Employee Involvement And Empowerment Management Essay

In recent years there has been an enormous growth in the popularity of various employee involvement (EI) schemes under the umbrella of empowerment. In the light of these developments this chapter could equally have been called ‘Empowerment’ but, like TQM and quality circles before it, there is no way of telling whether this is a stepping stone on the way to another EI fad or a permanent fixture as a generic term that will supersede EI, just as EI superseded the term ‘participation’, and ‘participation’ superseded the term ‘industrial democracy’. A starting point in answering this will be to differentiate the terms.

Employee involvement or empowerment?

Employee involvement is a term that has a history, and as Foy (1994: xvii) points out, ’empowering people is as important today as involving them in the 1980s and getting them to participate in the 1970s’. But as Lashley (1997) comments: It is important to consider not only the economic and industrial context, but also the social and political context and, as Foy suggests, the historical context. In differentiating EI from empowerment it is clear that EI initiatives are support mechanisms for other managerial strategies such as TQM, business process re-engineering, high-performance work systems and the learning organisation. Empowerment is an initiative in its own

right, which can be all-pervasive in organisational terms. In addition, both EI and

empowerment can be seen to be managerially inspired, with circumscribed powers given

to employees. They have also been strongly associated with the introduction of HRM

strategies. Participation and, to a greater degree, industrial democracy allow greater

autonomy to employees and their representatives, such as trade unions, who decide their

own policies in reaction to organisational changes and managerial policy. A generic term

is required for all forms of participation and most contemporary writers use the term

employee involvement (EI). To differentiate the generic term EI from employee involvement

associated with HRM schemes, the latter will be labelled HRM EI in this chapter.

– Human resource management and employee involvement

As we have already noted, employee involvement is not a new concept. It has a rich and

varied history, but in recent years many managerial initiatives have sprung up in its name.

The best known of these have been quality circles, team-briefing, teamworking and

empowerment, which are often connected with organisational culture change schemes

such as total quality management, customer service initiatives, business process re-engineering,

and the learning organisation. This is the type of employee involvement that we

have called HRM EI. It is likely to be part of an overall culture change, which may

involve delayering, the creation of flatter organisational structures, and improvements in

communication. Nevertheless, the language surrounding these initiatives has generated

debates that are central to HRM. To involve employees is to gain their commitment to

the organisational goals, and this has often been couched in terms of empowering

employees to take responsibility for their roles and function within the organisation.

This resonant rhetoric has been used freely within the more popular managerial literature,

often without thought or knowledge of how it translates into day-to-day

situations, but in recent years studies have begun to examine these issues more closely.

This chapter will attempt to answer some of these questions. The first part deals with

the concept of employee involvement, and the second part examines more closely the

concept of empowerment.

HRM and employee involvement

HRM EI began to flourish in the 1980s in the guise of managerial policy initiatives

inspired by the new ‘excellence’ movement and the rise of human resource management.

Management gurus such as Tom Peters and Rosabeth Moss Kanter began to preach that

people are the most valuable resource of an organisation, and that training and developing

them, adequately rewarding their performance and involving them in organisational

policy-making, particularly at customer interface level, could only enhance employee

motivation and thus performance. In this context there was a need for management to

direct employees’ efforts ‘in pursuit of organisational goals to ensure that tasks are performed

in cost-effective and market effective ways’ (Hyman and Mason, 1995: 52).

Successful companies carrying out such policies were lauded as exemplars of the new

managerial approach (Peters and Waterman, 1982; Kanter, 1983).

Much of this rediscovery of the intrinsic worth of the employee was driven by the relative

decline in US economic performance, particularly compared with Japan. A

considerable literature was generated analysing the key to Japanese success, and one oftcited

element was the involvement of employees in work groups such as quality circles

(Lawler, 1986).

