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As the saying goes, there are people from all walks of life, ranging widely from age, gender, skin colour, history background and culture. Despite the differences, they are sure to fit into one of these three categories: the employer, the employee, or the unemployed. "An employer is a person or organisation that employs workers under a contract of employment. Employers exercise some control over their workers and are responsible for the payment of wages or salaries and for providing a safe working environment." An employee, on the other hand, is a worker hired to provide services to an entity on a regular basis in exchange for compensation. People who are involuntarily out of work are called the unemployed. The employer and employee together form a legal link called the employment relationship. Relations of employment are usually either unitary or pluralist; with human resource management (HRM) commonly assuming it to be unitary. (Geare A., July 2006) This essay compares the unitarist and pluralist perspective on the employment relationship, stating how the organization deals with common or different interests, conflicts and the outcome of long term versus short term.
A unitary perspective of employment relationship portrays the employers and employees working together as one big happy family. It is assumed that they share identical visions, objectives and interests to strive towards achieving a common goal. They work together in harmony without any potential source of conflict. Any conflict that exists is seen as irrational and antisocial. Only the employees are to be blamed but not the management. It is therefore seen that managers are in control and have the power and right to manage. Thus employees are to behave themselves, accept and obey the rules obediently without commenting or complaining to avoid being retrenched. They are not allowed to speak out ideas or disagreements and have to go with the flow. Hence, trade unions do not come into play in this theory as it is sort as a redirection of loyalty of employees towards the management.
The pluralist perspective, on the other hand, encourages comments and new ideas from its employees. The organization is made up of a hierarchy with different levels of management each having different interest, objectives and leaderships. Conflict is acceptable and negotiable due to different concepts and perspectives of interest groups. Nonetheless, they too work towards a common goal. Trade unions are recognized and accepted as part of the labour scene. They are the bridge of communication between employers and employees which aims solely to management. Collective bargaining is essential for the settlement of disputes.
As seen from above, both unitary and pluralist perspectives have one thing in common, that is to work and strive together towards a common purpose. The end point and outcome of a project within the entity is the same and every worker in the entity is aware of it regardless the employer or the employee. Reaching consensus at the end is the main objective for them. Consensus is where majority of opinions come into an agreement. Without consensus an entity would not be able to fully function and productivity would not be at its maximum. Nonetheless there are varieties of ways of reaching consensus and the difference between a unitary and a pluralist theory is that in unitary the boss says "Go!" while in pluralist theory the leader says "Let's go!".
In unitary, employees are perceived to be working in harmony with the management. Trust plays an important role in this management. It is assumed that both employers and employees share common visions and are flexible working with each other. There is a strong belief in the right to manage. Managers are the authority. They are in control of everything and employees would just have to play by the rules without being able to voice out any opinions or disagreements. They have the power to rule and dictate the whole management system while employees listen and obey. "Sometimes employees were treated more like children and had to obey their 'parents' ; in other circumstances they were made to feel that they 'belonged' to a family." (Laslett,1971) Since employees do not have the right to express and managers are the ones who have the responsibility and decision-making power, consensus is therefore assumed and left as unproblematic.
Unlike unitary theory, the pluralist theory consists of individuals who come from a variety of distinct sectional groups with different views, values and beliefs. Levels of hierarchy are present in the organization with each level having their own leaders and employees hence leading to different interest and objectives. There is freedom of expression and development of groups where they form their own norms and elect their own informal leaders. (The Employee Relations, 2009) Although the parties may common objectives of survival and growth but other objectives will clash. Examples include 'higher wages versus lower labour costs, employment security versus flexibility, safe work practices versus high output' (Budd et al., 2004: 200). Due to the existence of non-identical values and beliefs, consensus is remotely unreachable if the disagreements are not sorted out wisely. This is where the culprit - conflict comes into play.
