Comprehensive survey maps contemporary workplace relations

The first findings of the 1998 Workplace Employee Relations Survey, released in October, reveal the shape of contemporary employment relations at the workplace in all but the smallest workplaces across Britain's economy. Some of the main findings are highlighted here.

The first findings of the 1998 Workplace Employee Relations Survey (WERS) were published on 20 October 1998 (The 1998 Workplace Employee Relations Survey: First findings, Department of Trade and Industry, October 1998). The survey is the largest of its kind ever conducted, and involved face-to-face interviews with managers and worker representatives in over 2,000 workplaces, together with completed questionnaires from almost 30,000 employees in these workplaces. Jointly sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Policy Studies Institute, the survey is the fourth in a series which dates back to 1980. It is eight years since the third was conducted in 1990. The survey is comprehensive in its scope, covering all workplaces with at least 10 employees across virtually every sector of the economy. The findings are representative of the three-quarters of the British workforce who are employed in these workplaces. To aid comparison with results from the earlier surveys, the first findings concentrate on the picture amongst workplaces with at least 25 employees. Many of the findings are relevant to industrial relations measures currently being implemented or in prospect and are summarised below.

New management practices and employee involvement

Much attention in recent years has focused on the adoption of new management practices, amongst which forms of employee involvement are seen to be central, aimed at securing high performance and/or high commitment from employees. Managers were asked about a range of such practices. Forms of employee involvement appear reasonably widespread: managers in 61% of workplaces reported operating a system of team briefing; employee attitude surveys were used in 45%; problem-solving groups in 42%; and regular meetings of the entire workforce were reported in 37% of workplaces. On the face of it, teamworking also appeared to be widespread: 65% of workplaces reported that most employees in the main occupational group work in formally designated teams. Yet, further questioning revealed that autonomous teamworking is practised in only 5% of all workplaces.

Reflecting increased emphasis on performance control, systems of performance appraisal for non-managerial employees were used in 56% of workplaces. Less widespread for non-managerial employees were forms of performance-related pay: profit-sharing schemes were in operation in 30% and employee share-ownership in 15% of workplaces. Just 11% of workplaces operated individual performance-related pay systems for non-managerial employees. Groups of practices were associated with each other. Teamworking, problem-solving groups, supervisors trained in employee relations matters and substantial employee training all tended to go together. Teamworking was also associated with single status arrangements (reported in 41% of workplaces) and job security guarantees (reported in 14%).

Union membership and recognition

The decline in trade union membership and recognition that has occurred since 1980 is well known. According to managers, at almost one-half of workplaces (47%) there are now no union members amongst the workforce. This is a substantial increase as compared with 1990, when 36% of workplaces had no union members. Four out of every five workplaces with union members recognise trade unions for collective bargaining purposes, amounting to 45% of all workplaces. Again, this represents a decline from 53% in 1990. Particularly striking is the seeming impact of management attitudes towards union membership: approaching two-thirds of employees were union members in the 29% of workplaces where management is in favour of union membership, but fewer than one-quarter belonged in the 54% of workplaces where management says that it is neutral and less than one in 10 employees were union members in those workplaces where management is not in favour.

Employee representatives

Independent employee representatives were found in less than one-half of workplaces (44%). Employee representatives are most common where unions are recognised, being found in 83% of such workplaces. Almost all of these are union representatives - largely lay representatives but in a few cases external officials. In contrast, just 11% of non-union workplaces had independent employee representatives. The average constituency of the estimated 218,000 lay union representatives across Britain is 28 members. Handling problems raised by the treatment of employees by management and resolving disputes are noticeably more prominent in the activities of these representatives than maintaining wages and benefits - often regarded as their traditional role.

Consultation and negotiation

Just over one-half of workplaces were covered by a joint consultative committee. Managers at 28% of workplaces reported that there was a workplace committee in operation, whilst a further 25% of workplaces had no workplace committee but were covered by a joint consultative arrangement at a higher level in the organisation. How far the existence of joint consultative arrangements overlaps with union recognition is not reported. However, other findings indicate that in a sizeable proportion of unionised workplaces, management does not encourage a union role through either joint consultation or negotiation. Union representatives reported that they are given no information, still less consulted, on a number of issues, including training (37% of workplaces with union representatives), manpower planning (36%) and equal opportunities (34%). Indeed, a further finding suggests that management prefers to inform and consult with employees directly: managers were much more likely to have consulted employees directly, rather than union representatives, over the most significant change introduced in the recent past. The scope of the negotiating agenda appeared to be quite narrow in workplaces where unions are recognised for collective bargaining purposes, with union representatives reporting that the workplace agenda is mainly confined to pay, handling of grievances and health and safety.

Employees, for their part, appear sceptical of management claims to have consulted them directly. Seven out of 10 managers agreed with the statement that "we do not introduce any changes here without discussing the implications with employees." In contrast, around 40% of employees rated managers as being "poor" or "very poor" at providing them with the opportunity to comment on changes, compared with 30% who rated them as "good" or "very good". Yet employees' assessment of their own job satisfaction is strongly correlated with the extent to which they feel they have been consulted. Nine out of every 10 employees who felt that they had been consulted about workplace changes said that they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their jobs, as compared with an overall average of some five out of every 10.

