Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Importance of Cognitive Frames for Understanding HR Practices, Part 2 (Adding Workers In)

In the recent union organizing drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, workers were presented with competing narratives. Amazon portrayed unionization as unnecessary because it already provides good wages and benefits along with direct communication between workers and their managers, whereas union advocates emphasized the need for increased power through collective voice to counter Amazon’s power. While this messaging taps into employee fears or material interests, it also fundamentally reflects different beliefs about the underlying nature of the employment relationship. Is it best seen as a market-based transaction (which unions interfere with), a partnership in which organizations and workers share long-term interests (so unions are unnecessary), or an unequal relationship that includes conflict interests (so unions are needed to better balance power)?

Each of these underlying beliefs, which may be subconscious, comprises a distinct frame of reference on the nature of the employment relationship, where, more generally speaking, a frame of reference is a cognitive lens through which we perceive the world. In a previous post, I described the first part of new research with Dionne Pohler and Wei Huang in which we assert that we need to better consider leaders’ frames of reference in determining human resources (HR) strategies and practices. But as this example is meant to highlight, the second part of our research asserts the need to also factor in workers’ frames of reference.

As described in that post, we highlight four frames of reference on the employment relationship (neoliberal-egoist, unitarist, pluralist, and critical), and these apply equally to workers as well as organizational leaders. That is, workers have an implicit frame which shapes their expectations. One Amazon worker who supported unionization was quoted as saying, “I ain’t going to lie, I thought it was going to be a great place to work.” We can see differences in these expectations most visibly in the context of unionization, but this thinking applies to workers in all settings and pertains to all aspects of HR policies and practices. So just as we predict that a neoliberal-egoist manager will favor practices consistent with a transactional approach, a unitarist manager with a commitment approach, a pluralist manager with an accommodative approach, and a reformist critical manager with a cooperative approach, so, too, do we assert that neoliberal-egoist worker will favor practices consistent with a transactional approach, a unitarist worker with a commitment approach, a pluralist worker with an accommodative approach, and a critical worker with a cooperative approach.

But what happens when workers’ expectations are violated? Before addressing that, we recognize that there are many factors that push toward alignment rather than mismatch. Workers are not randomly assigned to organizations; rather, they apply for and accept certain jobs, are socialized into the organization, and can quit when their expectations are unfulfilled. Nevertheless, mismatched frames can occur for various reasons, including limited job opportunities for applicants, selection decisions that overlook fit or prioritize diversity, the inconsistent application of HR policies, new organizational leaders, and new events that change manager or employee frames. We’re not claiming that mismatch is more common than alignment; rather, we’re saying that the possibility of mismatch should not be overlooked as an organizational phenomenon and explanation for under-performing HR practices.

So again, what happens when workers’ expectations about HR practices are violated? We theorize that this will prompt workers to engage in a sensemaking process. This may cause them to come to accept what they are experiencing, to quit, or to resist the status quo. So a key part of our research is exploring what we think emerges from different combinations of (mis)matched frames between leaders and workers. For example, if they both have unitarist frames, we’d expect high-commitment HR practices created by leaders that are then embraced by workers, resulting in a high-performance organization. But a worker with a pluralist frame working for a neoliberal-egoist manager may try to find other similarly-minded co-workers to band together to fight for more voice, better pay, and other improved conditions. This mismatch is predicted to lead to conflict. Or, a neoliberal-egoist employee working for a unitarist manager is unlikely to engage with the high-commitment HR practices, leading to managerial frustration over under-utilized HR practices. Here is a brief summary of our predictions, with more detailed tables in our article:

Previous HR systems research has focused on archetypes—bundles or clusters of HR practices within organizations that are structurally determined, internally consistent, relatively stable over time, and documented across contexts—what we label here as transactional, commitment, accommodative, and cooperative. Our research seeks to highlight the important role of leaders’ frames of references, in addition to environmental, structural factors, for influencing the type of HR approach that emerges (see part 1 that precedes this postas well as the importance of shared frames with workers in order for an archetypical approach to be stable and result in less conflict. While there is a large research literature on person-organization fit, this has typically focused on job skills, organizational culture, or environmental and socially responsible values rather than beliefs regarding the structural nature of the employment relationship and resulting expectations about HR practices.

Moreover, by rooting expectations over HR practices in actors’ (mis)matched frames of reference, we can explain a broader and more nuanced set of HR policies and practices that better matches the variation observed in HR policies and practice in reality—including patterns that are more conflictual or the fact that competing organizations in the same industry can have very different HR strategies.

