Employee relations and management is a significant aspect that cannot be left in any organization, whether traditional or contemporary. Since employees are the most valuable elements of any organization, their ability to create a positive work environment that takes care of their emotional needs is a prerequisite for organizational productivity (Abiodun, 2014, p.119). Productivity comes from the employees’ ability to utilize the organization’s resources, such as technology and other managerial tools. However, employees do not operate in a vacuum, but they need to synergize, interact and socialize with each other to achieve their expected results. This creates the need for managers to have a positive working environment. Despite the efforts to create a positive environment, conflicts are inevitable in any given relationship, and so does employee relations (Brett, 2017). This makes conflicts an important element in employee relations. The following paper looks at the element of conflict and various ways managers manage the employees at their workplace to solve and avoid conflicts, focusing on the unitarist and pluralistic perspectives.
Definition of the term conflict
The concept of conflict is prevalent and has a ubiquitous nature, giving it a myriad of meanings. Conflict has been termed as the process where one person or a party suggests that another party or parties are opposing his interests. Although people put many measures in place to avoid conflicts, conflict is inevitable in anyone’s life, between nations or within an organization (Isa, 2015, p.56). Conflicts are highly associated with the different personalities, cultural backgrounds, and values that people hold, making them see the world differently and react differently to different situations. Abiodun (2014, p.120) termed conflicts a struggle over claims and values to scarce resources, power, and status where the opponent aims to neutralize, eliminate, or injure the rivals to achieve the goals at hand. In the same vein, Wilton (2016) defined conflict as a grapple between struggling needs, ideas, wishes, people, or interests, and they are likely to occur when the parties involved come across goals that they cannot obtain satisfactorily.
Different people have different perceptions of a similar experience. Consequently, Tansel and Gazîoğlu (2014) argue that what may turn out to be a negative conflict for one person may be a positive outcome for the other. Similarly, there are positive conflicts, such as a conflict between workmates when they are grappling with ideas of what strategy to put in place or how to allocate a particular resource to have the best outcome. Such a conflict is healthy and fruitful if the right management is in place to manage it. In line with this, Godard (2014, p.5), termed conflicts as a disagreement between groups or individuals with each trying to get their idea or view to gain acceptance over the others.
However, there stands a thin line between this kind of conflict and that where conflicts get to be negative through unethical behaviors or those that cause distress to others. In an employment instance, negative conflicts are likely to arise through a wide spectrum of behaviors such as personality clashes, a manifestation of unfair treatment like harassment and bullying, disagreements, and ongoing difficult relationships. Prause and Mujtaba (2015) identified that conflicts could manifest themselves in various forms, where on the one hand, it is through overt forms such as shouting or verbal abuse. On the other hand, they can arise in less tangible forms, such as resentment between members, and this form is more challenging to identify. This creates a need for organizations to have conflict management in place to identify different ways that conflicts can occur and how the various forms can be tackled.
Studies have identified three main perspectives that can be used to manage conflicts in the workplace. They include the pluralist, unitarist and radical perspectives, where each perceptive has its workplace perception. However, the following work concentrates on the unitarist and pluralist perspectives.
The unitarist perspective
The unitarist perspective views the workplace as a harmonious entity integrated through an equal understanding to serve a common purpose. The view assumes that managers, employers, and employees operate together to attain a common objective within the organization. The management’s purpose in this view is to foster good communication and provide strong leadership necessary to achieve the common goal. On the other hand, the employees must be loyal to the management and the organization at large. As a result of the perceived harmony, the unitarist perspective does not find the need for third parties such as the unions, as they are regarded as competitors who are likely to snatch the loyalty of the employees from that of the management (Prause and Mujtaba, 2015). Additionally, conflict is not inherent in this perceptive, and it is viewed as a result of faulty communication within the organization. Conflicts are viewed as threats that must be eliminated for harmony to thrive.
While looking at the current shift of worker relations in the workplace since the 20th century, the commitment of the workers and their shared interests form the basis for strategic and integrated frameworks within organizations. Additionally, employees are regarded as the most valuable assets that an organization has, and managing them to be loyal to the organizational goal is key. Thus the unitarist perspective and its ability to pull both the employees and the employers and their loyalty together can be key while managing the employees, who are valuable assets. Further, the managers who are called to ensure loyalty and harmony in the organization have to go out of their way and ensure the success of the organization, and no chances to lazy around the organization but have to show their leadership and management prowess (Godard, (2014, p.9. Their ability to showcase in their leadership and managerial roles can easily take away the need for unions and make the employees feel like they are missing nothing. However, if not practiced well, the employees are vulnerable to feeling that their right to trade unions is missing, hence taking their full attention from the organizational goals.
Studies have found a key strength of the perspective where each individual in the organization is presumed to be rational, and hence finding a common interest in them is easy. However, critics have found the unitarist perspective to be undermining the employees by terming them immature in their work. According to the scientific management theory by Tylor Mzangwa (2015, p.119), the unitarist view takes employees to have limited self-centred aspirations and hence their ability to have their loyalty to the management of the organization despite the form of management taken to govern them. Further, the theory argues that in the unitarist view, the employer uses suppression where the internal tensions are created to ensure that the employees allow the management to retain their superior power and knowledge regarding the structure and organization of work as a form of avoiding conflicts (Nechanska et al., 2020). However, in response to the above criticism, Abbott (2006, p.189) argues through the human resource management theory that by nurturing psychological contracts between the employer and the employees based on cooperation, organizational tensions are eliminated, hence creating a harmonious environment for both the management and the employees.
