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Analysis of Sports Direct

Paper Type: Free Assignment Study Level: University / Undergraduate
Wordcount: 2894 words Published: 15th Dec 2020

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Sport direct is a British retailing company founded by Mike Ashley in 1982. It is the largest sport retailer in the United Kingdom and operates roughly 465 stores worldwide. Its headquarters and warehouse is located at Shirebrook  and housed at the time 200 permanent employees and 3,000 agency workers. According to their website they have “approximately 26,500 employees across five business segments: UK Sports Retail, European Sports Retail, Premium Lifestyle, Rest of World Retail, and Wholesale & Licensing”. Management Perspective can be described as a way to understand the relationship between management and employees. it brings about an understanding on organisations and how they manage the people that work for them. It also helps understand the assumption people make about how management think and act.

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In December 2015, The Guardian investigated the working practices at Shirebrook which include “breaches of health and safety safeguards, the penalizing of workers for breaking certain minor rules” (BISC 2016:4). Using Sport Direct as a case study, Management perspectives (unitary, pluralist and radical) characteristics will be used to illustrate and analyze the management and employees relations in Sport direct and how it affected the company as a whole.

Unitarist Perspective

Unitarist perspective is the common way in which many mangers look at the employee-employer relationship. According to Cullinane and Dundon, the concept of Untarism in Employee relationship is commonly associated with Alan Fox although it appears in Ross’ work(2014:2574). They go on to say that “Fox treated unitarism as an employer ideology: a phenomenon he perceived as an ‘instrument of legitimisation’ justifying employer rule by seeking to evoke loyalty and commitment from other social classes”(2014:2574). The themes surrounding the  Unitarist perspective are employer authority, workplace conflict and trade unionism. (Cullinane and Dundon 2014:2574).

Unitarist perspective can be seen as “lack of overt conflict between  management and workers with an apparent close alignment of goals between the two parties.” (Lo and Lamm 2005:23). It sees harmony as being the norm in the organisation  (Collins 1998:152). It reviews the world has being made of individuals which consist of managers, supervisor and other workers whose goals align with the management in the company. This is illustrated by the use of language to describe their employees by depicting  the sense of togetherness and being part of a team as an employees in Sport Direct: “Our whole people ethos revolves around ‘Right Person, Right Place, Right Time’ and we committed to the continued development of our people to meet our future growth plans. Nuturing our people to reach their full potential and promoting internally whenever possible have been used by the Group for over the last 30 years and are fundamental to our continuing success.”( BISC 2016:6) The unitarist perspectives believe in commitment and loyalty among their employees, if anyone falls below standard of management definition of commitment, they are seen as disloyal and not being a team player.

An example is seen in one of the testimonies from Sport Direct workers: “Working for Sports Direct is a very love/hate relationship. I think you could call it a form of brainwashing. My area manager would send out an email on Monday mornings with a list of total hours worked by each of his store managers the week before. Whoever did the least would get a lecture—not dedicated, not showing commitment etc. This wouldn’t be a one to one lecture, but a full blown rant with everyone else copied into the email to see. If you weren’t doing at least 55 hours a week then you weren’t doing enough”. (BISC 2016:11) This illustrate how  management can use emotion blackmail when they feel an employee is not performing as expected. This perspective believes in the Hierarchical authority. Hierarchical authority can be illustrated as when a  top executive of a large organization cannot continue to manage the organization as he or she is used to so he or she delegates the duties to managers. By doing this,  Managers have management prerogative i.e. the right to manage their employees by the authority from the top of the hierarchy in an organization. “The more top management trusts the middle managers who constitute its administrative arm to discharge their responsibilities in accordance with its guidelines and directives, the more inclined it will be in all likelihood to delegate responsibilities to them”.(Blau 1968:465)

This right can be exploited which can be seen in Sport Direct. Mike Ashley is the top of the hierarchy which means he cannot oversee everything going on  in the company. As result he gives his managers the authority to manage the warehouse, which in itself gives managers the power to treat the employees as they deem fit. The running theme about Mike Ashley is that  he denies knowing majority of the misconduct cases brought to him. An example  is shown in the case study where he denies the knowledge of any sexual misconduct going on in the warehouse “I am 100% unaware of that, Sorry I am 100% unaware of that”( BISC 2016:8). An another example from Sport direct is the Six strike policy where the employees are penalized if they spend too long in the toilet, talking to their peers or taking sick leave either for themselves or when their children are sick, which Mr. Ashley also denied knowing about.

