Conceptualizations of Work and Perspectives on Employment Relationships

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Work is an important versatile concept of our daily lives. According to Budd (2011), the definition of work is a “purposeful human activity involving physical or mental exertion that is not undertaken solely for pleasure and that has economic or symbolic value”. There are numerous conceptualizations of work as there is no single ‘correct conceptualization’ that would be true for all the people, as everyone tends to believe that different conceptualizations of work are accurate depending on their perspective of employment relations. Some of the known conceptualizations of work include: curse, freedom, commodity, occupational citizenship, disutility, personal fulfillment, social relation, caring for others, identity and service (Budd, 2011). Likewise, there are five different theoretical perspectives on the employment relations: neoliberal, managerialist, orthodox pluralist, liberal reformist and radical (Godard, 2017). Supporting any perspective depends on the political, social and psychological characteristics of the individual and similarly to the conceptualizations of work, there is no right perspective for everyone. In this essay, I will be exploring which conceptualizations of work are embedded in each of the five perspectives and assumptions about power and conflict rooted in those perspectives and finally, I will attempt to determine the most and least effective approaches to governing work for accomplishing the objectives of employment relationships.

Starting with the neoliberal perspective on the employment relations, which is a market-oriented perspective focused on the economic self-interest of the employees and the employers (Reynolds, 1984). The conceptualizations of work that are embedded in the neoliberal perspective are work as a commodity and a freedom. Those conceptualizations are true for the neoliberal perspective because work is a democratic right that people need to exercise and need to be paid for work as it is a service with the real economic value that they provide for the employer. Payment for work encourages people to enjoy the results of their labor, such as purchasing things and services that bring joy to them. When it comes to conflict, the neoliberal perspective denies its existence as according to this perspective, employees and employers have a mutual understanding about one another’s role and responsibilities; therefore, there is no room or need for the conflict. Additionally, the neoliberal perspective sees power in the work relationships between the employer and employees as not important as it assumes the power to be equally distributed.

Following with the managerialist perspective on the employment relations, which views the relationship between the employer and the employees as partnership in order to achieve the common goal. Managerialist perspective puts minimal importance on the power and conflict as with the right HR practices and policies; there is an assumption that there should be no reasons or for conflict as the employees and the employer as there is an expectation of the employer to provide an equitable accommodative workplace towards the employees and the employees would respond with the loyalty towards the employer (Godard, 2017). If the conflict does occur in the managerialist perspective, it is assumed to occur due to the economic reasons, for example, employee wages negotiations with the employer. When it comes to the conceptualizations of the managerialist perspective, the concept that relates most closely to it is work as a personal fulfillment. This conceptualization implies that employees and employers do their jobs because it satisfies some of their psychological and physical needs and makes them grow emotionally. This relates to the managerialist perspective in a way that the employees do their work by choice and are happy to do it; meanwhile, it is in employer’s best interest to keep the employees happy with their job and accommodate them if needed.

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The orthodox pluralist perspective is in the middle of the spectrum when it comes to the importance of power in the relationship between employees and employer. The orthodox pluralist perspective assumes that there is inequality between the employees and the employer where the employer has the power advantage. This perspective assumes that conflict is inevitable as long as management and workers exist, there will be inequality and reasons for conflict. From the orthodox pluralist perspective, conflict is assumed to exist between the economic and social interests of management and workers (Katz and Kohan, 1992). The conceptualization of work that is most compatible with the orthodox pluralist perspective is occupational citizenship. Like the orthodox pluralist perspective, occupational citizenship is concerned with the human rights and standards of human dignity when it comes to employment. The major similarity that both conceptualization and perspective thrive towards is to give an opportunity the employees to express their voice in the workplace in order to try to achieve the same power level as the employer and to resolve conflicts. For example, employee voice can be expressed in a form of a strike as a protest against unfair labor practices established by the employer.

The liberal reformist perspective on employment relations is focused on inequality and social justice in the relationship between the employer and the employees (Adams, 1995). The conceptualization that is embedded in the liberal reformist perspective is work as a social relation. Out of all known conceptualizations of work, social relation is the most liberal reformist due to the its primary concern for the interaction between social classes. Based on this perspective, management and the employer are viewed as a representativeness of the representatives of the upper or upper-middle class; meanwhile, the employees are viewed as lower and working class. Due to the social class differences, there are expectations about how the employees and employees are able to treat one another: treating employees with contempt is normalized by employers; meanwhile, it is expected that employees treat the employers with relentless respect. This perspective thrives to achieve the balance of power between employees and employers though the unionization and the bargaining (Godard, 2017). The liberal reformist perspective assumes a large power imbalance between workers and the management, which leads to conflict of interest, which has mainly social reasons caused by the social class differences.

Finally, the radical perspective focuses on conflict as an absolutely necessary part of employment relations between employer and employees, which is impossible to be avoided due to the big power imbalance (Kelly, 1998). The conceptualization of work that is embedded in the radical perspective is work as a disutility since work is directly associated with continuous unresolvable conflict and oppression that workers undergo daily in order to be able to get the things and services necessary for living. Power has a fundamental role in work as a disutility conceptualization as it assumes great power imbalance where workers have no choice but to try to fight against oppression by the capital (the employer/management) and where employees (labor) are forced to work in misery due to the social class differences. The reasons for the conflict in the radical perspective are entirely social as differences arise from the power imbalance between employees and employers, who aim to exploit workers as much as possible in order to get maximum possible profits (Godard, 2017). Radical perspective is a complete opposite of the neoliberal perspective as it assumes that individual employees have no power and they will never be able to achieve the power balance with the employer, who would aim to exploit the workers no matter what.

In conclusion, the five perspectives on employment relationships have differences and similarities with one another, however, some of them are more effective to achieve the three objectives of the employment relations than the others. The three objectives of the employment relations are voice, efficiency, and equity (Budd, 2004). I believe that the perspective that is the most effective in achieving the three objectives of employment relations is orthodox pluralist perspective since its main goal is to achieve an equitable balance of power between the employee and the employer by giving the employees the voice to express their workplace concerns to their employer, while still maintaining the efficiency of the workplace. Even though the employer has more power than the employees according to the orthodox pluralist perspective, to some extent this might be necessary in order to achieve the work goals, as long as the employees thrive for a fair and equitable workplace and use their voice if it has been violated. The approach that I think is the least effective when it comes to governing work for achieving the three different objectives of the employment relationships is the Radical perspective of employment relationships. I think that the reasons this perspective would be unsuccessful in governing work is that it assumes that conflict is impossible to resolve due to the class differences between employees and the employer and therefore the equity objective of the employment relationship is impossible to achieve as well. When it comes to the voice and efficiency objectives, the radical perspective is focused on the inability of the employees to express their voice properly due to social oppression and efficiency is reached forcefully due to the exploitation of the workers by management. This perspective might still be an accurate representation of the workplace in some of developing countries, however, for Canada, this perspective is very outdated and not progressive enough to represent modern values in the Canadian workplace.

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