The Pluralist perspective
On the other hand, there lies the pluralist perspective holding the belief that in a typical workplace, there are different people, each with their unique aspirations, interests, beliefs, loyalties, and objectives (Wilton, 2016). Given such a mixture, it is difficult to create a homogenous society since there exists an open-ended relationship that naturally creates antagonism in the organization. As a result, conflict in an organization following the pluralistic view is unavoidable, and it necessitates having different ways to accommodate different viewpoints and manage the possible disagreements through negotiation, consultation, or shared decision-making. The great task given to management is to emphasize consensus and consent as well as seek other ways to manage the differences.
Additionally, the trade unions in this view are viewed as acceptable means to be the legitimate representatives for the different interests of the employees. By accepting the different values, interests, beliefs, and attitudes, the pluralistic view argues that organizations can have naturally opposing divergent sources of leadership (Terziev et al., 2017, p.320). This increases the chances for conflicts, and hence the view holds that conflicts must exist due to competing interests, and the conflicts can be beneficial to the organization while properly managed (Brett, 2017). The role of management in this is to mediate between the competing actors, while the trade unions provide legal backup in the representation of workers more so by emphasizing their decision-making power. The result of this awareness is a collective approach to problems in the organization. Further, having the employees represented by the trade unions act as a rational response after accepting there is a power imbalance, and without a voice, the employees are vulnerable to exploitation (Heery, 2016). The power of management, on the other hand, is controlled by sharing the making of decisions.
According to Mzangwa (2015, p.118), the pluralistic view holds that the conflicts between the management and the employees are bridgeable and not fundamental to fail in creating room for cooperation. However, by regulating the relationship between management and the employee, the conflict is institutionalized and hence gaining control and impacting the parties and their relationships. The pluralistic view has also been said to be effective in fighting the cause of conflict and preventing further occurrence, unlike in the unitarist view where what is resolved is just the conflict without identifying its cause, hence leaving chances of the conflict occurring again. The ability to fight the root cause of conflict in the pluralistic view lies in the ability and freedom of the employees to join the trade unions of their choice, where they are able to voice out what affects them in the workplace (Truss et al., 2013). Through collective bargaining, the employers can extend their control and keep conflict at the limit. The reconciled differences between the management and the employees are what keep organizations following the pluralistic view successful. Following the main aim of the pluralistic view, any arising conflict is properly managed to ensure a win-win situation (Bray et al., 2020, p.126). Consequently, there are developed procedures such as the bargaining relationships with the trade unions where the plurality of various interests are allowed to exist peacefully.
Criticism of the pluralistic view argues that the view is not realistic for every managerial decision since some matters concerning finance and future employment levels, among others, are rarely shared in most organizations (Abbott, 2006, p.189). Further, the view which assumes that there needs to be a shared set of norms for pluralistic to work effectively may not actually work in the event that the shared norms are wildly different.
The world of business has drastically changed, and in the 21st century, competition among organizations has taken a different turn. Employers have realized that employees are the most valuable assets to have in their organizations, and careless handling of the employees could have them pouched by other firms which take care of them better (Bray et al., 2020, p.115). There has been a shift from the traditional personnel management, where employees used to be managed as a means to an end, in this case, the productivity of the organization. In contemporary organizations, employers realize that employees are valuable, and they need to be motivated differently to achieve the productivity of the organization (Kaufman et al., 2021, p.205). The human resource department is the current form for organizing and taking care of the employees’ needs. According to Bajaj et al. (2013, p.93), this includes acknowledging their needs, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and making the employees feel they are part of the organization by contributing majorly to the key decisions made in the company.
The human resource maintains a balance of employees’ needs and organizational goals. While linking these contemporary organizational needs with the aforementioned perspectives, the pluralistic view links more with the contemporary business world. It combines both economic and psychological concepts of management to achieve success in organizations (Khoreva et al., 2017). It also combines the two concepts with the complicated relations visions that are characterized by conflicts. In the current economy, conflicts are unavoidable regardless of the organization, and failure to recognize them and have a proper channel to correct and manage them could only lead to the fall of the given organization (McCabe, 2020, p.256). By pluralism acknowledging the presence of conflicts, it perfectly fits in the contemporary organizations, contrary to the unitarist that treats employees as means to achieving the ends without considering their emotional and psychological well-being in the running of the organization.
In relation to acknowledging the needs of the employees, it is imperative that employers follow natural justice in the workplace as a major way of avoiding conflicts. Natural justice calls for employers to grant every employee a fair and just hearing in the case of disciplinary action (Saundry, 2016). When any person is denied the right to be heard during a disciplinary action, the highest probability is that they will hold grudges against whoever denied them the chance. As a result, conflicts will be easily achieved, and they may occur in a less tangible manner making it hard to diagnose the cause and thus increasing the chances of low productivity. According to the principles of a fair and a just hearing, every employee deserves an opportunity to clearly state their case and be heard, and two, in the case where partiality is required, nobody should be a judge in their case (Sharma, 2020).
An example of an employer giving the employee a fair hearing is when they give them a notice before the disciplinary action is taken. This gives the employee the chance to prepare his case and explain it. The employer will only make a decision after the employee has satisfactorily explained their case. Further, if they are not happy with the ruling, the employee has the right to appeal the ruled decision and be heard by, most preferably, a senior manager than the one who heard them in the first place.
In conclusion, employee relations are crucial in the success of any organization, for they determine how well the employer and the employee relate, given the different events that occur in the workplace. Conflicts are unavoidable due to the different interests, beliefs, attitudes, and values that individuals hold, making their worldviews different and hence exposing them to disagreements. While not all conflicts are negative, proper management of the conflicts is key if employees and employers are to make the best of the present conflicts. Further, while arguing from the contemporary society and organizations, the pluralistic view has been found to be participative for both the employees and the management, making it a preferable view for managing various events occurring in the workplace.