Conflict in the employee relationship


In this report I will discuss my support on writer’s view that Conflict is inherent in the Employment Relationship, discuss why I’m in support of this assertion with the aid of critical analysis and appropriate concepts in employees relations.


Conflict can be defined as referring to physical confrontation such as fight, battle or a struggle, it could also be described as disagreement or opposition of interest of ideas so conflict is not necessarily negative but people tend to look at conflict in a negative way at workplace but I believe it could be an effective way for everyone to learn and become more productive and satisfied in the workplace, but it happens when goals and needs of individuals are not the same with the needs of the organisation.

Industrial relations and employee management advocates have traditionally held different views on the subject of organisational conflict, while many writers have argued that conflict is inevitable in most organisations and that the employment relationship is essentially a trade-off ground. (Encarta Encyclopaedia Deluxe.2004)

This essay will argue that conflict is both inevitable when employees and employers come together in the workplace, sooner or later conflict will arise in a way. This will lead to employee’s discontent for their working conditions and mostly results to strike which will be discussed in subsequent paragraphs. (Alexander and Lewer, 1998).


Strike involves a removal of labour by employees from the part of the organisation or suspension of normal working activities initiated by employees.

Its purpose is to enforce demand s relating to employment conditions on the employer or protesting unfair labour practices. (Hyman, 1984)

Strike is a case where employee and employers are unable to resolve their differences peacefully in determining, regulating or terminating the wage-work bargain (Farnham, 2000).

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003) says during the twelve months ended May 2003, there were 241,900 working days lost due to industrial disputes.

Farnham & Pimlott (1995) says the three main competing sets of theories seeking to explain the nature of industrial conflict between employers and employees and between management and unions; these are Matrix theory which sees industrial conflict between employees, representing the ‘capital’ and unions.

Human Relations School is the set of theories that states that conflict at work between employer and employee is dysfunctional, that trade union cause industrial conflict in any form is a corroding and disruptive social influence in the workplace and the wider society.

The third of the main is Functional theory which is in contrast view seeing conflict as inevitable in any human situation, individual group together in society for associative purposes such as politics and employee relations.

Coser, (1956) says far from being necessarily dysfunctional, a certain degree of conflict is an essential element in group formation and the persistence of group life which means conflict creates link between employers, management and unions.

However, there are five Key actors in the employment relationship; they are employees, employers, trade unions, employee association and the role the state. Each of these actors interacts to and exchange conflict and resolutions, the Trade unions are responsible for the bargaining on behalf of the employees though the arbitration system does too, by giving workers united voice, unions can often negotiate higher wages, shorter hours and better fringe benefits.

According to Alexander and Lewer (1998); Deery et al (2001) the last 30 years have seen steep decline in the union density and power than unions hold. In 1976, 51% of all employees were in trade unions, by august 2002 this had fallen to 23.1% (Australian Bureau of statistics, 2003).

The employers association represents employers and help defend against organised assaults from trade unions.

Bamber & Davis (2000) states that, role of the state is to oversee the employment relationship and ensure that employers and employees and their representatives are able to cooperate in a manner that provides high inventory turnover, in an unbiased, safe workplace.

The underlining causes of this widespread conflict is important as it allows management to determine what resolution to take and there are two major categories in collective and individual reasons, collective are to deal with an employee’s disagreement with the structural make up of their work environment like reward systems, limited work resources, poor policies and work requirements.

An example of this is employers demanding the employees to put in their optimum efforts while also attempting to minimise wage expenditure, this is unfair to the employees as it puts more stress, unrest and pressure on their job which may lead to conflict, however, if workers believe they are underpaid, they may well adjust their work effort down to match the wage, example is working to rule or go slow approach.

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In the light of these theories, I strongly agree and support the theorist’s views because it’s proven that conflict happens almost everywhere and in most organisations, so it is inevitable, it’s a common thing in organisations from the early days and it is still up till now. One of the major reasons of trade union existence is to create good working relations between workers and employers, does trade union have to be reconciling if employee and employers or organisations and government have no conflicts? So one of there major existence is to avoid conflict in organisations or solve conflict when it occurs.

A typical example is of Tesco store where I work as a customer advisor, conflict occurs between the management and employees, it even occurs amongst employees and Tesco is in partnership with a trade union which is one the largest Britain trade union called ‘Usdaw’ (union of shop, distributive and allied workers) and they are ever present if conflict arises and try to prevent any form of conflict before it results to collective strike action, which the workers could opt to have a lockout, take the go-slow or work to rule approach which is not in the best interest of the organisation.

