redrafting for future situations.
    As far as the US is concerned, people don't get hung up on being let go They just move on to something else in a "can do" culture. Note also that many "socially responsible" benefits we take for granted are not often available there. the "deal is then more along the lines of "give me enough money to buy medical cover, save for retirement, save for university fees...... in a world where 2 weeks holiday per year is the norm. It's also a world where people rarely keep in touch with their colleagues previous companies (strong separation between private/personal life).
    If you're intrigued by these cultural difféences, then have a read of Fons Trompenaars books, starting with Riding the Waves of Culture. Better still, go and see him make a presentation - he's still doing the rounds.After 35+ years of international HR work the one thing I hope have learned is never presume to understand another national culture until you've lived in it for several years!
  • In reply to Steve Bridger:

    As the P and D in CIPD stand for "personnel" and "development", don't we all have something of a massive vested interest in the argument that there is a mutual benefit inherent in investing in our people?

    But in the interests of open debate, I have been following the Sports Direct saga avidly, as I'm sure many of our members have. With the Chairman's job security under threat, and Mike Ashley begging for "one more year" to turn things around, does anyone else think that the person who should really be stepping up and be making her voice heard is the HR Director?

    My impression is that a critical failure in managing the relationship between the business and the warehouse staff has been a lack of investment in people - zero hours contracts, six strikes for dismissal, compensation falling below minimum wage, lengthy security checks, monitored toilet breaks... The scale of their use of agency staff alone must be wasting six figures a year that could be saved through improved retention if they started treating their lowest-paid workers like human beings with needs instead of as untrustworthy meat-units that can be used and discarded.
  • This is something I have been thinking about since the referendum and my own hunch now is that actually the power balance is going to start to shift towards the employee quite quickly.

    There are a number of reasons why I think this is possible. The first one is that whilst unemployment is dropping consistently, so is employment - people who are economically active are coming out of the work environment, but not claiming unemployment benefit.

    It is possible that a number of those people are ill and that is why they are not working or claiming unemployment benefit, but I do wonder if there is something else going on.

    When I think of friends I know who work in professional roles (mostly HR), there are at least 5 who have stopped work in the past year or so. None are over 65 and most are in their 40's and 50's.

    In terms of their reasons, they did vary, but none were for ill health and in the main it was simply because they had managed to get themselves into a position where they could afford to do it and they wanted to take time out to pursue hobbies, spend more time with family and/or travel.

    I also wonder whether the increase in the proportion of women who do not have children also has an impact on this. Whilst not a choice, I am one of those and at 48, I am planning to 'retire' within 7 to 10 years. I will still do some work in between travelling, but it would be to top up my income and only when it fits in with me. I know quite a few people who are in a similar position to me.

    The second reason is that there are already reports that even though there are currently no restrictions on people from the UK working in the UK, applications have dropped considerably. There are a number of recent alarms from the food and agriculture sectors that they will not be able to fill vacancies next year based on current applications.

    I do therefore wonder whether an increase in economically active people dropping out of work and only willing to work if it suits them, , combined with a reduction in people wanting to come to work in the UK from overseas due to Brexit, could lead to quite a sudden shift where employers are trying to attract from a pool of people who actually don't need the job, or are reluctant to come to the UK even though there may be processes in place to allow them to work here?

    Does anyone else have any thoughts?