Employee involvement was also expounded as a key instrument in the creation of

HRM strategies, and the influential Harvard Business School HRM programme proposed

by Beer et al. (1984) put ’employee influence’ firmly in the centre of this

approach. The Harvard HRM programme casts employees as one of the main ‘stakeholders’

in the organisation, and therefore ‘it is critical that managers design and

administer various mechanisms for employee influence’ (Beer et al., 1984: 11). They

continue: ‘Not only will their [the employees’] interests be heard, but there will be mechanisms

to help shape their company’s HRM policies’ (p. 41).

This recognition of employees’ and other stakeholders’ interests raises a number of

important questions for policy-makers in the organisation:

How much responsibility, authority, and power should the organisation voluntarily delegate

and to whom? If required by government legislation to bargain with the unions or consult with

workers’ councils, how should management enter into these institutional arrangements? Will

they seek to minimise the power and influence of these legislated mechanisms? Or will they

share influence and work to create greater congruence of interests between management

and the employee groups represented through these mechanisms? (Beer et al., 1984: 8)

Try to answer some of these questions that Beer and his associates raise either by yourself

or in groups.

ACTIVITYThese questions raise further concerns about the inexactitude of the language of

HRM EI. Terms such as ‘influence’, ‘involvement’, ’empowerment’ and ‘commitment’

are blithely used by writers on HRM, without any attempt at definition or even clarification.

Of the Harvard Business School academics, Walton has had the most to say on

the subject. In his view, employee influence is most effective when employees have commitment

to the organisation, and this can only be achieved if there is congruence

between the HRM and general management policies of the organisation. Walton

(1984a) calls this a ‘high commitment’ work system, and he proposes that ‘high commitment

is the essential ingredient in the future pattern of HRM’ (p. 4). Walton (1984b)

sees the HRM conception replacing previous systems ‘because the common denomination

among systems being replaced is the emphasis on imposing control’ (p. 36). In other

words, there is a move from ‘control to commitment’ (Walton, 1985: 36). These arguments contain a number of non sequiturs. There is no guarantee that mutuality

will ‘elicit employee commitment’, or that it will lead to increased economic

effectiveness and human development, although this may be more likely to happen in

organisations with positive HRM policies than in those that have negative employee

relation policies. In essence, what is happening here is what Keenoy calls a reconstruction

of the employment relationship through rhetoric and metaphor (Keenoy, 1990: 371;

Keenoy and Anthony, 1992: 235).

As Goss (1994) states, ‘the evidence suggests that commitment is a complex phenomenon

that operates in different directions and at different levels. It is not something that

can easily be generated or sustained, neither does it necessarily lead to improved performance’

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(p. 101). Noon (1992), in exploring these criticisms further, comments:

‘Employees may resent the dissonance created between commitment to the task (encouraged

by the individually based performance management mechanisms) and commitment

to the company (encouraged through the rhetoric of culture and the rewards of promotion

and employment security)’ (p. 23).

The economic downturn in the early 1990s led some commentators to ask whether

HRM is ‘recession proof’ (Beardwell and Holden, 1994: 686). Storey (1989: 8) has

identified ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ types of HRM, which may sit well with different types of

organisational culture and, we posit, different economic climates. Legge (1989: 33) has

alluded to ‘tough love’ HRM in such contexts, and this is readily witnessed in the experience

of such ‘HRM companies’ as IBM, with its forced redundancy programme in the

early 1990s (Noon, 1992: 24). It is pertinent to ask, therefore, how human resource

management changes under such circumstances, and how employee commitment and

involvement are affected. Marchington (1995) proposes that EI will be considerably

different in nature, or may not exist at all, in organisations that practise forms of hard

HRM, compared with those that practise soft HRM. In organisations that practise

hard HRM:

HRM can also be affected by changes in the economic climate, and Holden (1996) cites

the experience of an organisation in the banking and finance sector. This company was

542 Chapter 14 · Employee involvement and empowerment

What problems face employees in attempting to induce commitment in their

employees? Read on for some critical analysis of this concept.