The six strike policy was described by the House of Commons as “management unreasonable and excessive powers to discipline or dismiss at will, reinforced by their power to control the hours offered to each worker”.( BISC 2016:9) Since the unitarist perspective are seen as having a simple interest or common goal and working in harmony, trade union are frowned upon and not welcomed.  Without trade unions, employees loyalty is strengthened to management, they are seen as competitors of that loyalty  (Cullinane and Dundon 2014:2575). “They ruin the team spirit which would otherwise prevail, and promote greed and ingratitude.” (Fox 1966:371) In the Sport direct case study, there is trade union, Unite the Union, for the directly-employed warehouse workers at Shirebrook since September 2008. Although with a trade union, little to no negotiation have taken place, despite request for meetings since 2012. Mr Ashley was quoted saying “Sport Direct can do better job for the employees at Sport Direct than Unite” (BISC 2016:21). This shows that Mike Ashley doesn’t believe in Trade unions himself.

Pluralist Perspective

Pluralist perspective is another way in which some management view the world thereby affecting the relationship dynamic between management and employees. Pluralist perspective started as result of the “criticism of the political doctrine of sovereignty that somewhere in an independent political system there must be a final authority whose decisions are definite”. (Clegg 1975: 309). He goes on to say in politics, there are different groups with their own goals and interest and that “government itself-whether king, council, cabinet, or legistrature- depends on their consent and co-operation”. (Clegg 1975: 309).

In relation to employment relations, Pluralist perspective accepts that are multiple interest within an organisation which is different from Unitarist perspective. It recognize there are different interest group with a company therefore there cannot be a common goal within an organisation. It emphasis the need for cooperation because there are different focus groups. Since there is a belief of cooperation,  it is inevitable there should be power sharing to achieve reciprocity. In contrast to Unitarist, there should be a negotiated consensus because of the different interest groups who have different goals, views and opinions. There is a belief of positive sum relation which means a win win situation Since there is a negotiated consensus and multiple interest, it is not surprising that trade unions are legitimate. In contrast with the Unitarist perspective where unions are seen as competition of loyalty, Pluralist see unions as the “medium” in employment relation in order to reduce friction and disagreement by promoting cooperation and compromise (Cullinane and Dundon 2014:2575).

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At first in the case study, management wasn’t engaging with Unite the Union but after the call to order by the House of Commons, there seems to be meetings between the two parties. “We are pleased that, following our oral evidence session, Sport Direct has started to engage in a positive manner, and we hope that this will extend to proper negotiations over workplace terms, conditions and pay”( BISC 2016:21). It is important to note that Sport Direct had a weak Pluralist perspective. They had a trade union that was recognized but were not engaging with until the call to action by the House of Commons. There was no evidence of any multiple interest, cooperation or compromise between management and employees because there was no opportunity as result of fear towards managers. All characteristics that would have been perceived as Pluralist perspective in Sport Direct made it Radical instead.

Radical Perspective

It is important to note that in some of the literature, the word Radical perspective is intertwined with Marxist perspective. It is also important to note that Radical perspective came about as critique of the Pluralist perspective (Collins 1998:156). In terms of management or organization, Radical perspective argue that “that the apparent competition between interest groups whuch is celebrated in pluralism, is little more than a sham or at best, an illusion”. (Collins 1998:156) This perspective is not categorized as the single interest of the unitary or the multiple interest of the Pluralist but rather it is identified as having two interest. It sees organization as unequal and it is divided as those who have  enough wealth not to work and those who don’t have enough but have their labour to sell. The perspective illustrates that employees donot actually have the choice to leave a job if they don’t like it or are unhappy. It shows employees don’t have the luxury to leave the employment if they are not happy with it because they need the capital to survive.

The use of Zero hours contract in Sports Direct is a worrisome case. The Guardian illustrated in their article that 90% of Sport Direct staff are on zero hours contract. According to The Guardian: “The contracts, handed to 90% of the company's 23,000 employees, leave staff not knowing how many hours they will work from one week to the next, with no sick pay or holiday pay, and no guarantee of regular work.” The Chairman of Sports Direct justified the use of zero hour contract by saying “it gives us the flexibility of the workforce. We have available the staff we need at the times we need them and for the number of hours that we need them.” (BISC 2016:11) One of the testimonies from the Sport Direct workers says: “Staff on zero hour contracts were being forced to work a further three hours without pay (and if they refused, they would not be offered any hours the following day)”.( BISC 2016:11) This illustrates the fact that the employees are fearful and don’t have luxury to lose their jobs. As result of this fear, there will be presenteeism which leads to an increase in health and safety issues in Sports Direct. In this perspective, management are identified as the agent of capital although management should be associated with those who sell their labour. Hales explains the reason why managers are not identified with labour by saying :“…managerial tasks as shaped by the manager’s function as an agent of capital, driven by the imperative of capital accumulation, where managerial work is conceived quintessentially as direction and  control  of  the  labour  process” (1999:340). This is as result of the way management views the world and act as if they are the owners of the organisation.

