Sunday, April 12, 2015

‘We’re All in This Together’: The Multi-Stakeholder Imperative for Healthy, Balanced Employment Relationships

Last month I had the pleasure of participating in a European Union (EU) Presidency event in Riga, Latvia, organized by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) in cooperation with the Latvian Saeima (Parliament). Eurofound is an agency of the European Union whose mission is to provide information, advice, and expertise that helps create better living and working conditions in Europe. Visiting Riga was a fascinating cultural experience, and this was magnified by being the only full-time academic on the event’s program and the only non-European in attendance.

The event marked the launch of Eurofound’s 3rd European Company Survey Overview Report. Consistent with this and with the “Competitive Europe” priority of the Latvian EU Presidency, the theme of the day was “Workplace practices: Creating win-win arrangements for companies and employees” (in Latvian, “Darba organizācija: Uzņēmumam un tā darbiniekiem piemērotu modeļu meklējumos”). Videos are available in this Saeima news release.

The theme of my remarks was “‘We’re All in This Together’: The Multi-Stakeholder Imperative for Healthy, Balanced Employment Relationships.” Trying to create win-win employment relationships has been going on for at least 2,000 years. This suggests that it’s important, but also difficult. Otherwise, we either would have given up by now, or figured it all out! So why is this so important? From my perspective, it’s because the best employment relationships will be win-win-win: they serve workers and their families (win #1), organizations (win #2), and society (win #3). Moreover, the benefits from healthy employment relationships are far-reaching, and include economic gains, physical and psychological health, civic and political participation, and social inclusivity. This requires balancing multiple objectives in the employment relationship (objectives that I simplify as efficiency, equity, and voice).

But why is this so hard to achieve? The event participants indicated a number of reasons, but as the lone academic on the program, I highlighted the importance of ideas. Creating win-win employment relationships, designing effective human resources practices, and crafting supportive public policies are not just about the specific practices involved in those important actions, they are also about the mental models, frames of reference, or ideologies that support those practices. And not all ideas about the employment relationship support the pursuit of balanced relationships. Approaches that are firmly rooted in whatever the market will bear are more about organizational interests; approaches grounded in critical thinking prioritize worker interests. We need HR professionals, worker advocates, and policy makers to embrace ideologies that seek to align employer and employee interests while respecting both sets of interests as legitimate. So again, we don’t just need the “right” practices, we also need the right ideas behind them.

I’m also beginning some research with colleagues from the University of Newcastle in Australia as to why it’s so easy to deviate from the “right” practices and mental mindsets. It requires hard work to avoid slipping away from these ideals, but I’ll save that for another posting.

In conclusion, the parties to the employment relationship need to work hard to make it healthy, win-win, and balanced, and to sustain these win-win-win employment relationships. So they need support from many sources, including insights from Eurofound’s European Company Survey. And they also need to be mindful not only of their practices, but also about their ideologies.

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