Conflict arises when two or more parties with different goals, interest, or values are incompatible with each other. It can be deemed as the root and cause of damage to all problems or the beginning of consciousness towards a new change. Organizational conflicts emerge from many sources such as incompatible goals and time horizons, overlapping authority, task interdependencies, incompatible evaluation or reward systems, scarce resources and status inconsistencies. (Robert A., 2009) Hence, "there are three ways of dealing with difference: domination, compromise, and integration. By domination only one side gets what it wants; by compromise neither side gets what it wants; by integration we find a way by which both sides may get what they wish." -Mary Parker Follett-
In the case of unitary theory, conflict is non-existent as the ideas and values of the employees are served as a condition of entry into the organization. This results in both employers and employees having absolute identical values. (Hollinshead G., 2003) Any conflict or breakdown of trust is seen as unhealthy and bad for the organization. (Robert A., 2009) If conflicts ever exist, the management is not to be blamed rather it is communication failure and misunderstandings from the employees that created the issue. Sometimes there are minority of individuals that behave irrationally and childish to create a hurricane. Should that really happens, managers must be capable of changing their behavior, transfer valuable knowledge and guide them through if not retrench them. Therefore every step taken by the managers is very important into making the right choice.
"A good manager doesn't try to eliminate conflict; he tries to keep it from wasting the energies of his people. If you're the boss and your people fight you openly when they think that you are wrong - that's healthy." -Robert Townsend- This applies to pluralist theory which is the total opposite of unitary theory. Conflict is inevitable and forms part of the organisational life. This is because different stakeholders such as managers and workers see things differently as they own have their own interest and objectives. (Robert A., 2009) For example during an economic downturn, managers normally concentrate in efficiency, cost-cutting and profit-making while workers worry about their wages and job security. Conflict is "welcomed" from all prospects within the company and is seen as healthy and to an extent encouraged as suggested by Nicholls. Unlike unitary theory, pluralist theory portrays "decision-making as a process of reconciling the different claims made by a variety of competing groups." This variety is accepted as legitimate and normal. (Hollinshead G., 2003)
Nonetheless conflicts are limited due to the interdependence parties for economic survival. Overflow of conflicts give a negative effect as they slow down the running of a company thus lowering productivity. Hence reaching consensus is essential. Consensus exists as a result of acknowledged process of socialization and the sustaining roles. (Hollinshead G., 2003) It plays an active role through collective bargaining and negotiating. Employees are free to express ideas or disagreements and bring up the issue to the management. Trade unions are recognized and act as a bridge of communication between the employers and employees whereas in unitary they are treated as "enemies" that arise to "snatch away" employees' loyalty towards the company. Discussions are made regarding issues brought up until consensus is reached where both side are satisfied. They must maintain a win-win situation to keep the company's culture rolling. Since changes are always on and about, the workers must be flexible to adapt to them whether internally or externally.
Long term versus Short term
In comparison with long term and short term, unitary theory only works in the short term. It is proven that in the mid nineteenth century, there was no strike on the British railways for the only first fifty years. Employees were happily singing their way through work with whether it was voluntary or involuntary. As time passes, consciousness will slowly occur to them. In the long term, conflicts will definitely arise. Then again, how many workers would stay and serve a same company for fifty years? Or would they even live that long to serve? Schelling suggests that no single individual in this world would have identical beliefs or values. All employees have their own reason for accepting the unitary theory be it retaining the work position, for survival purposes, to feed the families or even just to gain experience. A few decades later as the world gets more competitive even the management team itself might change its views on management procedures and move on to adopting new ones.
This is when pluralist theory comes to play about. Pluralist theory is usually practiced when a firm gets larger and more complex while smaller or medium-sized companies normally adopt the unitary theory. In other words it would work better in long terms as there are more divisions which are smaller, leaner and more innovative. The outcome would be higher and more efficient productivity which is a necessity to survive in this ever-changing and fast-pace economy. In the short run of course, conflicts arose will hinder and delay works a little but they usually recover quickly. For example the strike of British Airway stewards recently where some baggage-handlers decided to walk out causing a loss of £208 million. Fortunately the walk-out was only for a mere 48 hours and the company is now back into action.
According to a survey, "while most practising managers acknowledge employment relationships in general to be pluralist, in their own organization this relationship is seen differently - it is unitarist." (Geare A., July 2006) This totally depends on how individuals read the organisation and it varies from a person to another. Both unitarist and pluralist have their pros and cons. In this modern era pluralist seems to fit in more to the context as a whole. Most large multinational companies cannot afford to adopt the unitary theory if they do not wish to lose out. Pluralist is better-rounded and suits the current organisational culture hence it is practised. There may be a combination of both theories in companies where the smaller divisions practise unitary but the organisation as a whole definitely exercises pluralist. In conclusion