This essay explores and discusses the employment relationship while considering the value of a systems approach to industrial relations and the fact that individuals view issues from a particular frame of reference.
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This essay explores and discusses the employment relationship while considering the value of a systems approach to industrial relations and the fact that individuals view issues from a particular frame of reference. The employment relationship is developed on an inter-related basis involving economic, social and legal dimensions of wider society (Fells, 1989). Organisations are subject to the economic conditions in which they operate. Employers rely on the availability of suitable labour to perform the work of the organisation and although viewed as a commodity by the employer, significant investment in the development of the employee can be lost or unused should the employee decide to leave or remain unmotivated. The unavailability of suitable labour can lead to segmentation of the labour market and a division of labour at the workplace. The division of labour is the breaking down of work into its smallest components in order to achieve effective specialisation, minimal worker discretion and the most efficient output (Sutcliffe and Callus, 1994). This division of labour can have far reaching implications for the management and the organisation, including the control and motivation of the workforce. The legal dimension is concerned with the law of contract between an employer and employee which enables the parties to enter into and enforce agreements (Fells, 1989). By its very nature the employment contract implies a "subordination" relationship where the employer commands and the employee obeys. The introduction of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 also implies legal boundaries in which the employment relationship must operate (for example the rules relating to unfair dismissal and enterprise bargaining).
By assimilating a persons behaviour to one of the three frames of references, it determines how we would react and shapes the method for altering such behaviour. As a tool for understanding a parties behaviour when conflict occurs we need to undertake a "social action perspective", that is to suspend our own judgment when analysing the cause of conflict and accept the persons frame of reference. Individually, our frames of references are molded and influenced by a multiplicity of variables including, values and behaviour, education, political views, work experiences and religious beliefs to name a few. Our position in the class structure and status hierarchy almost certainly has a significant influence as well (Keenoy and Kelly, 1995). It is important to understand these concepts as employers and employees bring to the employment relationship different strategies to gain as much as they can from the relationship. This in turn makes the relationship inherently competitive. Fells (1989) observes that this points to the duality of the employment relationship. "Both the employer and employee put their resources, motives, expectations and own interests into the relationship...these being influenced by the social and economic structure of society" (Fells 1989, P 476). In essence therefore, conflict can arise because of the parties differing social and economic interests and strategies. Keenoy and Kelly (1996) take this further by describing the three great struggles which results from the distribution of authority (inherent in an organisational hierarchy)
Up to this point the employment relationship has been discussed in terms of its dual nature. However, it is clear that a more holistic approach is required. A systems approach provides a useful look at the employment relationship because it expands on the dual focus to include a third group of actors and the environment within which the relationship operates. John Dunlop proposed an industrial relations system comprised of actors operating within an environment influenced by technology, economics and power distribution. The system is bound together by both ideology and rules to govern behaviour. Three main groups of actors have been defined as managers, workers and their representatives and other bodies concerned with the relationship between workers and employers. The major output of the system is a set of rules and regulations that apply both in the individual workplace and in the wider work community. (Deery and Plowman, 1991). Dunlop's industrial relations system has been criticised from a number of quarters (Margerison, 1969; Bain and Clegg, 1974; Hyman) for paying insufficient attention to conflict - focusing more on conflict resolution than the root of the conflict, and for suggesting that the industrial relations system is naturally stable. Despite these negative views the system perspective of industrial relations remains valid if only as an analytical tool (Deery and Plowman, 1991). The employment relationship is a unique but fundamental feature of modern society. It commences when an employer engages an employee to perform work in exchange for money. Although this concept of the relationship appears simplistic in nature, it is subject to many stresses and strains brought about by political, social and economic interference.
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