Job Quality: An Industrial Relations Perspective

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Last month I had the distinct pleasure of participating in the International Expert Conference on Job Quality hosted by Copenhagen Business School. This was a uniquely vibrant conference because it explicitly sought to bring together diverse perspectives on job quality. We need more of these interdisciplinary approaches to important issues relating to work. Unfortunately, job quality is so complex that it might not even be possible to agree on a definition. Indeed, what's a good job for someone might not be perceived as a good job by someone else. But much like debates over art, debates over job quality can be valuable for stimulating thinking, deepening awareness, etc., even if the question of what's good art, I mean what's a good job, is never fully resolved.

My contribution to the conference was to present an industrial relations view on job quality, with a particular emphasis on the pluralist industrial relations perspective. Within industrial relations, workers are seen as citizens entitled to standards of human dignity and self-determination, and labor markets are seen as failing to fulfill the textbook ideal of welfare optimization based on perfect competition. Workers' rights are therefore viewed as central to job quality, and non-market institutions are embraced as necessary for achieving high levels of job quality. Moreover, pluralist industrial relations thought models the employment relationship as consisting of a plurality of competing yet legitimate employer and employee interests, so good jobs are those in which these interests are balanced, typically with the help of non-market institutions.

Pluralist industrial relations thought seeks to understand how institutions and practices affect efficiency, equity, and voice while also trying to design institutions and practices to balance efficiency, equity, and voice. A pluralist industrial relations perspective on job quality, therefore, is one that analyzes job quality through a lens that focuses on the efficiency, equity, and voice aspects of jobs as importantly affected by institutions. Moreover, this reasoning within pluralist industrial relations thought indicates that high-quality jobs fulfill efficiency, equity, and voice, while low-quality jobs are those that lack one or more of these elements. And non-market institutions are needed to promote and protect high levels of job quality while improving jobs that are of low quality.

A pluralist industrial relations perspective therefore uniquely implies that efficiency should be a legitimate dimension of job quality. From a macro or social perspective, good jobs should add value. In other words, a job that provides many favorable benefits to workers and has robust levels of voice, but is a wasteful or unproductive job should not be seen as a good job from a macro perspective. This thinking is reinforced by considerations of meaningful work as part of job quality--namely, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that doing something productive and valuable (broadly-defined) at least adds to, if is not required, for deriving a robust sense of meaning from one's work.

But having a job, even a productive one, should not be enough. High quality jobs must also provide equity and voice to workers. Government policymaking can and should play an important role in establishing minimum standards and crafting other policies to redress bargaining power imbalances and promote the equity aspect of job quality. With respect to voice, the situation is slightly more complex because public policy cannot mandate voice. Some employees might prefer to remain silent or to defer to others; such decisions are legitimate uses of voice and are valid self-determined choices to the same extent as more active modes of participation in decision-making. The role of public policy, therefore, is to facilitate employee voice by protecting individuals who want to exercise various forms of voice and by outlawing actions that restrain employee voice. Unfortunately, U.S. public policies fall far short in promoting robust levels of equity and voice and we need to continue to explore how to create and promote high-quality jobs in a challenging economic and political environment.

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Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.