What is the employment relationship and how is regulated? Discuss with reference to the three perspectives and key institutions (HRM-10007)


What is the employment relationship and how is regulated? Discuss with reference to the three perspectives and key institutions (HRM-10007)

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Quoting Bryson (2005) on employee relations interference by trade unions, trade unionism acts as a ‘lubricant and not an irritant. Such argument couples the discussions centering on employee relations and the role of key institutions in the regulation of such relations. A peculiar point of note is the divisive definitions of these relations leave alone their regulation. Similarly, the role of key institutions such as labor unions in employee relations is seen from different ends as influenced by theories of Marxism, Plurarists, and Unitarians. In a bid to demystify these aspects of employee relations, this essay discusses the aforementioned elements. Conclusively the role of key institutions, as seen in the different perspectives, in employee regulation is invaluable.

Employee relationship

According to Abbott (2006), employee relations are better defined from within the context that are they are being applied to. However, Abbott (2006) goes on to categorise the mainstream definitions of employee relations as American and British. In American literature that is concern with human resource practices, employee relations are defined as the human resource functional activities and associated interactions between employers and employees strictly in the workplace context. On the other hand, British literature on employee relations however extends the definition by including functional activities and relationships existent beyond the workplace. The British definition thus brings on board other bodies, that is, the state, labour unions and employer organisations (Wilton, 2010).

Further, the second, British, definition recognises the plurality of parties in the workplace and thus the existence of conflict. Essentially, this means that a contemporary workplace will be coupled by divisive interests between concern parties. Apparent also in employee relations is that the role of regulation is crucial in governing the relations between parties at the workplace. As Peetz and Pocock (2009) note, trade unions and the state, in the form of substantive labour laws and industrial tribunals, are paramount in the modern workplace. Additionally as Abbott (2006) posits, employee relations have to be governed by formal rules and informal customs and practices as they aid in negotiations and dispute settlement.

Key institutions

In regard to employee relations, the key institutions identifiable are the state and trade unions. In Frege, Kelly and McGovern’s (2011) discussion of employee relations, there is a elaboration of importance and role of key instructions. Essentially, employees desire to have their ‘voice’ heard by the management. As such, they look for avenues to do so, some of which may not be effective. The role of key institutions is to help advocate for better handling of employees. For example, as explained by Frege, Kelly and McGovern (2011), collective bargaining offers employees the chance to get better packages as opposed to individual complaints. Additionally, the backing of trade unions and labour organisations enable employees stand a firmer ground against the employers. This means they can air out opinions without fear of discriminatory consequences.

As noted earlier in the essay, the state and trade unions exist as tools to create regulations that offer both settlement grounds and negotiation platforms. The role of the state for example, in the view of Rollinson and Dundon (2007), is to create laws defining relationships between employees, employers, trade unions and the wider society. An example of such is the Trade Union Act 2010, Employee relations Act 2010 et cetera. The role of trade unions on the other hand is to organise worker and help them bargain for better pay, work conditions among other issues (Wright, 2011).

Theoretical Perspectives

According to Abbott (2006) there are ‘frames of reference’ that often shape personal perspectives of thing encountered on a daily basis. Such frames of reference, also referred to as value systems, are determined by everything and everyone they interact with. These varied opinions thusly fall into the three broad opinion categories, that is, Pluralist, Marxist and Unitarist. Each of these perspectives offers a different approach to employee relations and the role of key institutions.

In the Unitarist approach, the main assumption is that conflict in organisations is inevitable and is bound to occur periodically (Wilton, 2010). However, a critical point in the Unitarist view is that the employer and the employees in an organisation share a common goal, that is, the objectives of the organisation and that of employee align thus creating a common interest. As such, both parties endeavour to sustain a harmonious relationship. In addition, the Unitarist view is that the management is the single source of authority and has the prerogative. The employment relationship in this case is consensual meaning shared goals make both parties work together. According to Abbott (2006), conflict, though expected, is an unnatural phenomenon and irrational in the Unitarist eyes.

Further, Waiganjo and Nge’the (2012) posits that trade unions are seen as illegitimate and uncalled for because the management is at liberty to operate as the market dictates rather than on rules imposed by trade unions. On a different approach Cullinane and Dundon (2014) bring out Unitarism as a deliberate attempt by employers to sabotage the representation of workers by trade unions and to advocate for individualism. In this sense, Unitarism is a hostile move by management encouraging employee discrimination. In reference to conflicts in the Unitarian approach, Wilson (2010) emphasizes that conflict comes in through unfair recruitment practices, personality disorders or poor communication. To restore calm, the management thus will ensure effective recruitment practices, ensure proper communication to remind employees where their interests lie and lastly dismissing ‘difficult’ individuals.

