Studying employee relations in human resource management


The profound changes in the employee relations world outlined at the beginning of this chapter have had, and continue to have, important implications for those whose job it is to study and conduct research into this area of organisational life. Until recently most of this work continued to be carried out within a frame of reference founded on the assumption that union membership and collective bargaining were the norm. The ques­tions asked and the research undertaken focused for the most part on trade union organ­isation, forms of bargaining, industrial conflict and resolution, and the ‘assaults’ on established UK employment practices by employers and government. Since 1997 a great deal of attention has been given to the operation of the new institutions that have been set up to provide trade unions with a method of forcing employers to recognise them when they have sufficient support in the workforce, and to other measures introduced by the Blair Government aimed at fostering partnership agreements between employers and employee representatives. The focus for many thus remains the formal, collective aspects of the employment relationship and the prospects of a revival in the fortunes of trade unions. The continued, widespread use of the term ‘non-union firm’, when such employers have constituted the large majority for many years, illustrates the lasting influence of this long-established frame of reference.

Mike Emmott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD 2005, p. 15) goes as far as to argue that academic thinking in the field has ‘little energy left’ and that nowadays ‘few managers look to the literature for inspiration about how to manage better’. He goes on to call for an adjustment in emphasis away from institutions and towards relationships, suggesting that the concept of employee engagement ‘is an idea whose time has come’.

Increasingly academics specialising in this field are also looking at employee relations from new perspectives and are asking different kinds of questions in their research. Some have firmly argued that the time has come for industrial relations specialists ‘to move on’ and focus on the lived reality of working in contemporary workplaces in which trade unions and collective bargaining are either peripheral or wholly irrelevant:

the search for the familiar – committees, procedures and so on – could blind the discipline to the relative sociological marginality of many of these new forms. Whereas collective bargaining in 1968 was a central social institution comparable to supermarket shopping today in its impact on the economy and ordinary people’s lives, these new institutions are of far lesser significance . . . The danger is that we cling to one small log that is being washed downstream by a mighty river of socio-economic change. The log is worth grasping, clearly, but Industrial Relations needs to address the encircling current too. (Ackers and Wilkinson 2003, pp. 13-14)

We are thus now witnessing a very interesting period in the development of employee relations as an academic discipline. Prominent figures in the field are directing their minds to different types of issues and the development of new paradigms. Guest (2001), for example, has argued that developments in the state of the psychological contract between employers and employees (see Chapter 1) might provide a good focus for the study of employee relations in the future, while Rubery and Grimshaw (2003) make a good case for focusing on a wider range of employment institutions beyond those which derive from union recognition and collective bargaining. Their comparative studies look at regulatory practices in the areas of training, pay determination, working time, retirement, downsizing and employee involvement.

Edwards (2005) argues that academic researchers need to broaden their frame of reference and that greater emphasis should be placed on contextual issues (i.e. the causes of the trends that are observed), on comparing different international systems of indus­trial relations and on gender relations in the workplace. Sisson (2005) gives a robust defence of contemporary academic research in employee relations, but also sets out an extensive and wide-ranging agenda for the future. His list of ‘major issues’ includes managing diversity, organisational learning, employee voice and corporate social responsibility alongside institutional concerns relating to organisational structure and industrial conflict.


Employee relations, more than other areas of HRM practice, varies considerably from country to country. Although there has been some convergence recently due to increased global competition and new technologies, substantial differences remain. Different countries have seen different responses to the same environmental pressures (see Bamber and Lansbury 1998 for a summary of these). In industrialised countries comparative studies reveal the continued effect of different industrial relations traditions on con­temporary practice. They also identify the importance of historical experience and institutional differences in explaining the observed variations. The major dimensions across which national systems vary are as follows:

  • high union membership and low union membership;
  • single-employer bargaining and multi-employer bargaining;
  • interventionist government role and non-interventionist role;
  • adversarial tradition and consensual (or social partnership) tradition;
  • autocratic management style and involving management style.

Clearly, of course, there is a great deal of variation within as well as between national systems in all the above areas. It is also true that things do not remain static over time and that prevailing norms within any country evolve in new directions. However, it remains the case that certain approaches remain associated with particular countries. In Japan, for example, union membership is high and management practices relatively autocratic, but the unions themselves are enterprise based and there is a consensual tradition. In Germany and the Scandinavian countries the social partnership approach is well established, but here it is associated with industry-based unions, national-level bargaining, extensive employee involvement in decision making and heavy government intervention. Hence employers are obliged by law to consult and share decision making with their workforces through works councils (see Chapter 21). In France, by contrast, union membership is notoriously low, but the unions maintain a role in negotiating terms and conditions because they are empowered to do so in law. The government is further involved through the setting of minimum standards in areas such as training provision, holiday entitlements, wages, hours of work, health insurance and pensions. Government intervention is also extensive in the Eastern European countries, but here union membership remains relatively high, while bargaining is often carried out at industry level. The main practical implications associated with this variation in approach are for multinational organisations. They have an understandable impulse to strengthen their corporate culture by taking a standard approach to employee relations management across their operations, but also have to take account of local conditions. For them, success comes when they find ways of creating a company-wide, international strategy which is adaptable to the requirements of the various countries in which they operate. Employee relations considerations thus play a major role in determining which countries are chosen as the locations for their operations. They can also contribute to decisions about plant closures when retrenchment is deemed necessary.

Source: Torrington Derek, Hall Laura, Taylor Stephen (2008), Human Resource Management, Ft Pr; 7th edition.

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