Flexibility practices

The findings confirm the extent to which greater flexibility in employers' use of labour in Britain derives from forms of numerical, rather than functional, flexibility. Nine out of every 10 workplaces contract out one or more services. Moreover, the extent of contracting out has been increasing: one-third of workplaces reported that over the past five years some work previously undertaken in-house was now contracted out. Furthermore, although the majority of workplaces do not use temporary agency employees or employ workers on fixed-term contract s, around 20% of workplaces report that use of these non-standard workers has increased, compared with around 7% reporting a decrease. In contrast, functional flexibility, defined as workers trained to do jobs other than their own, was practically non-existent in more than one-half of workplaces. Most employees in the main occupational group were functionally flexible in about one quarter of workplaces. Forms of numerical and functional flexibility appear to be alternative, not complementary, forms of adaptation to changes in demand: use of non-standard forms of employment is negatively associated with the proportion of employees who are functionally flexible.

Flexibility is examined from the perspective of employees too, in the form of provision for flexible and "family-friendly" working arrangements. According to employees, such arrangements are far from being widely available at present. Flexitime arrangements are available for 32% of employees and a job-sharing scheme, if needed, for 16%. One in 10 employees said that they could work at or from home. Turning to family-friendly practices, 28% of employees said that they could take parental leave, whilst just 4% of employees said that assistance with childcare was available from their employer.

Government reaction

Welcoming the first findings of the new survey, Ian McCartney, minister of state at the Department of Trade and Industry, said that "this survey provides a fascinating snapshot of employment relations in Britain today" which shows that "leading-edge businesses are in fact pursuing the culture of partnership we advocate in the Fairness at work white paper" published in May (UK9806129F). "The survey shows that it makes good business sense for organisations to build trust and a greater sense of partnership at the workplace. Managers who are good at consulting their workforces benefit from a more committed and satisfied workforce," he added.

However, Mr McCartney warned against complacency, noting that "one in three workers had no training in the past year" and that "four out of every 10 thought their managers were poor or very poor at consulting them on key issues."

Views of the social partners

Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary John Monks commented that the survey's findings provide the "strongest argument yet" for the Fairness at Work white paper, including its proposals for a statutory trade union recognition procedure. The survey "shows that employers have nothing to fear from unionised workplaces. On the contrary, they have the best trained workforces, the lowest number of cases going to industrial tribunals and the most family friendly employment policies."

Moreover, unionised workplaces "are more likely to show high productivity growth than those without unions". Mr Monks underlined the value to business of partnership at work, adding: "We can now see that the decline in union organisation is part of the problem of today's Britain, not part of the solution."

The director of human resources policy Confederation of British Industry (CBI), John Cridland, drew attention to the survey's "crucial contribution to the debate about the changing nature of UK labour markets". "Some of the results are compelling, showing harmonious employment relations are very much the norm, conflict levels are low and satisfaction at work is also widespread." Noting the "substantial proportion of workplaces operating 'new' management practices and employee involvement schemes", he said that the CBI "will be intensifying its efforts" to encourage more businesses to "adopt the workplace practices of the best".


The WERS series is universally regarded as providing the authoritative portrait of the shape of industrial relations at the workplace across Britain. The full findings of the 1998 survey, to be published in autumn 1999, will allow policy-makers, practitioners and researchers to take stock of the contemporary situation after a lengthy period in which successive Conservative governments introduced measures aimed at deregulating the labour market, and employers sought to decentralise industrial relations arrangements and secure greater flexibility in the deployment of labour. Already, the first findings indicate the dramatic transformation that has occurred in the industrial relations landscape since the first survey in the series was undertaken in 1980, at a time when union organisation had reached maximum penetration across the economy. In 1980, union membership density in workplaces employing 25 or more was 62%, whilst union recognition extended to 67% of all workplaces. By 1998, these percentages had declined to 36% and 45%, respectively.

The 1998 survey's first findings are published at a time when several new regulatory measures, emanating from the Labour government and the EU, are being implemented or are in prospect.

  • The Government and the social partners have quickly drawn attention to the relevance of the findings for the proposals contained in the Fairness at work white paper. On the central issue of union recognition, the strong association between management policy towards trade union membership and actual density of union membership is reported above. The authors of the report comment that "these figures suggest that anti-union sentiments on the part of employers provide a considerable hurdle to overcome if unions are to win members and recognition." Further, it is currently proposed that in those cases where a trade union can demonstrate majority membership amongst the relevant workforce, union recognition should be automatic. Yet the findings show that such a situation is rare, amounting to just 1% of all workplaces.
  • The impact of the National Minimum Wage to be introduced in April 1999 (UK9807135F) is, according to the findings, likely to be greatest amongst workplaces in the hospitality, private health and community service sectors, and amongst workplaces where there are no recognised unions.
  • The likely extent of the impact of the UK's implementation of the EU's parental leave Directive (TN9801201S), due by December 1999, is indicated by the finding that fewer than one-third of employees currently benefit from any such provision.
  • The full results will provide information relating to the impact of the EU working time Directive, including employees' entitlement to paid holidays (UK9810154F).

From the standpoint of future surveys in the series, the 1998 results will provide an important benchmark against which to assess the longer-run impact of these and other regulatory changes on industrial relations at the workplace.

Crucially, the survey's findings demonstrate the scale of the employee representation gap at workplace level that has opened up in the wake of declining union recognition. Of the majority of workplaces in which no trade union is recognised for the purposes of collective employee representation, independent employee representatives - and therefore representation structures - are found in just one in 10. The implications are far-reaching. In terms of the domestic agenda, it is difficult to see how aspirations to develop genuine social partnership arrangements at enterprise level can be fulfilled in the absence of independent forms of employee representation. If the EU adopts the European Commission's recent proposal for a Directive ensuring employees' right to information and consultation within national undertakings, implementation in the UK is likely to require institutional innovation of unprecedented proportions. (Paul Marginson, IRRU)

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