There is a truism that says labour relations equals human relations. It's a truism that during the strategic planning days of the 1970s, the total quality management movement of the 1980s, and the hack and slash years of reengineering and downsizing of the 1990s was largely ignored. Today, it's more true than ever that corporations ignore human relations at their peril.
Corporate pursuits of the previous few decades were largely concerned with "hard" structural changes to the workplace without much regard for the "soft" human issues. The focus was on the role of the enterprise, rather than the people who made up the enterprise. Employees had to fit in to the new management schemes or find themselves out the door. There was little effort made to strike a balance between "hard" and "soft" interests.
While the coming decade will likely see ongoing structural change, many economic and management gurus now expect that the focus of the next few years will shift to the human relations side of work. People are looking for a humane approach to staffing and workplace pressures. This makes good sense for several reasons.
First, from a purely practical point of view, firms need to be more people friendly just to attract the key employees they need to function. Many companies are now scrambling to bring back people they once thought were redundant during reengineering and downsizing phases. Governments, for instance, are facing potential shortages of nurses and teachers in the next five years after laying off or offering early retirements to thousands during the 1990s.
The result is increased competition for a diminishing skilled workforce. Companies that treat their employees well will be more successful in recruiting and retaining key employees. The high-tech sector is perhaps the most prominent example of the refocus on people issues, with many companies going to extreme lengths to attract and keep valuable workers.
Second, the very way in which business is being conducted in today's connected, global economy has rendered structures less important and contacts, relations, and alliances more important. Success depends on having the right people in the right position as much as on having the right authority which flows from a rank or position. Doing business successfully today requires developing successful relationships with others through less formal structures. Labour relations will benefit from a renewed attention to this relational or people aspect of business.
Management expert Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School, when asked what the main challenges are for today's leaders was, responded, "The challenges are the same for all leaders. They have to be relationship oriented and smart. Leaders, wherever they are, lead by virtue of the relationships they're able to build—that people believe them, trust them, and are willing to follow them. And they lead by virtue of the power of their ideas."
Labour relations pay-off
The refocus on human issues in the workplace bodes well for labour relations, which always counted on the careful and skilful art of good human relations. After all, what is labour relations but people interrelating with one another in the workplace for the purpose of providing a service or making a product?
While it is generally acknowledged that labour has a significant role to play, the tenor of a workplace is more often than not set by management. This should include workers and their union at a very early stage, inviting input and participation in the developmnet of new products, services, methods of organizing the workplace. Unfortunately, in too many instances, workers are only expected to respond to management initiatives, good or bad.
The 1990s have not been an easy time for either side of the management-employee relationship. Both labour and management have experienced increased pressure not from each other, but rather from mutual fund, money managers, and direct shareholders.
The drive for growing yearly, often quarterly, results has increased the pressure on the workplace to succeed, often at almost any cost. For workers, this has resulted in the ongoing introduction of labour-saving technology; the relocation of manufacturing to low-wage countries; concessions at the bargaining table; and the introduction of new and different ways of structuring the workplace.
Management staff have felt the pressure to show measurable gains in profitability, market share, or productivity. Sure, many within management ranks are being handsomely rewarded, but, at the same time, many are also less satisfied with their work and less able to meet increased expectations. They are paid more, so long as they can deal with employees who expect more, and the demands of shareholders for more. But are managers able to deliver? Do they have the credibility and respect that it takes to provide effective leadership and be the positive corporate role model that these tough, competitive times require?
Tom Stewart, in a Fortune column (June 10, 1996), points out the curious trend that the "trust gap" has widened as most organizations' leadership structure has flattened. This would appear to be counter-intuitive. Is it the structure? Is it the fact that mangers and executives are being asked to do the impossible or perhaps that they are promoted for the wrong reasons? Whatever the cause, one study showed that only 60 per cent of employees believe that their employers really mean what they say in their nice-sounding company statement of values.
What does this mean for readers of WRF Comment? These trends are largely taking place and emerging in the larger corporate sector, yet inevitably the management styles that evolve filter down to small and medium-sized businesses. Many of these businesses have long ago learned that their success is intricately intertwined with how they relate to and respect their employees. Managers, owners, and employees all need to pay attention to this shift from structural, technical management cure-alls to the human, people-oriented focus that is emerging.
Labour relations is often about finding the right balance between the interests of labour and management, among employees, between shareholders and employees. It is also about recognizing the need to balance the necessary changes required by the introduction of new technologies and structural, innovative workplace changes with the needs of employees for job security, stability, and flexibility.
We've read and written a lot about the often misguided "spiritual" focus on work that has taken place over the past years. In many ways, this spiritual emphasis has been a quest for balance. The search continues today, and we can expect it to intensify in the future. It provides evidence that a deep need is being overlooked.
There is a golden opportunity here for Christians to present an alternative view of work, one that respects the dignity and worth of each human being in the enterprise. It's a view that offers much hope for employers, owners, and employees to work together to build successful enterprises that truly serve the needs of people.
The golden rule
As we look for strong leadership on both sides of the labour relations table, consider what Helen Connel observed in a recent London Free Press column: "This unholy quest for the ideal management style speaks volumes about problems North American businesses face. Advice from books won't help executives [or union leaders] who are short-term and shallow thinkers." She rightly observes that "much of the advice is the same because most is built in the golden rule: do onto others as you would have them do onto you."
Straightforward advice that has been taught throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition for millennia. Yet it is difficult to put into practice because it requires an authenticity of character and an ability to do what we say we want to do. Whatever the future brings, these basic human virtues will always hold, particularly in times of greater uncertainty. They are part of the very essence of life. And they help guide us as we seek to find the proper balance.