All entries for Saturday 25 October 2008

October 25, 2008

Human Resource Management Lesson 5 Exercise

1. To what extent do you think that the employment relationship is necessarily based on conflict between employers and employees who have competing interests?

For most employees, the rewards associated with their employment relationship will determine to a considerable extent the standard of living they can enjoy. On the other hand, for most employers the cost of labour is often a major influence on the profits and subsequently on the success of the organization.

The previous constitutes a conflict of interest between two parties. However, it is in neither party’s interest for the organisation to perform poorly because of the effect that this would have in profits (for the employer) and wages or job security for the employee (Marchinton and Wilkinson, 2005:266). Hence cooperation is also needed in the employment relationship.

The theory of “frames of reference” (Fox, 1966) approach the study of employment relationship through a different number of perspectives. These are the unitary and pluralist approach (there's also the radical approach that won't be considered in this discussion).

The unitary approach looks at the organisation as a machine or a living organism in which everybody plays their part and share a common goal. The leader makes the decisions and everyone else implements with no room for opposition.

On the other hand, the pluralist theory states that there are multiple interests groups in the organisation. The pluralist view puts more emphasis on the fact that an organisation is a collection of individuals and that common purpose is achieved through debate, negotiation and conflict.

In my opinion, there will inevitably be pluralism in the interests of different people within the organization, and therefore there will not be a unitary, common interest that can be expected to totally eliminate conflict. At the political level, while pluralist theory underlies democracy, unitary theory underlies, perhaps, communism. The underlaying comunism thinking states that, if the major conflict of interest between sellers and buyers of labour its eliminated, and organizations could be managed in the interests of all, this will lead to a return to a unitarist utopia.

Given the existence of plural interests between employers and employees in work organizations, the unitary approach tries to solve a conflict through coercion by the management while the pluralist uses compromise and collective bargaining to solve a conflict.

The pluralist view inevitable leads to conflict in the employment relationship. While some aspects of the relation can be written in the contract, some others, won’t be (and probably can’t be in long-term contracts) leading sooner or later to conflict. Therefore management will always have to initiate a negotiation process with the employee, to solve those bits in a process of mutual adaptation, that I see as something inherently positive for both parties. This is in line with the interactionist perspective that states that conflict is inevitable and some level of conflict can be optimal (Rosenfeld and Wilson, 1999). 

2. What factors influence the extent to which the employment relationship is harmonious or conflictual?

Many factors can influence the extent to which the employment relation can be harmonious or conflictual.

The nature of relationships between employers and employees can vary greatly and has influence on the foreseeable level of conflict. For example, a short-term exchanges of labour for limited rewards (e.g. an student contracted for the sales period on a shoe shop) will probably have less level of conflict than the long-term employment relationship taking a significant amount of time and energy from an employee, which will also have the expectation of a growing career within the organization.

The type of organization can also influence the level of conflict. We can reasonably expect more conflict in the employment relationship in private business than in voluntary bodies or public services.

The role played by unions can have many influence as well. If the unions just play the game of fighting every management decision, conflict will appear more frequently than if the unions choose an approach that is closer to the partnership model.

Economic and socio-political considerations will have considerable influence in conflict. For example, in a deteriorating or turbulent economic environment when tough decisions have to be taken by management, conflict will arise more likely than in a positive and stable economic environment. This applies also to the particular business situation that the firm can be facing, if the business is performing bad many sources of conflict will probably appear.

Many of the previous factors (and some others) influence the relative bargaining power of the parties, which can determine in a considerable extent the management style that is being used in the organization. There’s no doubt that the management style used in the firm, also excerpts considerable influence on the level of conflict in employment relationship.


Fox, A. (1996) Industrial Sociology and Industrial Relations. Royal Commission Research Paper No. 3. London, HSMO. 1966.

Marchington, M. and Wilkinson, A. (2005), 'Human Resource Management at Work' (3rd edn), London: CIPD.

Rosenfeld, R. H. and Wilson, D. C. (1999), 'Managing Organisations' (2nd edn), McGraw Hill.

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