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Employers ‘still sceptical’ about partnership benefits


From an article in the current issue of People Management magazine:

Management gains more from participation than the workforce, and high-trust partnership practices are rare, writes Steve Crabb

Partnership may be “an idea whose time has come”, but most employers in the UK are still sceptical about it, judging by research presented at this month’s conference of the British Universities Industrial Relations Association (Buira).

“Management trust in employees and their representatives remains relatively low,” said David Guest, of Birkbeck College, outlining the results of a survey of around 240 members of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA). Despite the fact that this was “a group that might be expected to engage in high-trust forms of partnership”, the study, released to People Management, found low levels of either direct individual participation or indirect participation through trade unions in organisational policy-making.

Furthermore, those companies that actively promoted participation and partnership placed more emphasis on the contribution that employees could make than on the promotion of their welfare or rights. This led the researchers to conclude that “management would appear to be gaining more from the practice of partnership”.

According to Guest and his fellow researcher, Riccardo Peccei of King’s College, London, this represents a lost opportunity. The evidence shows that a balanced, high-trust approach to partnership brings benefits for all the “stakeholders” in an organisation.

Not all forms of partnership have a positive effect, though. By itself, representative participation actually has a negative effect on sales and profits, probably because it is associated with low levels of trust. Employee share ownership schemes, on the other hand, “have a significant and positive association with higher retention of staff, lower absence and higher internal performance”, according to the research.

The Employment Relations Act (ERA), which ought to boost indirect participation, may not be on the statute books yet, but it has already spurred many employers and trade unions into action. A paper presented at the conference by George Gall of Stirling University and Sonia McKay, of the Labour Research Department, argued that “employers have deployed considerable time, resources and expertise in an attempt to remain ‘union free’”, while “trade unions have used the imminence of the legislation to press for recognition”.

Employers’ tactics have ranged from the creation of workplace forums (with no formal union involvement) to allow staff to express grievances, through to harassment or actual dismissal of union activists. Gall and McKay have also seen signs of employers using mechanisms designed to pre-empt the ERA, including setting thresholds for voting in a recognition ballot, and forestalling one union by recognising another.

Resistance to trade unions is strongest in small and medium-sized enterprises, according to the research - and these firms are also likely to use the least sophisticated tactics. Relatively new companies, often led by the entrepreneur who founded them, are also high on the list of sceptics.

• Unions have almost vanished from some large sectors of the UK economy, according to the latest government statistics. Union membership in hotels and restaurants is down to 5 per cent, for example, while in business services the figure is only 8 per cent. Overall, union membership fell by 0.6 per cent in the year ending last autumn - the smallest net decline since 1989.


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