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Employment relations and employee engagement
Employment relations and employee engagement

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1.3 Employment relations and engagement: a collaborative approach

Different parties in the employment relations arena have held varying views on the quest for employee engagement. In some union quarters, engagement has been suspiciously regarded as yet another route towards job enlargement and work intensification. Other organisational actors have either dismissed engagement as yet another fad, or have not fully understood what it involves in terms of management competencies. The following quote highlights some of these issues

What will turn employee engagement into another short lived fad is if it is used by employers as a method to get people to work harder. It has been reported that there is some hesitation in trade union quarters to the engagement agenda since the emphasis on discretionary behaviour can be seen as merely working harder or giving more effort, in unpaid overtime for example. And it is true that in some cases of poor implementation of high performance working there have been incidents of increased stress and the intensification of work. If some managers take the view that employee engagement is about getting employees to work harder, union reluctance will be well founded, but the overwhelming evidence is of mutual gains. There is also evidence that some managers think that employee engagement is just about listening to their employees via an engagement attitude survey as a form of two way communication. This will kill off the interest in employee engagement quickly as employees realise it is a sham form of communication. Employee engagement is about much more than this. It is about building trust, involvement, a sense of purpose and identity where employees’ contribution to business success is seen as essential

(Purcell, 2010)

Two aspects of the Purcell quote above are worth noting. First, it highlights the concepts of trust and voice in building an engaged workforce. These are important facets of engagement; their relationships with engagement are explored in more depth in later sections of this course.

Second, the focus in the Purcell quote above is largely on the impacts of engagement at the level of the individual, indeed, much of the literature on engagement focuses on the construct at the level of the individual. Research has suggested that both individual and collaborative engagement can lead to positive outcomes. Collaborative engagement is associated with partnerships between managers, unions and employees.

Evidence indicates that the benefits that can be gained from increasing ‘employee engagement’ can be counteracted if there is a hostile or poorly functioning relationship with the relevant union (Townsend , Wilkinson and Burgess, 2014). Other research by the CIPD (Gatenby, 2010) indicates that ‘collective representation’ and partnership with unions can be an effective driver for engagement.

Partnership between unions, management and employees can be seen as one route to collaborative mutual gains and engagement, although the goals must include the mutual gains and also the intermediate goals of improving the relationships (Townsend et al., 2014). A partnership requires a commitment from both parties to ensure institutional architecture is in place. Just as high performance HRM requires training and development to be in place, so too successful partnership requires space for the collaboration and partnership to take place. It needs to go beyond a formal document and live through the daily interactions between managers, employees and unions in the workplace.

Townsend et al. (2014) highlight two main prerequisites for collaborative engagement. The first involves the skills of line managers in collaborating and organising their line responsibilities, and the second is the nature of the relationships between managers and the union, when there is one present. Managers can work very hard at collaborating with employees, however, if there is a union present and the relationship is not a respectful, collaborative one, then employees are not as likely to respond as positively towards managerial initiatives. In short, collaboration or partnership with a union leads to much better outcomes for engagement than conflictual relationships with the union.