Consultation at work - a response to Gill Dix: Duncan Adam
Tuesday 03 June 2014Duncan Adam responds to Gill Dix's blog post on the term consultation in the workplace.
Duncan Adam is a Research Associate at the University of Warwick, working at both the Industrial Relations Research Unit and the Institute for Employment Research.
At one level the recent research I was involved with which used WERS data to look at the incidence, composition and function of Joint Consultative Committees (JCCs) in British workplaces was quite straightforward. The study mapped key dimensions of consultation in 2011 and looked at some of the outcomes which might be linked to the consultative form. The research made comparisons with the previous survey of 2004 to set the findings in the context of recent history. In between the two surveys, the Information and Consultation of Employees regulations (ICE) had been introduced establishing a general statutory framework giving employees the right to be informed and consulted by their employers.
Yet as Gill Dix has pointed out the findings make for uncomfortable reading for those who have adopted a pro-consultation or a pro-JCC standpoint.
There is little aggregate effect of the ICE regulations in terms of overall incidence of workplace level JCCs - though the decline which had been observed in previous waves of WERS has slowed. Incidence of higher level consultative committees has declined, perhaps reflecting the tendency for decentralisation of HR management to workplace level. On the other hand, JCCs are more common now in workplaces just above the size threshold for ICE than they were in 2004.
Furthermore in relation to the quality of consultation the consultative approaches taken by management, according to management's own accounts, have become more restrictive. The situation described by worker representatives suggests even higher levels of consultation around a single option presented by management.
Certainly the findings are especially challenging for those who believe that (effective) consultation at work has a role in promoting a happy, productive workplace populated by satisfied employees. Of course there are methodological issues in establishing causal relationships between employment practices and the various outcome measures which could be observed, and as researchers we are sometimes guilty of thinking that employees and managers view issues in the same way as we might. For one thing, it may be the case that employees are completely unaware of the existence of the JCC and of its functions. However, the evidence on outcomes which is available shows that employees view relationships between management and employees as more positive where this is no JCC. There are no discernable outcomes looking at issues of organisational commitment, financial productivity or quality measures associated with presence of JCC.
The above, apart from the increase in incidence around the size threshold for ICE, gives little cause for optimism. However there are two points to make which may mean that the picture is not as bleak as might first appear. The first point is more theoretical and relates to the role which consultation might play. The second point is empirical and suggests that more can be done to persuade managers of the benefit of more open and active consultation.
Firstly, if the purpose of representation is primarily about increasing employee satisfaction or organisational commitment; then these findings are worrying. However, if the purpose of representation is more concerned with citizenship and issues of natural justice then some of these concerns are no longer so relevant. The JCC structure allows worker representatives to have a voice on matters which affect the employees they represent, to scrutinise, challenge and question management proposals and crucially to have some influence on the final decision taken. This may or may not result in employees feeling greater levels of engagement with their work and / or lead them to feel more positively about the workplace as a whole. On the other hand, the presence of a committee may result in raising of employees' expectations in ways which can never be met. A successful JCC may actually have the effect of shining a light on management practice and approach in ways which reveal limitations and inconsistencies, resulting in lower levels of satisfaction as employees become more aware of decisions which affect their day to day experience of work; so the process itself necessarily produces conflicts and reveals tensions. But this is eminently preferable to an absence of dialogue or where the consultative committee is in reality a de facto information sharing body where messages are given from management to employee representatives.
The second point relates to one of the most interesting findings from our work. Managers themselves regarded consultative committees based around option consultation as more influential than those where management presented their preferred option. Where the approach was based around seeking solutions 38% thought the JCC was very influential, compared with 26% where the approach was feedback on a range of options and 23% where the approach was feedback on the preferred option. To put it another way, where the consultation was based around feedback on management's preferred option 23% of managers thought that the JCC was not very or not at all effective, compared with 8% and 6% respectively for seeking solutions and feedback on a range of options. The caveat of course is that between 2004 and 2011 the proportion of managers reporting that they used the method based on feedback on the preferred option has been found to have increased.
Nevertheless, taking these two points together gives some basis for continued faith in consultative process. The second point is especially pertinent as a message to spread to managers. Managers would surely wish their meetings to be productive and influential - nobody takes any great pleasure from simply going through the motions - and this suggests that one way in which the influence might be promoted is to try to develop an approach which allows consideration of a range of options before any decision is taken. This is not to say that it will be easy to foster this type of approach in workplaces which have operated different or limited consultation models previously.