The pluralist approach has a more elaborate perspective as it recognises the plurality of parties interested in employee relations. Therefore, Plurality believes in diversity of parties involved and thus divisive interests. According to Kaufman (2004), the very nature of the factory system makes the different groups subscribe to different values and judgement systems. The two main contenders are employers and employees. In addition, this frame of reference creates room for different sources of authority as opposed to the single source of authority in the Unitarist approach. Thusly, the management can lead but its authority can be questioned by employees and the employees end up engaged in a way (Truss et al., 2013). It is also apparent that because conflict is inherent in this theory, industrial action is legitimate and consequentially trade unions and other lobby groups are recognised. The function of these groups is to represent the rights of the different groups.

 A critical aspect of this approach is also the perception that power is not entirely constant as it shifts between the management and other lobby groups. Implicit in this approach is also the fact that conflict is a health aspect in running an organisation. Wilson (2010) argues that it is through conflict that employees can express their grievances. Further, through anticipating conflict, the management is on the constant lookout for innovative ways to manage conflict which serves the best interests of everyone. Lastly, Wilson (2010) argues pluralists offer organisations offer many benefits by allowing industrial level solutions such as collective bargains.

In the Marxist theory, as elaborated by Chidi and Okpala (2012), there is inherent and irreconcilable conflict. However, this conflict, unlike in the Pluralist approach, is not between groups party to employee relations but rather between classes. It is a conflict divided in the line of capital and labour. In this theory, the main argument is that there is a grave imbalance of power that extends to an exploitative relationship. The owners of the means of production (employers) and the providers of labour (employees) are in constant disagreement because the employers hold too much power. (Selwyn, 2013) notes that this conflict can be resolved not by lobbying of trade unions but through a change in the structure of the society – social unrests. Essentially, unions are seen as collaborators of the status that exists. Accordingly, the only role that trade unions can play to help resolve the conflict is advocating for workers ownership of the means of production – a virtually impossible situation.


In the management realm, ensuring an alignment of the goals of the organisation and the personal goals of employees is a prerequisite to success. This is an element implicit in the Unitarist approach to employee relation opinions. Essentially, employee relations are not entirely faultless because as pointed out in the Pluralist and Marxist theories, conflicts are always present in the day-to-day interactions. However, the methods of suppressing these conflicts differ across the different theories. For example in the Unitarist aspect the management offers regulations to be followed and suppresses the employee voices. In the pluralist aspect trade unions and the government are welcome to offer regulations while the Marxist aspect portrays a never ending class war solvable by workers through social unrests. Trade unions and the state are thus involved in the resolution of conflicts although in the Marxist theory perspective they are collaborators to conflict. Regardless, the role of the trade unions and the state as key institutions in not only regulation of employee relations but also resolvers of emergent conflicts cannot be downplayed.


Abbott, K. (2006) ‘A Review of Employment Relations Theories and Their Application’, Problems & perspectives in management, (1), pp.187-199.

Bryson, A. (2005) ‘Union effects on employee relations in Britain’, Human Relations, 58(9), pp.1111-1139.

Chidi, C. and Okpala, O. (2012) Theoretical Approaches to Employment and Industrial Relations: A Comparison of Subsisting Orthodoxies. INTECH Open Access Publisher.

Cullinane, N. and Dundon, T. (2014) ‘Unitarism and employer resistance to trade unionism’, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 25(18), pp.2573-2590.

Frege, C., Kelly, J. and McGovern, P. (2011) ‘Richard Hyman: Marxism, Trade Unionism and Comparative Employment Relations’, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 49(2), pp.209-230.

Kaufman, B. (2004) Theoretical perspectives on work and the employment relationship. Champaign, IL: Industrial Relations Research Association.

Peetz, D. and Pocock, B. (2009) ‘An Analysis of Workplace Representatives, Union Power and Democracy in Australia’, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 47(4), pp.623-652.

Rollinson, D. and Dundon, T. (2007) Understanding employment relations. London: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Selwyn, B. (2013) ‘Karl Marx, Class Struggle and Labour-Centred Development’, GLJ, 4(1).

Truss, C., Shantz, A., Soane, E., Alfes, K. and Delbridge, R. (2013) ‘Employee engagement, organisational performance and individual well-being: exploring the evidence, developing the theory’, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24(14), pp.2657-2669.

Waiganjo, E. and Ng’ethe, J. (2012) ‘A Critical Evaluation of the Applicability of Unita rism Perspective in Contemporary Employment Relations’, DBA Africa Management Review, 2(3), pp.55-68.

Wilton, N. (2010) An Introduction to Human Resource Management. London, UK: Sage publications.

Wright, C. (2011) What role for trade unions in future workplace relations?. Acas Future of Workplace Relations discussion paper serie s. Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS).

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