HRM and employee involvement HR Management

Employee Involvement in HRM

HRM EI began to flourish in the 1980s in the guise of managerial policy initiatives inspired by the new ‘excellence’ movement and the rise of human resource management.Management gurus such as Tom Peters and Rosabeth Moss Kanter began to preach that people are the most valuable resource of an organisation, and that training and developing them, adequately rewarding their performance and involving them in organizational policy-making, particularly at custome interface level, could only enhance employee motivation and thus performance.

In this context there was a need for management to direct employees’ efforts ‘in pursuit of organisational goals to ensure that tasks are performed in cost-effective and market effective ways’ (Hyman and Mason, 1995: 52). Successful companies carrying out such policies were lauded as exemplars of the new managerial approach (Peters and Waterman, 1982; Kanter, 1983).

Much of this rediscovery of the intrinsic worth of the employee was driven by the relative decline in US economic performance, particularly compared with Japan. A considerable literature was generated analysing the key to Japanese success, and one oftcited element was the involvement of employees in work groups such as quality circles (Lawler, 1986). Employee involvement was also expounded as a key instrument in the creation of HRM strategies, and the influential Harvard Business School HRM programme proposed by Beer et al. (1984) put ‘employee influence’ firmly in the centre of this approach.

The Harvard HRM programme casts employees as one of the main ‘stakeholders’ in the organisation, and therefore ‘it is critical that managers design and administer various mechanisms for employee influence’ (Beer et al., 1984: 11). They continue: ‘Not only will their [the employees’] interests be heard, but there will be mechanisms to help shape their company’s HRM policies’ .

These questions raise further concerns about the inexactitude of the language of HRM EI. Terms such as ‘influence’, ‘involvement’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘commitment’ are blithely used by writers on HRM, without any attempt at definition or even clarification. Of the Harvard Business School academics, Walton has had the most to say on the subject. In his view, employee influence is most effective when employees have commitment to the organisation, and this can only be achieved if there is congruence between the HRM and general management policies of the organisation. Walton (1984a) calls this a ‘high commitment’ work system, and he proposes that ‘high commitment is the essential ingredient in the future pattern of HRM’ .

Walton (1984b) sees the HRM conception replacing previous systems ‘because the common denomination among systems being replaced is the emphasis on imposing control’. In other words, there is a move from ‘control to commitment’ (Walton, 1985: 36). These arguments contain a number of non sequiturs. There is no guarantee that mutuality will ‘elicit employee commitment’, or that it will lead to increased economic effectiveness and human development, although this may be more likely to happen in organisations with positive HRM policies than in those that have negative employee relation policies.

In essence, what is happening here is what Keenoy calls a reconstruction of the employment relationship through rhetoric and metaphor (Keenoy, 1990: 371; Keenoy and Anthony, 1992: 235). As Goss (1994) states, ‘the evidence suggests that commitment is a complex phenomenon that operates in different directions and at different levels. It is not something that can easily be generated or sustained, neither does it necessarily lead to improved performance’.

Noon (1992), in exploring these criticisms further, comments: ‘Employees may resent the dissonance created between commitment to the task (encouraged by the individually based performance management mechanisms) and commitment to the company (encouraged through the rhetoric of culture and the rewards of promotion and employment security)’. The economic downturn in the early 1990s led some commentators to ask whether HRM is ‘recession proof’ (Beardwell and Holden, 1994: 686).

Storey (1989: 8) has identified ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ types of HRM, which may sit well with different types of organisational culture and, we posit, different economic climates. Legge (1989: 33) has alluded to ‘tough love’ HRM in such contexts, and this is readily witnessed in the experience of such ‘HRM companies’ as IBM, with its forced redundancy programme in the early 1990s (Noon, 1992: 24). It is pertinent to ask, therefore, how human resource management changes under such circumstances, and how employee commitment and involvement are affected.