This also helps explain how conflict over HR practices sometimes results from employees wanting more, but also from managers’ frustration with a lack of employee commitment, loyalty, and participation. In this way, we propose a new categorization of HR practices: effective, underutilized, or causing recurring, antagonistic conflict.



Lastly, appreciating the potential importance of (mis)matched frames within the dynamics of an organization draws attention to the existence of framing contests within organizations. A framing contest is the intentional use of ideas and information to persuade others to adopt your frame, and thus follow your desired actions. We therefore expect managers to regularly use discursive practices to obtain and maintain employees’ acceptance of their frame of reference on the employment relationship as part of reinforcing a broader organizational logic that is viewed as legitimate. Organizations would generally have stronger communication channels than employees, but union organizing drives are one visible example where employees produce counter-narratives. In any case, this highlights the importance of communication practices within organizations not simply to inform, but to achieve conformity with the HR practices an organization wants its employees to buy into.

Source: John W. Budd, Dionne Pohler, and Wei Huang (forthcoming) "Making Sense of (Mis)Matched Frames of Reference: A Dynamic Cognitive Theory of (In)stability in HR Practices," Industrial Relations. [free access to the pre-publication version here].

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Importance of Cognitive Frames for Understanding HR Practices, Part 1 (Organizational Leaders)

Last Fall, workers at two popular craft breweries in the Twin Cities (Fair State and Surly) announced their intent to unionize. The CEO of Fair State responded by saying “I am proud of the self-determination our team has shown by taking on the responsibility of organizing to make Fair State better,” and Fair State became the first U.S. microbrewery to unionize. However, Surly announced plans to close its taproom two days later. Even if this had already been planned due to pandemic-related financial losses, Surly certainly didn’t embrace the unionization effort, and it remains nonunion.

If market conditions determine human resources (HR) strategies and practices, such a stark difference is hard to explain. In a recent paper, Dionne Pohler, Wei Huang, and I assert that we also need to factor in the role of leaders’ frames of reference. A frame of reference is a cognitive lens through which we perceive the world. When someone says “labor union,” quick meanings probably come to mind; possibly, large, bureaucratic organizations protecting lazy workers, relics of a bygone era, or needed champions of social justice. This is because your brain has created a mental map based on prior experiences, assumptions, and beliefs. This then influences what you think is possible and desirable, perhaps subconsciously.

We focus on frames of reference on the nature of employment relationship, and consider four broad alternatives:

  1. The neoliberal-egoist frame in which organizations and workers are seen as dispassionate agents pursuing their own self-interest in economic markets that approximate ideal competitive conditions, often with a view that work is lousy but serves economic interests.
  2. The unitarist frame in which organizations and workers are seen as essential partners who can both thrive when appropriate policies and practices align and unite their mutual interests, which are often seen as psychological as well as economic.
  3. The pluralist frame in which organizations and workers are seen as having complex relationships in which they are each an important partner, but also that this partnership is set against a backdrop of bargaining power advantages for the organization which is important because not all of their interests coincide and can be aligned, potentially leading to harmful inequities.
  4. The critical frame in which capitalist organizations and workers are seen primarily as adversaries with opposing goals interacting in a world in which the dominant group uses its deep-seated economic and social power to maintain its advantages, systematically depriving the other of essential rights and standards.

We assert that most organizational leaders’ implicit views on the nature of the employment relationship can be usefully categorized as largely falling either in the neoliberal-egoist or unitarist frames. There can also be organizational leaders whose inherent beliefs are more consistent with the pluralist way of thinking.

Central to our work is that we assert that these views, even if subconscious, will influence what types of HR strategies and practices organizational leaders will prefer and implement. That is, neoliberal-egoist leaders will prefer transactional HR approaches, unitarist leaders will prefer commitment HR approaches, and pluralist leaders will prefer accommodative HR approaches:

Frame of Reference

Archetypical HR Approach

Representative HR Practices



·   Cost-driven

·   Market-based

·   Little investment in employees and HR

·   Market-driven compensation or aggressive performance schemes

·   Minimal benefits

·   Authoritarian power structures

·   Onerous scheduling

·   Contingent work

·   Union suppression



·   Paternalistic HR practices

·   Intrinsic rewards and growth opportunities

·   Win-win, strategic investments in employees and HR

·   Careful selection procedures

·   Training and career progression opportunities

·   Market-leading compensation and benefits

·   Work-related decision-making authority (individual and team)