Stop and


EI may not be seen as important by senior managers, given the emphasis on tight cost

control, deskilled jobs, and a lack of investment in training. In others, EI may be little

more than one-way communications channels, designed merely to convey the latest news

to employees and indicate to them the merits of management’s decision. In these cases, if

EI is practised, it is likely to take a ratheran early convert to HRM, and initiated policies that contained mechanisms to increase

employee influence. In the boom economy of the late 1980s ‘soft’ policies were emphasised,

including, for example, training for TQM and other EI measures. In the harsher

climate of recessional Britain in the 1990s, downsizing and retrenchment became the

order of the day. Survival meant a move to hard HRM policies. In this climate the soft

mechanisms of EI tended to be overlooked and even ignored.

– Control and employee involvement

One important element in the EI equation is the degree of control given to managers and

non-managerial employees. For example, informational, communicational and consultational

types of participation tend to come from management initiatives, and are more

likely to be controlled by management. However, the term ‘control’ itself is problematic.

For example, a worker can feel in control of his or her work process (the day-to-day

operations), but have little control or say in the running of the organisation in terms of

influencing overall policy or strategy. Second, various issues at workplace level will

allow more control and influence by the workforce than others.

These problems have long been recognised in the vast literature generated around this

important subject (Edwards, 1987: 90). Drucker (1961), for example, states that ‘control

is an ambiguous word. It means the ability to direct oneself and one’s work. It can

also mean domination of one person by another’ (p. 128).

Positive and negative views of control have spawned a parallel literature rooted in the

acceptance and rejection of capitalist values, of which the latter is represented strongly

by the labour process theory school inspired by the work of Braverman (1974) (see also

Chapters 3, 5 and 10).

Control according to the labour process school of thought postulates that technology

controls the work process in its drive to help fulfil the requirements of the capitalist

organisation (i.e. profits) in response to intensive competition. This obviates the necessity

to control the work process in order to extract the maximum output in relation to

labour cost and the ability of labour to resist control (Salaman, 1979). According to

Braverman (1974), the ability to resist control and exert greater autonomy is higher

among workers whose skills are in great demand, and less among workers in unskilled

or deskilled situations. Thus deskilling has considerable implications for control and the

way it is applied and viewed by participants (employees, managers, employers) and

hence for participation schemes, especially in institutions such as banks, which have

undergone intensive technological change and reorganisation in the past five years.

Since Braverman’s work there have been a number of refinements and challenges to

his thesis, many sharing the Marxian perspective. Edwards (1979) focuses on the move

away from more coercive methods rooted in new technology, with its associations with

Fordist and Taylorist managerial control mechanisms, to bureaucratic control systems

aimed at the dual goals of dissolving class solidarity and maximising commitment to,

and dependence on, the firm. ‘Promotion, pay, security and other benefits go to

employees who are good corporate citizens, who are loyal to the company, share its

values and integrate themselves and their families into the enterprise community’

(Lincoln and Kalleberg, 1990: 9). Such managerial initiatives fit particularly well with

HRM conceptualisations.

HRM and employee involvement 543

Forms of control exist in all organisations. How do teachers control pupils and can

these controls be applied to the work situation? Clearly there are differences. What

are they?

Stop and

thinkFriedman (1977) has divided managerial control systems into direct control and

responsible autonomy. Direct control is associated with rules, regulation, work organisation

and technology that directly control the behaviour and work rate of the

employee. This is strongly associated with the Fordist-Taylorist approach. Responsible

autonomy allows the worker and the work team a degree of control over the work

process, and

This again has strong resonances with developments in HRM in the 1980s and 1990s,

particularly in terms of participation schemes such as TQM, which aim to enhance commitment

to the organisation by allowing the workforce a degree of autonomy. Edwards

(1992: 390) points out, however, that HRM apologists such as Walton (1985), who

speak of a move from control to commitment, partly by means of employee involvement

and participation policies, should perceive that commitment ‘is still a form of control’.