At present, there is a grievance going on between the part-time employees and the management which could be result in conflict as they believe they are being deprived of some rights the full-time employees get, typical example is on the sickness absence review, it takes six days of unplanned absence from work for a full time employees to

have a review or face the panel but it takes just one, two or three days for a part-time employees depending on their contract hours, which they feel its unjust because of the difference in the number of working days, a similar thing is the sick pay deal where workers kick against the company policy on absence believing most sick claims are not authentic, employees therefore critised the management resulting to conflict and it went a long way. The ‘employment regulations 2000′ are preventing part-time staff from being less favourable.

Conflict at times does not get resolved often in an easy way unless the employees go on industrial action known as strike; this potentially resolves the unrest or problems of the employees or eventually come to a compromise.

Griffin (1939), classified strikes according to their outcome (success, compromise, failure). Successful disputes were those in which workers have gained the major part of their expressed demands. The term ‘compromise’ is applied to cases in which neither side has been completely victorious. Failure applies to disputes in which the major cause has not been resolved in favour of the employees.

However, given the difficulty of imputing behaviour from strike statistics. It is presumptuous to infer that workplaces are harmonious or conflict-free, particularly if the definition of conflict includes a range of activities short of strike action.

Blyton & Turnbull (1998).

Causes of Strike

Firstly a strike can be classified into three ways in frequency; this is the process of review on how often it occurs during a certain time, its breadth and duration.

There are various causes of industrial action but pay seems to be the major factor causing disputes between employees, employers and unions, it includes union demanding for increase in wage rate or bonuses, restoration of pay differentials, special rates for specific jobs and guaranteed earnings.

Others are discipline issues, staffing, work organisation, technology and working conditions where the employees feel they are not safe in there working environment or terms in which they must work, this is seen as a hard management approach by them.

Jackson (1987) has concluded: ‘Strikes are enormously complex and are themselves a classification of a variety of different kinds of activity under one head.’ So each strike is undertaken ‘for different type of reasons at a different times and has a different meaning for different participants because it is the most obvious from of most quantified type of industrial action.

Crisis in Royal mail’s where union members were protesting about pay, job losses that they say will come from the modernisation of the firm and the plan to cut the pension of 167,000 of its staff demanding them to work for more five years before collecting their retirement pay, it resulted in strike action with the aim to cause continuous disruption to the nation’s postal service throughout the period at a “minimum cost” to CWU (communication workers union) members. The union says the action reflects its growing frustration with the Royal Mail for its failure to take worker demands for job protection and increased pay “seriously”.

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This confirms (Jackson, 1987) view which says industrial action is different activities under one head but strike is undertaken for different type of reasons at a different time and has different meaning to participants.

The TUC and IPA represent the employees and employers in Britain and abroad, they campaign for fair deal at work, they both emphasized in their models on employment security but the IPA emphasized more on employee voice; by giving a employees a chance to share opinions in the business, this will reduce disputes and conflict as they feel motivated & feel recognised, IPA further says organisation should share success with all employee, this is another factor that will reduce disputes, lastly IPA encouraged flexible job and employees’ direct participation; however these models are to create a good employment relationship or else there would be high level rate of disputes and conflicts resolving to strike actions, which might later end up at the arbitration, this confirms conflict inherence in employment relationship.

The survey of the CIPD (chartered institute of personnel and development) conflict at work, including disciplinary and grievance cases and preparing for employment tribunals, costs the average employer nearly 450 days of management time every year – equivalent to the time of two managers full time, Survey responses were received from nearly 1,200 employers working in organisations employing a combined total of nearly 4 million employees. The figure of 447.9 days of management time does not take into account the significant associated costs of mismanaged conflict at work, including lost productivity, sickness absence and higher than expected turnover of employees.

“Too many employers are still relying on HR to manage conflict at work. To make a real difference, these workplace problems must be nipped in the bud before they have to be dealt with using formal procedures. That means involving line managers much more.Training in conflict management and mediation is essential if line managers are to become more competent and confident in managing conflict.Only then will the waste of management time be reduced and more harmonious, more productive relationships at work develop,” says Haslam (CIPD).

With this argument, it shows and supports my agreement that conflict is inherent in the employment relationship and the high percentage of theories supporting my view with the examples in the previous paragraphs.

As a matter of fact the mis-use of power is rampant in organisation and it leads to conflict, this is where a manager or leader uses authority to control lower colleague or employee which causes unrest and the victim reacts to this. I will be explaining this with the help of Lukes (1974) model of power in the subsequent paragraphs.

A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do. The emphasis is on conflict between preferences that are assumed to be consciously made, exhibited in actions, and thus to be discovered by observing people’s behaviour, Lukes (1974).

