Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Why I Just Can’t Tell You What Works

A tweet from Rae Cooper reminded me that the World Congress for the International Labor and Employment Relations Association was in Seoul exactly a year ago. I have lots of great memories from that conference, but something else has stuck with me, too. In a session on conflict resolution someone made a comment along the lines of “just tell us what works.”

At first glance this might sound sensible. There are many approaches to conflict resolution and effective resolution is important. Indeed, most areas to pertaining to work and employment are complicated, and good practices are important for individuals, their organizations, and society. Of course it’s important to understand what works and what doesn’t. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that we can’t judge what works without knowing the criteria for success, but this is not usually stated. In conflict resolution, when someone says “just tell me what works,” they probably are implicitly equating success to settling the dispute. But everyone might not agree that this is the key or only measure of success. Some might be concerned with speed or cost, others with a fair outcome, others with due process. At a minimum, we need to explicitly specify objectives to know what we are evaluating something against. Moreover, this should prompt consideration of what this might be leaving out. By jumping straight to “what works?” we fail to recognize not only what’s prioritized, but also what’s excluded.

And in the world of work where things are complicated, there are likely to be multiple objectives that are important. I have long advocated for three broad objectives: efficiency, equity, and voice. But these can be in conflict with each other. In dispute resolution, for example, a fast resolution method (achieving efficiency) might not consider a lot of evidence (low equity) or allow for much participation beyond a unilateral decision maker (low voice). Alex Colvin and I then illustrated how these trade-offs are embodied in various methods for resolving employment disputes:
Source: John W. Budd and Alexander J.S. Colvin (2008) "Improved Metrics for Workplace Dispute Resolution Procedures: Efficiency, Equity, and Voice," Industrial Relations 47(3): 460-79.

As such, once we identify multiple objectives, it’s not just a simple matter of “what works.” Rather we face the more difficult problem of balancing trade-offs. This doesn’t just apply to conflict resolution, but applies broadly to the entire scope of employment. For example, different systems for setting the terms and conditions of employment and work rules embody different trade-offs between efficiency, equity, and voice:
Source: John W. Budd (2004) Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).
So what works in the world of work? Sorry, there are no easy answers. We must first explicitly identify objectives, consider what this both includes and excludes, and judge the various trade-offs.

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