·   Performance management

·   Extensive communication and information sharing

·   Positive union avoidance



·   Policies to balance organizational and worker interests

·   Meaningful, autonomous worker voice

·   Job ladders

·   Seniority rights

·   Negotiated terms and conditions of employment

·   Acceptance of labor unions and/or works councils

Note that this dynamic can occur at various levels within an organization. The top leadership of an organization can have a certain frame that sets an overall HR direction, and then if lower-level managers have the same frame, their implementation practices will reinforce this direction. However, there are many ways in which lower-level managers can shape the implementation of HR policies consistent with their own frame. For example, a neoliberal-egoist manager could act in an authoritarian fashion while denying development opportunities to workers in a unitarist organization. So we admit that these relationships are complicated, but nevertheless we believe that research needs to place more attention on the importance of organizational leaders’ beliefs about the nature of the employment in considering how HR strategies and practices are determined and implemented. 

But what about the critical frame? The critical frame of reference sees the employment relationship as a deeply unequal one rooted in socio-political-economic dominance by an elite group, such as capital. A leader who holds this view could exploit this by acting only in the organization’s interest without regard for employee well-being. By dismissing employee welfare as something workers are themselves responsible for, such a leader would be acting in a neoliberal-egoist fashion, and would provide market-driven, take-it-or-leave terms and conditions of employment. Instead, consider a business owner who sees the employment relationship through a critical frame of reference but is bothered by the inequalities that disadvantage employees rather than seeking to exploit them.

Through a critical lens, redressing these inequalities requires structural changes in resources and decision-making rights. We label leaders who have this perspective as “critical reformist” because of the implied need to reform traditional capitalist organizational forms by creating non-hierarchical organizations or alternative employment models that are characterized by a relatively equal distribution of resources and shared authority over decision-making between managers and employees. We label this a cooperative approach where “cooperative” indicates worker-owned cooperatives (e.g., Mondragon) and other multi-stakeholder organizational governance forms (e.g., Stocksy). And thus, we can add another row to table above:

Frame of Reference

Archetypical HR Approach

Representative HR Practices

Reformist Critical


·   Equal distribution of decision-making authority and resources

·   Employee ownership and shared governance

·   Employee decision-making rights over the full spectrum of organizational and employment issues

To return to the opening example, Fair State is, in fact, a cooperative, and hence the CEO sees unionization as “one more step to building the business that we have envisioned from the beginning—one where workers and consumers each have a say and stake in a business, working together to build something beautiful and thriving.” The Surly leaders might not be surly, but with more of a unitarist mindset they did not embrace unionization. More generally, previous HR systems research has focused on archetypes—bundles or clusters of HR practices within organizations that are structurally determined, internally consistent, relatively stable over time, and documented across contexts. Our research seeks to highlight the important role leaders’ frames of references can play in influencing an organization’s HR approach, in addition to environmental, structural factors.

But what about workers? They are also humans (!), and as such have their own cognitive frames, including on the nature of the employment relationship. So they have their own expectations about HR practices. This is an essential element of our paper, and is addressed in a follow-up post. Or you can watch our animated video overview.

Source: John W. Budd, Dionne Pohler, and Wei Huang (forthcoming) "Making Sense of (Mis)Matched Frames of Reference: A Dynamic Cognitive Theory of (In)stability in HR Practices," Industrial Relations. [free access to the pre-publication version here].

Monday, March 8, 2021

Can a Resurgence in Labor Unions Help Working Women, With or Without the PRO Act?

Happy International Women's Day!

First came the wave of teacher strikes led by women fighting the devaluing of their work, then Google employees walked out in protest of its handling of sexual harassment and (later) formed the Alphabet Workers Union, and now racial justice is a central theme as Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama vote on whether to unionize. In between have been innumerable other actions of protest, solidarity, and collective action spurred by concerns with racial justice, the she-cession and other pandemic-induced inequalities, and feelings of powerlessness.

Despite numerous obstacles, this newfound energy could lead to increased unionization. The prospects of a resurgence in labor unions would be dramatically magnified if Congress passes the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The PRO Act brings together pieces of failed legislation over the past three decades and would drastically re-shape labor law by removing numerous employer advantages over unions and workers, making it easier for workers to form unions and giving them greater bargaining power. Greater unionization could result in important benefits for working women. Here’s why.

Boosting Women’s Pay

Perhaps the most obvious thing that unions typically do is negotiate for higher pay and better benefits. Recent research indicates that, on average, unionized women earn 12 percent more than similar nonunion women in the U.S. private sector. Unionization appears to increase pay for white women and Black women to a similar degree. So if more women become unionized, we’d expect their pay, on average, to increase. The union wage premium for women could even conceivably increase with the passage of the PRO Act because of its potential to increase union power. There could also be spillover effects that increase the pay of other working women because the threat of unionization can cause employers to preemptively increase pay.