He further agues that there is other more elusive dimension of power in his second model, he argued that A could exercise a subtler power by creating or reinforcing barriers “to the public airing of policy conflicts,” permitting “public consideration of only those issues which are innocuous to A”, in this way, A predetermines outcomes in a manner detrimental to B’s interest and he termed this suppression of conflict “non-decision” making, and argued that it is a widespread phenomenon that pluralists ignore, Lukes(1974)

Lukes (1974) states third-dimensional power may be subtle and pervasive, He forcefully argued that it can be exposed by establishing B’s real interest, the gap between B’s real interests and his/her distorted perception of those interests then illuminates power’s unseen influence, and provides a starting point for the systematic exposure of its operations.

Managers should undergo training on employee relationship so they have the desired qualities to handle situations to avoid disputes that could lead to conflict, though there are ways of reducing individual conflicts such as collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating, which approach to use depends on the manager’s desire to be cooperative or assertive but there are options to use in those kinds of situations.


Organisations, trade unions and employees sometimes settle for collective bargaining which is also known as joint negotiation determining terms and condition of employment, for particular groups of employees, the ways which employment issues such as individual grievances, collective disputes and disciplinary matters are to be resolved at workplace and corporate levels, this is a power relationship and its one of the power-sharing or joint regulation with management and union representatives, are collective agreements which is not legally enforceable in Britain. (Farnham, 2000)

Conflicts are sometimes taken to the employment tribunal if it can’t be sorted by the trade unions, who deals with cases justly seeing both parties equally and deciding fairly & balanced way.

Gennard & Judge (2005) says tribunals are independent judicial bodies with the objective of dealing with employment disputes quickly, formally and cheaply.

However, there are mechanisms for resolving conflicts in case agreement could not be reached in bargaining process and negotiation breakdowns, few options are available for employees/employers such as disputes procedure, which is basically setting out several stages available to attempt to solve the disputes. If it is still not resolved, it may have to go to the third and final stage in form of conciliation, mediation and arbitration that usually has terms of reference that needs to be agreed for the arbitrator, ACAS normally assists parties in this task.


At this point, I strongly agree conflict is inherent in employment relationship, basically with my personal experience, I believe it could only be controlled and monitored but not eradicated as it is always going to be a major factor which is inevitable in the employment relationship, organisations are mostly self centred thinking about the economical factors and working to achieve the goals, at the same time they don’t consider the employees who puts in the labour for their success, these differences creates disputes leading to conflict.

Conflict is necessary prelude to the development of a new social order, a system can only move from one state of order to another if the existing status quo is overtly challenged and defeated, therefore, it is the status quo that is perceived as the issue to be resolved. (Salamon, 2000)

Fox, (1996) sees conflict of interest and disagreements between managers and workers over the distribution of firm’s profits as the normal and inescapable state of affairs. Realistically, therefore, management should accept that conflict will necessarily occur and thus should seek to resolve it by establishing sound procedures for settling disputes.

With the various theories and example in this report, it is evident that conflict is inherent in the employment relationship and I support the writers view strongly, however, since conflict is inevitable, organisations should create ways in resolving disputes by establishing procedures to solve disputes, Use of IPA & TUC models will help in building a stronger relationship in the employment industry while people work in harmony to reduce disputes and conflict in employment relationship.


Alexander, R, & Lewer J, (1998). Understanding Australian Industrial Relations (5th ed.) Harcourt House, Chapter 7

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003). Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Australia.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003). Industrial Disputes, Australia.

Bamber, G.J & Davis, E.M (2000). Changing Approaches to Employment relations In Australia. Business Press.

Blyton, P. & Peter, T, (998) The Dynamics of Employee Relations. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Coser, L (1956) The Functions of Social Conflict. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Deery, S. & Plowman, D (2001) Industrial Relations: A contemporary Analysis (2nd ed.)

Encarta Encyclopaedia Deluxe (13th ed.). (2004). Redmond, WA: Microsoft.

Farnham, D (2002) Employment Relations in Context (2nd ed.) CIPD.

Farnham, D & Pilmott, J (1995) Understanding Industrial Relations. London, Cassell.

Fox, A (1966) Industrial Sociology & Industrial Relations, Royal Commission on Trade Unions & Employees Association Research Paper No.3. HMSO

Gennard, J & Judge, G (2005) Employee Relations (4th ed.) CIPD.

Griffin, I. J (1939) Strikes: A study in Quantitative Economics, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Department of Political Science, Columbia University.

Haslam, I & Willmott, B (2004) Managing Conflict at work. CIPD employee relations adviser.

Hyman, R (1984) Strikes, Great Britain: Fontana.

Jackson, M (1987) Strikes, Brighton, Wheatsheaf.

Lukes, S (2005) Power: A Radical View (2nd ed.) New York: Palgrave Macmillan, viii + 192, Article from Goliath Business Knowledge on demand, last accessed on 8th of January, 2008, at

Salamon, M (2000) Industrial Relations Theory & Practice (4th ed.) Prentice Hall 08/01/2008.

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