Burawoy (1979) has also developed a dual perspective of management regimes that

rely on coercion or consent. Earlier capitalist systems relied heavily on the former

approach, and adopted autocratic methods of workforce control, particularly in

response to intensive capitalist competition. Latterly the adoption of more subtle

approaches to the employment relationship has emphasised policies designed to induce

commitment in the employee. This has been caused to some degree by the softening of

overt autocratic systems by state regulation and welfare policy. Burawoy (1983) sees

such new approaches as creating a hegemonic regime under which coercive compliance

is replaced by normative control, as managers make concessions in order to persuade

employees to cooperate in furthering the success of the organisation. Once again we can

discern echoes of HRM policy initiatives in such hegemonic systems.

We shall return to some of these questions later in the chapter, but at this point it is

appropriate to examine some of the mechanisms and definitions of employee involvement,

beginning with communication.

Employee involvement and communication

All organisations need communication systems to function, whether these are overtly

recognised or subconsciously taken for granted. In the 1990s it was increasingly recognised

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by many employers and managers that the creation of effective communication is

an extremely important aspect of the efficient running of organisations. Communication

is a complex series of processes operating at all levels within organisations, ranging from

the ‘grapevine’, heavily laden with rumour, to formalised systems such as joint consultative

committees (JCCs) or works councils. These can operate at the localised level of the

shopfloor or office between supervisor and staff and the staff themselves, or at a distance

by means of representatives such as union officials or messages from on high from

the boardroom or the chief executive, to various branches or subsidiaries of large and

complex organisations. They can be one way or two way, top down or bottom up and

both top down and bottom up, as well as across the organisation.

It is being increasingly recognised that messages to and, equally important, from the

workforce have considerable significance. They are important for conveying the organisation’s

mission, business aims and objectives, and its general ethos or culture. They areneeded to enable the thoughts and feelings of the workforce to be expressed and, of

equal significance, heeded and acted upon. Such policies are being heavily influenced

and underscored by HRM practices.

Communication systems also carry implicit messages about the mediation of power

within organisations. Employee involvement communication systems are processes that

enable the workforce to have a greater say in decision-making to varying degrees, with

the concomitant loss of managerial prerogatives – an issue that can create conflict, as

well as attempting to allay it.

However, even the simplest message can be misunderstood or misconstrued because

of the complex influences that act on the communication process. Equally important,

and potentially disastrous, is the fact that communication channels can send conflicting

messages. An oft-cited case is the company that encouraged employees to take up share

options which entitled them to attend the annual shareholders’ meeting, where they

were told how successfully the company had performed over the previous year. Many of

these same employees were also in the union, to which management communicated later

that because of the company’s poor performance over the previous year, the pay

increases requested could not be met!

– Communication overload

Many employee relations surveys point to lack of communications or poor communications

as an important weakness in organisational operations. This view is not only held

by shopfloor workers but also increasingly by middle and even senior managers.

However, a recent trend has shown that new technology and e-mail in particular can lead

to the reverse – communication overload. Many people speak of the dreaded ‘in-box’ email

problem when one has been away from the office to return only to find their in-box

filled with 60 or more new messages. It has reached such proportions that some employees

are becoming stressed in trying to keep up with the flow of messages. Up to two

hours a day (often more) can be spent in just reading and answering e-mails. A recent

survey found that ’82 per cent of managers in the UK believe that the volume of information

they have to handle has greatly increased over the past three years. And 54 per cent

claim to suffer information overload’ (Russell, 2001: 38). Some US firms now have an email-

free day each week where employees are not encouraged to look at their e-mail

in-boxes, and courses are now becoming popular in how to deal with e-mail overload.

The real problem is getting information that is important and relevant to the right

person but this can have ‘political’ implications. Managers as the creators and interpreters

of policy have the power to withhold key information. HRM advocates believe

that a ‘high trust’ and open organisational culture can help resolve many of these problems,

but it would be naïve to presuppose that the problem would vanish entirely.

