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Partnership Under Pressure: How Does it Survive?
a study supported by the IES Research Networks
Partnership is very much in vogue at the moment. It seems to be the only way to conduct employee relations. Yet it is not that common. The TUC reckons that there are only around 60 bona fide partnership arrangements in existence. This is despite the support of the government and the TUC’s own efforts at promoting the idea. This study, funded by the IES Research Club, aimed to look at whether partnership is a difficult concept to sustain, given the pressures of organisational and economic change.
What is partnership?
As with many ideas that become popular, partnership is not very well defined. It is characterised by a number of common features:
Partnership is a way of working, but it is also a means to deal with practical issues, against the background of a changing business environment. A whole range of topics can be covered, from terms and conditions to resourcing. Many partnership deals have specifically balanced the employees’ need for job security with the management’s aim of maximising flexibility.
Most partnerships have developed as a response to an economic or corporate crisis - hence the need to get better productivity or reduced costs. Some have come from frustration with the ritualism of traditional employee relations. Some organisations have initiated partnership deals in more positive circumstances - the belief that it might bring higher productivity, greater employee engagement and an enhanced employer brand.
Sources of stress
Partnership can come under pressure from a variety of sources:
The source of some of these problems is on the management side, eg through making unilateral decisions on key issues without consultation, or senior management doubting the value of partnership. They can come from trade unions - support may exist from full-time officials but not be backed by shop stewards, or vice versa. Employees may reject the partnership notion, seeing their representatives as management ‘poodles’ unable to look after their interests properly.
Impact of partnership problems
If employee relations start to deteriorate, then there are likely to be direct effects on the business:
These problems may be greater in partnership organisations precisely because of high expectations of quality work relationships. Many difficulties may arise over time, as trust begins to disappear and fear grows over what the future will bring. The whole partnership edifice begins to crumble. The bricks, made up as they are of personal relationships and supported by intangible trust and understanding, begin to fall. Processes are neglected, old style behaviours return. This then leads to a deteriorating employee relations climate, poor organisational health and the practical manifestations of having a disenchanted workforce.
How best to respond?
Institutionalising partnership arrangements seems to be the key method to develop a robust employee relations strategy that will survive the turbulence of organisational life. It is the method by which you can ride out changes to the principal players and preserve your approach through changes of ownership. This can be done by embedding partnership in the culture of the organisation, in its structures, systems and processes. Reinforcing your consultative and communication arrangements is required. This can be supported by training managers and employee representatives so that they understand how partnership should operate. You can encourage appropriate management skills through recruitment and selection for promotion. You should be aiming to develop a management style that seeks employee involvement and finds ways of engaging the workforce. Practical problems that cause irritation between the parties, over reward, resourcing, working conditions and the like, should be tackled to negate these as sources of conflict. Finally, you should monitor your organisational health to give yourself early warning of upcoming difficulties.
Future of partnership
This is a sophisticated form of employee relations. For employees and their representatives, they can be well informed, consulted, and have a voice - but in the end management decides. Difficulties exist on the management side too. Senior management might be committed to partnership, because they like the theory, but their line managers might not be enthusiastic. HR might be keen, but cannot persuade operational managers to change their style. There may be a charismatic flag-bearer of partnership, but partnership is vulnerable if such an individual moves on.
However, what is the alternative? Is it to move to adversarial industrial relations? How realistic is this in the global economy? Or, there could be the return to ‘constructive antagonism,’ where there will be areas of conflict and collaboration. This is the traditional approach to UK labour relations, but how well has it served either management or trade unions?
Prerequisites for success
Using research evidence, what are the necessary conditions that will make employee relations work well using a partnership approach?
Partnership Under Pressure: How Does it Survive?, Reilly P. Report 383, Institute for Employment Studies, 2002.
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