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Traditional Theories of Employment Relations

The relationship between the employer and the employed is the core element of an industrial relations system. The success of any business or organization whether it is big or small is dependent on its employment relationship. Numerous theories have been written regarding employment relationship. Employers have over time used a variety of management styles which give a clear picture of the environment in which the work is done. This essay seeks to discuss how the traditional theories of employment help us to understand workers conflicts in the modern Australian workplace.

Employment Relations in Australia

The relationship between the employer and the employee is a unique kind of business relationship because of the element of reciprocity that exists between the two parties, regulation of this relationship by government and the power dynamics at play. Employment relations have undergone a metamorphosis of some sort in developed countries throughout history from master/ servant kind of relationship to today’s manager/ managed form of relationship. The origin of employment relations can be traced back to the industrial revolution. In Australia, the industrial actions of the 1890’s marked the beginning of the process of institutionalizing of employment relations. Led by individuals such as Higgins, they advocated for collective bargaining and were quite instrumental in founding of important institutions such as the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC).

Employment relations theories encompass a number of assumptions. One such proposition is that labor is much more than a mere commodity, it is a factor of production, but unlike other factors of production such as raw materials and machines, the work of humans raises the issue of the impact of the work and work relations on the employees; issues that are of concern to the society. It is argued by some scholars that a society is not truly democratic unless it provides a mechanism by which the employees are able to have some influence in their working lives. Conflicts are inevitable in any work environment and the modern Australian workplace is no different. This conflict can be in the form of friction in the relationship between superiors and their subordinates and even on economic matters for instance salaries versus profits.

There are however areas of conflicts of interest that may come between employers and their employees; in spite of these conflicts, the two parties depend on each other, the companies need workers whereas the workers need those jobs. Therefore, the employers and their employees are compelled to settle their conflicting issues because the benefits can be enjoyed by both parties. Employee representation, the case of unions for example are quite necessary to establish the true freedom of the contract; this is because there is an inequality of some kind in the bargaining power of many relationships between employers and employees when they interact on an individual basis.

There is a general acknowledgement of the presence of a number of groups that have competing interests that are valid in every sense of the word. In the because of the modern Australian workplace, this notion is quite important as it underscores the goals of the workers, their employers and also society as a whole. The interests of these groups can be accommodated in a way that is equitable and also balanced. This is in sharp contrast with economists’ emphasis on efficiency as being the ultimate goal of any organization. A number of these assumptions have their roots in the work of German philosopher Karl Marx; who is regarded by some as the intellectual leader of industrial relations.

Rethinking Employment Relations

The changes in employment relations in a way, tends to reflect the evolution of managerial regimes and also the systems of control in organizations. There have been considerable changes in employment relations as a result of a number of factors that include technological innovations, globalization and a general deregulation and decline of trade unions. The political, social and economic that have been at play the world over have made the environment around the workplace more uncertain and unpredictable for the workers. The main goal of management is to facilitate the smooth coordination of resources with the sole aim of achieving the set objectives. Human labor is one such resource that needs coordination. Human resources is actually the most challenging resource to manage; this is because the employees may have interests that may be at loggerheads with those of the management. These opposing views or interests in many cases leads to conflict.

Conflicts in the modern Australian workplace can be brought about by a variety of reasons. A good example of a situation that may result in a conflict is when one party, either the employer or employee makes some kind of demand and this demand is denied by the other party. In such a condition, there exists a state of conflict in the organization. A workplace environment that is characterized by a high degree of conflict often has a heightened level of conflicts among the individuals working; turf wars are quite common together with excessive turnover of staff, absenteeism and excessive turnover.

A traditional theory of resolving conflict that can be employed in conflict resolution is the unitary approach. This model of industrial employment relations rests on a number of assumptions. First of which is that, the workplace environment is an “integrated and harmonious entity that exists for a common purpose”. It is assumed that the organization is made up of a group of people that are integrated. It also has an authority and loyalty structure that is quite simplistic and that the managers and those that are managed have the same values, goals and objectives.

Conflict, under the unitary theory is seen as a blatant expression of dissatisfaction among the employees. However, as a result of the assumption that both the managers and the managed share the same value, goals and objectives, this dissatisfaction is deemed irrational. The pluralist approach is another theory that can be employed in modern Australian workplace in an effort to better manage the human resource and avoid conflict. This model tends to acknowledge that organizations are made up of people who have an array of interests, goals, aspirations and aims. In addition to that this model considers that power within the organization is shared and there is not a single party that is more dominant than the other.

It is also important to note that in this model, there is a clear line between the ownership of the resources and their subsequent management. Pluralists also consider conflict to be irrational and that it comes about as a result of the different roles played by the managers and the managed. It is therefore the manager’s role to recognize conflict in the environment of the workplace and it is also his responsibility to resolve it by consulting the people involved. Coercion is however not an acceptable means of getting rid of the conflict unlike in the unitary method.

The other model is the radical approach which is guided by the philosophy that there exists an inherent conflict between the managers and the managed because of the obvious unequal distribution of wealth and income. In this model, the owners of capital and the sellers of labor are the opposing parties. The owners of the capital use a wide variety of instruments for example selective recruitment in an effort to maintain their authority. This apparent inequality inevitably leads to conflict (123 help me!com).

The main theme in the three approaches is that conflict is an inevitable fact in every organization. Attention therefore shifts to management strategies that may play a part in the reduction of conflict and which ones are likely to trigger conflict. The fact that conflict is quite costly in nature; managers will be keen in the implementation of strategies that will minimize the occurrence of conflict.

To manage conflict in the setting of a modern Australian workplace, managers can adopt traditionalist strategy albeit with little success. This strategy is characterized by a highly exploitative to the employees and also hostile and often negative stances to trade unions. A strong belief in management prerogative is a feature of this strategy. This strategy was used in the 19th century and was to an extent effective in terms of controlling conflict because back then there was an absence of a legal framework whose responsibility was the enforcement of workers’ rights.

Workers were consequently forced to work under a management that was fairly dictatorial if at all they were to survive. This strategy would however be less effective in the modern Australian workplace; more so because of government’s intervention and societal norms. Any organization that attempts to exploit its workers will face an incredible amount of pressure both from its employees and also from government.

The pluralist model is the foundation of the sophisticated modern strategy for management. In this model, managers recognize the role played by unions’ even though these unions may curtail manager prerogative. The reason for the change in attitude can be attributed to the reasoning that the presence and voice of the union have a positive impact in that it creates an arena that facilitates communication and a general change in employee relationship. It is fairly evident that many conflicts arise as a result of a breakdown in communication.

The modern Australian workplace is influenced by traditional theories of employment relations, though in a small way. Newer methods and strategies are however needed if at all the modern Australian workplace is to be understood. Such a strategy should encompass contemporary issues that affect the modern workplace for example the issue of gender inclusiveness in the workplace by recognizing the important role played by women. In the new strategy, it is important to have an interchange between traditional theories and an array of community interactions because it would be mutually beneficial to all parties.

The traditional institutions that deal with industrial institutions leverage heavily on liberal collectivism ideas. Liberal collectivism advocates for the negotiations when agreements between the employer and the employees trade unions are concerned. Employees have over time have managed to take part in important decisions for example on the price of their labor which they sell to the organizations.


Traditional theories of employment relations in a sense have helped in the general understanding of the overall workplace in Australia today. This is because they help to underscore the fact that the relationship between the manager and the managed is the foundation of employee relations and is very important6 for the success of any organization. Conflict is inevitable in any workplace environment; emphasis should be placed on minimizing the occurrence of conflicts and how best to resolve them should they arise.

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