Employee involvement: history and development

The idea of involving the workforce may seem self-evident, as employees must be

involved in order to do their job. It has long been recognised, however, that doing a job

does not necessarily mean being interested in it or doing it well. The school of human

relations promoted by thinkers in the field such as Mayo, Vroom, Likert and Maslow,

among others, has drawn conclusions from their various studies that positive motivational

factors engendered by such methods as employee involvement may develop a

more creative, interested and therefore more productive workforce.

Even though employee involvement is just one aspect of organisational communication

it is, nevertheless, wide ranging and diverse in its forms. Types of EI also evolve and

change with managerial vogues, which are governed by political, economic and social

pressures. For example, the First World War witnessed a considerable growth in worker

militancy together with an increased popularity of left-wing ideologies, many of which

espoused various forms of workers’ control, one example being Guild Socialism (Cole,

1917). The Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 also had a significant impact on

work relationships, as Marxist ideology is based on an analysis of how capitalism

exploits the proletariat in the workplace. These influences had, and still have, a considerable

impact on arguments surrounding work-related issues. One attempt to mollify

these forces in Britain was to acknowledge legally, in the form of Whitley Councils, that

employees and their representatives (trade unions) had some say in negotiations over

pay and working conditions. Despite good intentions from some parties on both sides of

industry, these arrangements largely fell into disuse once recession hit the British economy

after 1921 and the threat of workforce militancy receded.

It was not until the Second World War that a popular revival occurred in EI schemes.

The need for huge productivity increases to meet the war effort led workers to demand

something in return – a greater say in the operation of the workplace. Works committees

or joint consultative committees were set up in many factories. Some continued in existence

after the war, but management and unions lost interest in them in the 1950s, and

many fell into decline when there was a preference for direct collective bargaining via

unions, employer organisations and employers. Nevertheless, there was a considerable

revival in the atmosphere of industrial democracy in the 1960s and 1970s, and shop

stewards were to be found filling delegational positions (Marchington et al., 1992).

Debates concerning the extent to which these committees existed, and the real power

they afforded the workforce, still engage social and economic historians.

In the 1970s the Bullock Committee Report (1977) echoed an increased interest in

industrial democracy. There was a growing consciousness that, while politics and society

were increasingly being ‘democratised’, the world of work did not reflect this trend. In

addition, British membership of the European Community influenced the Bullock

Committee to examine forms of industrial democracy among its European partners,

such as co-determination in Germany and Sweden, and some societies where more radical

forms of employee involvement were being undertaken, such as the worker

self-management practised in Yugoslavia and at Mondragon in Spain. These practices

attracted considerable interest, as did worker-director schemes and the formation of

workers’ cooperatives, which often happened in UK companies under threat of liquidation

(Broekmeyer, 1970; Brannen et al., 1976; Eccles, 1981; Thomas and Logan, 1982).

The political climate that had engendered industrial democracy swiftly changed under

Thatcher’s Conservative government, which tarred such policies with the brush of leftwing

ideology, and in the economic and political climate of the 1980s managerial EI

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schemes associated with HRM became popular

Cycles and waves of participation

It is apparent from even this brief history that numerous influences have a bearing on

the type, strength and sustainability of various participation schemes and trends.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, commentators have attempted to discover patterns of EI and

to place them into a theoretical framework.

For example, the relationship between the introduction of profit-sharing with a high

level of employment and industrial unrest down to the First World War has been indicated

by Church (1971). Ramsay (1977, 1983) has argued that there are cycles of participation:

Marchington et al. (1992) have pointed to ‘waves’ of employee involvement within

organisations, which respond to external trends and cause the institution of new

schemes and the revamping of old existing ones. For example, a quarter of organisations

in their survey sample had introduced their current schemes (survey period 1989-91)

between 1980 and 1984, ‘and several of these were share ownership schemes which

appear to have been stimulated by legislative changes from 1978 onwards’ (p. 25).

Other schemes such as team briefing were introduced in the early 1980s’ recession to

communicate ‘gloom and doom’ messages such as pay freezes and voluntary severance.

