Professor John Godard of the University of Manitoba has just published a very stimulating article that should be read by anyone in employment relations, human resource management, and organizational behavior ("The Psychologisation of Employment Relations?," Human Resource Management Journal, 2014). I have witnessed the trends that John describes--indeed, in my administrative roles at the University of Minnesota I have, with mixed feelings, contributed to some of them--and I share his concerns.
In this posting, I want to expand upon what he raises in this quote:
the growing psychologisation of employment relations means that there is less and less possibility for actually understanding these relations. The problems of motivation and control, and the dysfunctions to which they may give rise, tend to be attributed to individual or interpersonal phenomena that can be avoided through careful selection and training/socialisation procedures if not more directly through 'performance management'. Often, the assumption is not that these practices and innovations are flawed, or that it is the institutional design of the employment relation that is the problem, but rather that they are just not being implemented properly. (p. 7)
For starters, I think this particular problem is even worse than Godard conveys it. To see this, we need to distinguish between a human resources (HR) approach and an organizational behavior (OB) approach. The HR approach (or what some might see as a high-road, high-commitment HR approach) uses organizational policies and practices to align employee-employer interests to boost performance. In this paradigm, problems of subpar performance are assumed to reflect poorly-designed policies or flawed implementation. Sometimes the blame might be ascribed to employees (e.g., the organization selected the wrong kind of individual), but there is at least the scope for questioning whether the policies were appropriately designed, which means that there is some scope for questioning the underlying, structural nature of the employment relationship (albeit in limited ways, more on this in a minute).
But increasingly within academia (at least in North America), I assert that this HR approach is being supplanted by an OB approach that seeks to manage interpersonal dynamics, not organizational policies and practices, to boost performance. In this paradigm, subpar performance or other negative outcomes are largely seen as the product of interpersonal dysfunction among co-workers or between a worker and her manager. In this way of thinking, organizational policies such as selection systems or compensation plans are largely off the radar so there is even less cause for considering them than in the HR approach. So there is even less of a chance that the structural nature of the employment relationship will be considered.
In contrast, industrial relations perspectives focus attention on power relations between employers and employees as shaped by the allocation of resources and rights in modern capitalist societies. Problems of motivation and performance, then, might be rooted in systematic inequalities which in turn raise questions about the structural nature of the employment relationship. It is typically through industrial relations scholarship and coursework, then, that one confronts--or should confront--alternative models of the employment relationship, such as unitarism and pluralism (see my earlier blog posting). Industrial relations perspectives are therefore critically important for understanding employment relations and need to remain an important part of the field.
But there is another element to this story. Not only does the psychologization of employment relations draw attention to certain private policies and practices and away from public policies and institutions (notably protective labor standards and labor unions because their need is rooted in structural power imbalances not commonly recognized in the HR and OB approaches). But it also implicitly focuses attention on certain outcomes and objectives of the employment relationship--primarily economic performance and psychological well-being. As I show in my book Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice, industrial relations perspectives embrace broader objectives of the employment relationship that I term equity (fair employment standards for both material outcomes and personal treatment) and voice (the ability to have meaningful input into decisions). In the industrial relations tradition, equity and voice are key objectives rooted in human dignity and citizenship, even when they don't enhance employee or organizational performance. So this causes us to question the nature of employment relationship on a broader basis. In other words, concerns with low pay or a lack of employee voice, for example, are problematic in industrial relations thought, but perhaps not in HR and OB as long as employees are satisfied and productive--and IR scholarship looks to the structural nature of the employment relationship as at least partly responsible for these problematic outcomes.
So the psychologization of employment relations makes it less likely that the nature of the employment relationship will be questioned not only because when there are problems, the blame will placed on specific policies or individuals (Godard's point), but also because the scope of important outcomes is narrower. Putting this a little differently, OB generally concerns itself with individual and team-level outcomes and HR highlights organizational outcomes; IR adds a concern with societal outcomes.
With that said, I want to be clear that I have great respect for the OB scholarship pursued by my University of Minnesota colleagues and others in the field. So the problem isn't with this scholarship per se, the problem, as I see it, is when one perspective becomes the sole approach to understanding the very complex world of work. The house of employment relations scholarship needs to be large enough to include diverse intellectual paradigms, adherents to different paradigms need to respect and learn from others, and the degree programs we offer need to educate students in diverse ways of thinking, even if some of these ways might seem a little old-fashioned. HR-OB still needs industrial relations.