Power to the people?

Examines how the nature of the power dynamics in the employment relationship has changed over the past 25 years and the consequences

Over the last 25 years a quiet revolution has been taking place in the relationship between white collar service, managerial and professional employees and their employers in large private and public sector organisations.

Previously, joining these institutions promised a “job for life” but this promise disappeared from the employment proposition about the same time as “mergers and acquisitions”, “global restructuring” and “downsizing” entered the mainstream vocabulary of everyday life.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is that these changes, these shifts in employee expectations and employer obligations, have changed the nature of the power dynamics in the employment relationship and there are consequences.

Insecurity and distrust

In a way, the previous relationship was clear: the employee committed to work as hard as was required for the employer/shareholder or government and that commitment was rewarded by the employer with a promise of job security. With the loss of that security for Ms Jobholder on one side of the equation, and no let up on the performance demands of Mr Employer and Mrs Shareholder on the other, insecurity rose but anxiety did not, at least not for a while. A vibrant growth economy masked the underlying insecurity. Growth economies are fun economies. Whilst Ms Jobholder might know there was no security in the long term, any latent anxiety was covered by a sticking plaster made up of short term bonuses, salary rises and promotions plus a lively external jobs market.

The financial crash and subsequent recession brought all of this to an abrupt halt. The sticking plaster was very quickly ripped off when the cuts started and, as well as hurting from the personal loss and shock of the growth bubble bursting, people started to query the ability and competence of Mr Employer. People simply questioned whether these well paid senior leaders were really in command of their brief and also whether moral integrity featured at all. Distrust joined insecurity to form a heady cocktail at the level of Ms Jobholder and the fragility of institutions and the precarious nature of working life were laid bare.

Since the crisis and recession, change continues. Technological developments have blurred work/life boundaries still further, increasing the availability of employees to constantly answer mail or take calls and therefore be constantly “at work”. There is little escape from your employer and therefore pressure of performance. Whilst many employers do offer good mental health and wellbeing programmes, some employees now interpret these benefits through a lens of distrust. They may see such programmes as being entirely self-serving, in so far as their provision by employers ensures that their “most valuable asset” is kept in peak condition in order to deliver peak performance. Furthermore, the benefits of globalisation continue to be unevenly distributed with global gains going to a wealthy elite whilst the average employee still works for employers who command and retain the majority of the power in the relationship.

Rebellion, rejection, recalibration

Of course, employees are not passive in all of this. For instance, the conundrum of the UK’s productivity levels failing to bounce back as before after this particular recession may have its roots in employees using their discretion not to “give their all” to employers. These are employers who, in the media at least, have been portrayed as self-serving and self-interested.

Some of the more powerful people in the job market, the very talented elite of young business graduates are acting in a way that earlier generations of graduates did not. These new millennials are much more discerning about future employers, subjecting them to greater scrutiny on criteria such as environmental records, corporate social responsibility and moral integrity and rejecting job offers from those who do not appear to make the grade. Technology, whilst pervasive in our lives, also enables access to information and knowledge about large employers for those who are tech savvy, and millennials are certainly that. Other young business graduates are turning away from the large employers altogether, reckoning instead that starting their own business gives them more control and more power in their lives than their parents’ generation ever had.

It is not all doom and gloom. Employers with intelligence, integrity and a concern to create a world with better opportunity for all, regardless of place of birth, are recognising the need to recalibrate the employment relationship. They seek a more balanced set of power relations that do not accentuate insecurity and anxiety nor exacerbate income and power differentials within the workplace. Emblematic employers such as Unilever and John Lewis or the Big Four professional service firms, show that it is possible to be commercially successful but still concerned about avoiding anachronistic and dysfunctional power relationships in working lives. They are not afraid of rebalancing power in favour of their people.

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