Marchington (1995) proposes that EI will be considerably different in nature, or may not exist at all, in organisations that practise forms of hard HRM, compared with those that practise soft HRM. In organisations that practice hard HRM:

HRM can also be affected by changes in the economic climate, and Holden (1996) cites the experience of an organisation in the banking and finance sector. This company was an early convert to HRM, and initiated policies that contained mechanisms to increase employee influence. In the boom economy of the late 1980s ‘soft’ policies were emphasised, including, for example, training for TQM and other EI measures. In the harsher climate of recessional Britain in the 1990s, downsizing and retrenchment became the order of the day. Survival meant a move to hard HRM policies. In this climate the soft mechanisms of EI tended to be overlooked and even ignored.

  • Control and employee involvement

One important element in the EI equation is the degree of control given to managers and non-managerial employees. For example, informational, communicational and consultational types of participation tend to come from management initiatives, and are more likely to be controlled by management. However, the term ‘control’ itself is problematic. For example, a worker can feel in control of his or her work process (the day-to-day operations), but have little control or say in the running of the organisation in terms of influencing overall policy or strategy.

Second, various issues at workplace level will allow more control and influence by the workforce than others. These problems have long been recognised in the vast literature generated around this important subject (Edwards, 1987: 90). Drucker (1961), for example, states that ‘control is an ambiguous word. It means the ability to direct oneself and one’s work. It can also mean domination of one Person by another’.

Positive and negative views of control have spawned a parallel literature rooted in the acceptance and rejection of capitalist values, of which the latter is represented strongly by the labour process theory school inspired by the work of Braverman (1974). Control according to the labour process school of thought postulates that technology controls the work process in its drive to help fulfil the requirements of the capitalist organisation (i.e. profits) in response to intensive competition.

This obviates the necessity to control the work process in order to extract the maximum output in relation to labour cost and the ability of labour to resist control (Salaman, 1979). According to Braverman (1974), the ability to resist control and exert greater autonomy is higher among workers whose skills are in great demand, and less among workers in unskilled or deskilled situations. Thus deskilling has considerable implications for control and the way it is applied and viewed by participants (employees, managers, employers) and hence for participation schemes, especially in institutions such as banks, which have undergone intensive technological change and reorganisation in the past five years.

Since Braverman’s work there have been a number of refinements and challenges to his thesis, many sharing the Marxian perspective. Edwards (1979) focuses on the move away from more coercive methods rooted in new technology, with it associations with Fordist and Taylorist managerial control mechanisms, to bureaucratic control systems aimed at the dual goals of dissolving class solidarity and maximising commitment to, and dependence on, the firm.

‘Promotion, pay, security and other benefits go to employees who are good corporate citizens, who are loyal to the company, share its values and integrate themselves and their families into the enterprise community’ (Lincoln and Kalleberg, 1990: 9). Such managerial initiatives fit particularly well with HRM conceptualisations. Friedman (1977) has divided managerial control systems into direct control and responsible autonomy. Direct control is associated with rules, regulation, work organization and technology that directly control the behaviour and work rate of the employee.

This is strongly associated with the Fordist–Taylorist approach. Responsible autonomy allows the worker and the work team a degree of control over the work process, and This again has strong resonances with developments in HRM in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in terms of participation schemes such as TQM, which aim to enhance commitment to the organisation by allowing the workforce a degree of autonomy. Edwards (1992: 390) points out, however, that HRM apologists such as Walton (1985), who speak of a move from control to commitment, partly by means of employee involvement and participation policies, should perceive that commitment ‘is still a form of control’.

Burawoy (1979) has also developed a dual perspective of management regimes that rely on coercion or consent. Earlier capitalist systems relied heavily on the former approach, and adopted autocratic methods of workforce control, particularly in response to intensive capitalist competition. Latterly the adoption of more subtle approaches to the employment relationship has emphasised policies designed to induce commitment in the employee.

This has been caused to some degree by the softening of overt autocratic systems by state regulation and welfare policy. Burawoy (1983) sees such new approaches as creating a hegemonic regime under which coercive compliance is replaced by normative control, as managers make concessions in order to persuade employees to cooperate in furthering the success of the organisation. Once again we can discern echoes of HRM policy initiatives in such hegemonic systems. We shall return to some of these questions later in the chapter, but at this point it is appropriate to examine some of the mechanisms and definitions of employee involvement, beginning with communication.


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