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Ralph Fevre: Our Most Important Resource?

Monday 07 March 2016

Ralph Fevre, professor at Cardiff School of Social Sciences, discusses the importance of valuing employees as individuals to help tackle bullying at work.

Ralph Fevre

Ralph Fevre

Ralph Fevre has been professor at Cardiff School of Social Sciences since 1995. He is the author, or co-author, of several books including Trouble At Work, Bloomsbury, 2012. Between 2007 and 2011 he was the principal investigator on a research project on workplace ill-treatment funded by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council.

A growing body of British research shows that valuing employees as individuals is the key to reducing a host of workplace problems, such as bullying and harassment, that are bad for both employees and employers. But just making a public commitment to valuing employees is never enough. Employers who aren't able to convince their employees that they really are valued as individuals have far more workplace problems.

Employers are often eager to claim that their workforce is their most important resource and that they recognise the value and potential of each individual they employ. These claims are frequently made explicit in company publicity, recruitment material, training practices and HR policies. They are implicit in polices like zero tolerance for workplace violence and corporate support for equality and diversity. Employers also regularly test the extent to which their employees believe these claims with questions in engagement surveys. So why is it so important to employers to make these promises and to have their employees believe them?

You may think the benefits for recruitment, retention, productivity and reputation are obvious. But the research shows that, behind these benefits to the employer, there lie some less obvious benefits to their employees. When employers really do treat their workforce as their most important resource they improve the lives of their employees both inside and outside the workplace. This is not simply a matter of employees feeling their efforts will be properly rewarded, or that they will be given opportunities for career development. There is solid evidence to show that where employees believe that their employers keep to their promises to value them as individuals, employees' exposure to problems at work is reduced along with all the knock-on effects these problems can have on their health, finances and relationships.

For example, a question in the Government's 2008 Fair Treatment at Work Survey (FTWS) [PDF, 2.22mb] explored employees' views of how their employers weighed people versus organisational priorities. While most employees thought their employer never put the needs of the people before the needs of the organisation, those who thought their employer did so (at least for some of the time) were much less likely to have experienced workplace problems with employment rights, unfair treatment, discrimination, sexual harassment or bullying and harassment. The same thing held when employees said they did not have to compromise their principles at work and that their employers treated them as individuals

These results were confirmed by another survey, the 2008 British Workplace Behaviour Survey (BWBS) [PDF, 2.85mb], for more specific kinds of ill-treatment, ranging from violence at work through to unmanageable workloads. Controlling for all the potential causes of ill-treatment at once, analysis of the BWBS showed that its questions about valuing employees were far and away the strongest predictors of any kind of ill-treatment. 

These two surveys also showed why these problems could be devastating to employees who experienced them. For example, in the FTWS, a quarter of those who experienced ill-treatment said their worst problem had a moderate or severe effect on their finances and their physical health. Nearly a third said it had a moderate or severe effect on their mental health; and nearly one in five said it had a moderate or severe effect on relations with partners and other close family. It is not hard to imagine what the consequences of such effects might be for retention and productivity.

So there are many good reasons for employers wishing to tackle bullying and other forms of ill-treatment at work. To do so, the research shows they must value employees as individuals, take their needs seriously - at least some of the time - and not say one thing but do another when it comes to respecting their values and their importance to the organisation.

When employees are not convinced their employers mean what they say about their people being their most important resource, this massively increases the risk of all the common workplace problems. Valuing employees as individuals is a good idea, but it has to be more than just an aspiration.

Ralph Fevre’s new book, Individualism and Inequality: the Future of Work and Politics will be published by Edward Elgar in Spring 2016.

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