In Sports Direct, the “15 minutes’ pay for clocking in just one minute late on arrival or on return from a break” can be described as using management trying to control employees in an unreasonable way. When asked about this policy, Mike Ashley denied any knowledge about it by saying it was “unacceptable”. (BISC 2016:15) Labour power  points out that every human being has the capacity and ability to work and sell that ability to employers. This ability also makes humans unique as a commodity because human beings are different from anything management are going to buy. The importance of control is emphasized in this perspective because human beings are unpredictable therefore employers have to find a way to use the capacity and ability to achieve success  for the organization. It illustrate that management have to find a way to control the labour power. In  the case of Sport Direct, an example is the ‘six strikes and you are out’ policy.

In his book, Exploring Employee Relations, Mike Leat says “This is a perspective that uncompromisingly predicts a fundamental and continuing conflict of inter- est between labour and capital and the conflict is likely to be about who should control the labour process as well as about the price of labour. “(2001: 17). This explains the employee-employer relationship as antagonistic in nature, which is different from the other two perspectives. It can be described as antagonistic because employees have to sell their labour and they don’t have a choice when it comes to work because they need the  income that comes with it.  It also reflects mangers have to find a way to get the labour ability from employees. Radical perspective believes that employment is based on exploitation. In this context, exploitation illustrate that  all the wealth is created by or through people and it is not distributed equally among the people that generated that wealth because profits is taken from the wealth generated. Mike Leat stated “From this perspective organizations employing labour do so only in order to exploit it. The purpose of capitalism is to make surplus value/profit from the employment of resources in the labour process, and it is in this sense that it is argued that labour is exploited, since this surplus value accumulates to capital (rather than to labour). Profit is made from employing labour for a price less than the value of its product.”(2001:17). This shows employees are not actually being paid for their full efforts of the job which leads to resentment on the part of the employees. “Marxist or neo-marxist perspective views the source of conflict as embedded in the separation of workers from the ownership of the means of production, a defining feature of capitalism”(Kochan 1998:38). This is another source of antagonism.

There is also tension in the fact management ultimate goal is to increase which may lead to a reduction in their pay.  It can be described as Zero sum relations which illustrate that there isn’t actually a win win situation when it comes to employee- management relationship because employees never get a share of the profit that they helped generated which make it a win-lose situation. Exploitation and zero sum situations can be seen throughout Sports Direct case study. An example is the fact that the worker are treated like commodities and instead of treating them like human beings with feelings (BISC 2016:27). The low cost products for customers, profit made for shareholders come as disadvantage for workers in working situations they found themselves in Sports Direct. In conclusion, management perspective (i.e. unitary, pluralist and radical perspectives) have been used in this essay to understand how Sports Direct thought and acted towards their employees.


  • Blau, P.(1968) ‘The Hierarchy of Authority in Organizations’ American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Jan., 1968), pp. 453-467
  • Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (22 July 2016), Employment Practices at Sports Direct.
  • Westminster: House of Commons. Clegg, H.A.(1975) ‘Pluralism in industrial relations’ British journal of industrial relations’, v. 13, 309-316.
  • Collins, D.(1998) ‘Organizational Change: Sociological Perspective’.
  • Routledge Cullinane, N and Dundon, T.(2012) ‘Unitarism and employer resistance to trade unionism’. The International Journal of Human Resource Management 25:18, 2573-2590
  • Fox, A. (1966), ‘Managerial Ideology and Labour Relations,’ British Journal of Industrial Relations, 4, 3, 366–378.
  • Hales, C. (1999) ‘Why do Managers Do What They Do? Reconciling Evidence and Theory in Accounts of Managerial Work’ British Journal of Management, Vol. 10, 335–350
  • Leat, M. (2001), ‘Exploring Employee Relations’.
  • London. Routledge Lo, K and Lamm, F.( 2005) ‘Occupational Stress in the Hospitality Industry - An Employment Relations Perspective’.New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations. Feb 2005; 30, 1; ABI/INFORM Complete pg. 23
  • Neville, S. (2013) ‘Sports Direct: 90% of staff on zero-hour contract’. The Guardian. Sunday 28 July.


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