Addressing the new dimensions of employer-employee relations in the private sector

Thursday, 7 October 2010 23:12 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By I. Perera

We hear of new ideas and theories regarding the workplace all the time. In fact, work place related theories and how to apply them has become one of the most lucrative services that can be offered to organisations.

While some people dismiss most of it as money making schemes or impractical ideas, the bottom line is that there is a lot of truth in these theories and ideas. The dynamics of the work place as we know it as has changed drastically over the years. While profit and output is key to the success of any organisation, its most valuable asset has been and will remain to be its employees.

One of the most successful theories on employee and organisation success has been the importance of going beyond conventional employee-employer relations. Organisations must realise that by their employees being more engaged in organisational matters, the organisation can benefit far more than through high turnovers.

The means of doing this is to make employees feel like they are partners of the organisations. By partners, it is not meant in the legal sense, but where employees feel a sense of ownership in company matters. Employees, who are partners of the organisation, engage in a positive way as they feel that they have a shared purpose with organisation.

They look out for the best interest of the organisation, take initiative to do things for the betterment of the organisation, watch for negative aspects that may affect the functioning of the company and generally play a more active role that they normally would not have played if they were just another employee in the organisation.

The private sector in Sri Lanka has been slowly embracing these workplace theories that have been introduced over time. It is a given fact that a motivated and dedicated workforce is most important to any organisation if they are to have satisfactory productivity and perform to reach goals.

Like their counterparts all over the world, the dynamics of the Sri Lankan private sector worker has also evolved over the years. It is this that needs to be recognised by organisations in order to run their operations smoothly.

While employees in the private sector may not take to the streets holding placards with the same frequency as the public sector employees – there is all the possibility that they are as similarly dissatisfied or disgruntled with their current circumstances at the organisation.

This may affect an organisation far more gravely than anticipated and as it has been acknowledged, building and maintaining good employee – employer relations is vital for any organisation. Hence, it is crucial that organisations recognise the need to make the transform from employees to partners.

Changing employee-employer relations over the years

There has been much focus on employee-employer relations over the years and a multitude of research conducted all over world on best practices, facets of these relations, factors affecting them and so on. Employee-employer relations have rapidly changed over the years where the employee is no longer just a compliant entity that performs allocated tasks and collects a pay check every month.

Today’s employee is a more informed individual who is very aware of his environment – they know what opportunities are available to them and what they are entitled to. Over the years, organisations have realised the importance of rewarding employees for good work, sending them for training to develop skills and increase worker capacity. This was the time when training programs, company trips, performance related incentives were rapidly introduced to organisations by their respective Human Resources personnel.

While all this is still important, the employee of today, while appreciating these benefits and opportunities are not satisfied with just that. They want to feel some ownership of the organisations they work for. They want to know that their opinions in company matters are heard. They are no longer performers of tasks; they want to be part of the whole deal.

Ten years ago, in one of the most extensive workplace surveys conducted in the United States, two professors from Harvard University explored about what workers want. Key findings showed that most employees want a right to be heard in how their workplace operates.

In surveys and research conducted all over the world over the years on the same topic, similar findings reflect this new dimension of employee motivation – being more engaged in work place matters. Employees feel engaged in an atmosphere built on mutual purpose, respect and ownership.

Successful employers who have recognised the shift from compliance to commitment and have created an atmosphere where employees feel more engaged – by consulting them on company changes and decisions, taking seriously employee concerns and suggestions – show an improvement not only in employee satisfaction but also productivity, which is crucial.

Workplaces where employees are actively engaged also show low levels of stress, absenteeism and poor health and high levels of productivity and motivation.

How do organisations get employees more involved?

There are many strategies and ways of getting employees more involved in organisation matters and making them feel a sense of ownership on what goes on. One effect tool of doing this is through climate surveys. Also referred to as employee satisfaction surveys, climate surveys are mainly used by organisations to get an understanding about the work climate of their organisations.

However, climate surveys are not just limited to finding out about employee satisfaction or dissatisfaction, it is an effective tool to find out employee opinion about anything – from work place matters to changes they would like to see in the organisations.

A very effective communication tool to use within an organisation, some organisations also use climate surveys to get feedback from their employees about decisions and changes the management may want to take in the near future, introducing a new product or service to the market, employee suggestions in improving some aspect of the organisation and many more.

The uses of climate surveys are many and it has become a recognised tool all over the world as an effective way of engaging employees in organisations and maintaining or improving worker quality. Climate surveys are tailor made to suit the needs of the organisation and what aspect of workforce relations they wish to address.

Key points to keep in mind when conducting climate surveys

However, there are some vital aspects that organisations must keep in mind in order to conduct a successful climate survey and achieve the desired results of motivating employees by giving them more ownership. One is that it is imperative that organisations take the results or outcome of the survey seriously and act upon it.

If there are serious issues and suggestions that are raised by employees in the survey, the management must take them into consideration and inform the employees about their views or decisions. That way, the employees are aware that their ideas/ concerns were discussed and given consideration, no matter what the final decision of the management may be.

In no way should the management disregard pertinent issues that arise. In doing so, employees would feel that their participation in climate surveys are a waste of time and may not participate again or not be inclined to answer honestly in future climate surveys.

In order to get candid feedback from employees their anonymity must be guaranteed. Employees must know that none of their superiors or management will be able to identify them through their questionnaires.

When employees are not assured of complete anonymity their answers will be vague, guarded and not completely honest as they will not want to get into trouble. Hence, it is always recommended that organisations commission an independent agency/ body that are in no way connected to the organisation to conduct the climate survey on behalf of them. That way the employees are assured that at no point can they be identified by their answers.

The usual practice of when conducting climate surveys to assure anonymity is to explain the procedure to employees before commencing the survey – assuring them of complete anonymity, telling them not to write their names or any information that will identify them on the questionnaire and showing them a box where they can drop off the questionnaire once they have completed it – so that they are fully aware that they can give completely honest feedback in the survey.

Climate surveys can be conducted for the entire organisation or to a representative sample which is picked randomly. Depending on the need and aim of the survey, the survey can be restricted to different levels of the organisation (such as executives and management only, trainees only, those involved in production only and so on) instead of being conducted for all.

A climate survey exercise for an organisation can also have separate questionnaires for different types of employees. All these requirements should be discussed and specified at the onset.

Despite the popular views that climate surveys are easy and straightforward exercises, it is in fact not. It is a rigorous scientific tool that must be conducted properly from the questionnaire designing stage to analysis in order to serve its purpose.

Climate surveys on employee satisfaction, employee opinion on organisation practices conducted over a period of time are useful for organisations to identify changes over time and also be able to attribute them to decisions, changes, incentives, benefits, etc., by the organisation.

This sort of engagement between all levels of organisation staff creates a sense of inclusion and team spirit. As a tested and recommended tool for organisations to build motivation among employees and have them play a more active role in the organisation, climate surveys are a vital instrument for the Sri Lankan private sector.

(The author is attached Social Indicator, a survey research organisation that has conducted both quantitative and qualitative research – which includes public opinion polling, climate surveys, mapping exercises – since 1999.)