Some things that labor unions commonly do—such as raise pay more aggressively among lower-paid workers, negotiate standardized pay rates and strong grievance procedures, and combat pay secrecy—could also close the gender pay gap. Indeed, when Wisconsin weakened teacher unions and allowed greater individual wage-setting, the gender pay gap increased. But systematically closing the gender pay gap requires greater intentionality among unions because men have a higher union pay advantage than women in the U.S. private sector, so increased unionization could benefit men even more than women without a more explicit focus on the gender pay gap.

Benefits Workers Can Use

Union contracts typically address wide-ranging issues relating to benefits, scheduling, and time off which are beneficial for individual and community well-being. Many of these can be particularly beneficial for working mothers trying to juggle multiple roles, though research paints a mixed picture with union members more likely to have stable hours but also more likely to have nonstandard schedules. Research from the UK highlights three ways in which unions help workers balance work and family: bargaining for policies that directly help working mothers, such as paid parental leave, job sharing or onsite child care; reducing the frequency of excessively long working hours, and fighting the typical manager’s belief that balancing work and family is solely the worker’s responsibility.

But bargaining for policies is not enough; workers need to be able to actually use them. This dynamic is captured by the four A’s: availability, awareness, affordability, and assurance. In other words, for a new mother, for example, to take paid parental leave: 1) the policy needs to be available, 2) if available, the worker needs to be aware of it, 3) even if aware of an existing policy, the worker needs to believe she can afford a leave, and 4) even if affordable, the worker needs to have assurances against negative consequences that might result from taking a leave (e.g., missing out on a promotion).

So beyond negotiating for better policies (availability), unions can also significantly help women use these policies—they can help spread awareness through newsletters, one-to-one interactions, and the like; make leaves more affordable through higher wages and better insurance coverage; and combat reprisals through bargaining, grievance procedures, and other means. In my own research, I label this the “facilitation effect” of labor unions. Through these various channels, union-represented new mothers are more than 15 percent more likely to use paid maternity leave than are comparable non-union mothers.

This facilitation role of labor unions can also help working women navigate the complex maze of federal, state, and local public policies on work. For example, in the first years after the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), hourly unionized workers were much more likely than others to have heard about the FMLA, and were significantly less worried about losing their seniority or their job if taking a family or medical leave. Eligible workers are more likely to receive unemployment insurance benefits if they were in union jobs, and unions help enforce workplace safety and reduce other labor rights violations. This assistance is likely particularly important for marginalized workers who otherwise don’t have the resources and connections to counter employer transgressions.

Ripple Effects on the Policy Environment

Unions also lobby for legislative protections for workers. The labor movement supports the $15 minimum wage that was controversially excluded from the federal stimulus bill last week. An increase in the federal minimum wage would particularly benefit women, workers of color, and especially women of color (though these workers are also disproportionately excluded from coverage). Passage of the PRO Act could further boost union influence that results in more favorable public policies for workers and working women. Right-to-work laws that allow union-represented workers to not pay union dues or fees weaken unions financially and politically, resulting in more conservative lawmakers and lawmaking. The PRO Act would abolish right-to-work laws, perhaps prompting the reverse cycle.

At an individual level, labor unions help equip members with advocacy skills and norms that translate into greater political and civic engagement. If more women are represented by unions in the future, these empowerment skills and norms could potentially translate to other areas of their lives, too, such as running for political office or negotiating the allocation of household responsibilities.

Putting the PRO Act in Context

A resurgence in labor unions, perhaps supported by the PRO Act, could have important benefits for working women—but there are multiple qualifications. What happens in any particular bargaining unit can reflect contested political dynamics that are not guaranteed to prioritize the concerns of working women or of workers with other identities. Also, even if the PRO Act is enacted, increased unionized would still require workers to successfully organize.

Additionally, the PRO Act would only apply to the private sector, where less than 6 percent of women are unionized; 60 percent of women union members work in the public sector, where most are subject to state-level regulation which is often unfavorable in conservative states. The PRO Act also fails to address labor law’s racist and sexist roots that excluded agricultural and domestic service workers from its protections.

As good as the PRO Act might be for some women workers, it’s only one piece of a broader set of policy interventions and new norms that we need to fully respect the dignity of labor.

Originally published in the Gender Policy Report.