Over half of the schemes of their survey group had been introduced within the previous

five years, and tended to be TQM programmes of various types. The ‘wave’ concept,

they point out,

Thus the importance of EI can be understood only if it is viewed as being central to the

organisation, and not necessarily prominent. For example, a joint consultative committee

may achieve a central position in an organisation over time, although the most

prominent new measure may be team briefings. If the JCC becomes less important or

dies out, another scheme may replace it and attain the status of centrality. Whether

schemes are retained, reformed or dropped depends on multifarious influences within

organisations, for example the values and beliefs of managers, which interact with other

influences in complex ways.

Poole has attempted to construct a theoretical framework to explain these influences.

He sees workers’ participation and control as being understood as a specific manifestation

of power. This is linked with ‘underlying or latent power resources and a series of

values that either buttress particular power distributions or facilitate their successful challenge’

(Poole, 1986: 28). The relationship of power sources is illustrated in Figure 14.1Poole (1986) postulates that:

Finally, ‘values about participation and control are shaped by the existing levels of workers’

participation and control, latent power, government action and ideologies’ (p. 29).

While this framework pinpoints the main factors influencing the types and styles of

employee participation and control, it cannot clearly demonstrate how these factors

interact to produce such systems. Nevertheless, it is a useful model to aid understanding

of these complex processes.

– Definitions of employee involvement

There is an enormous range of employee involvement schemes, varying from those that

are informational mechanisms to full-blown democratic systems where employees have

as much say in the decision-making processes as does management. This makes an allencompassing

definition problematic. In addition, different labels have been attached to

these processes, such as employee or worker participation, industrial democracy, organisational

communications, co-determination and employee influence, each of which has

its own definitions.

Wall and Lischerson (1977) state that there are three elements central to the concept

of participation: influence, interaction and information sharing. Marchington et al.

(1992) divide definitions into three categories: those that refer ‘to employees taking part

or having a say or share in decision making, with no attempt to quantify their impact on

the process’; those that ‘refer to participation as concerned with the extent to which

548 Chapter 14 · Employee involvement and empowerment

Source: Poole (1986: 29). Reproduced with permission

Figure 14.1 Poole’s basic explanatory framework of participation

Cultural and

ideological factors

Economic factors

Technological factors

Government action






and control

Workers’ participation and control are reflections of the latent power of particular industrial

classes, parties or groups and the ‘value’ climate which may or may not be

favourable to participation experiments. These values thus mediate between certain

structural factors associated with latent power and their realisation in the form of workers’

participation and control. It will also be seen that the principal structural factors

associated with the latent power of the main industrial classes, parties or groups are economic

factors, such as the levels of employment, the profit margins of particular

companies, the levels of competition, the degree of industrial concentration and periods

of economic ‘disintegration’; technological factors, such as the approximation of the

technology of a company to a given point on the ‘technical scale’, the degree of complexity

and education involved in any given task and the effects of the micro-electronic

revolution; and finally, various forms of government action such as legislation on labour

issues, its intervention in the workings of the economic system and so on. (p. 28) employees may influence managerial actions’; and those that ‘link together participation

and the control over decision making’ (pp. 6, 7).

Marchington et al. (1992) believe that these definitions also need to take into account:

– the degree of involvement (the extent to which employees influence the final decision);

– the level of involvement (whether at job, departmental or organisational level);

– the forms of involvement (direct, indirect and financial);

– the range of the subject matter being considered in the involvement scheme.

For example, quality circles may have a high degree of direct employee involvement and

influence on decisions at workplace level, but be limited in range to matters of teamwork

and job design. Works councils, on the other hand, will involve employee representatives

at organisational level, and may consider a wide range of areas such as business and industrial

relations strategies, in joint decision-making with the management.

One problem with this tabular representation (Table 14.1) is that some EI schemes

may pervade many or all levels of the organisation, for example financial participation.

Others may cascade through many levels, such as team briefings (Ramsay, 1991). Team

briefings could also fall into both the ‘informational’ and ‘communicational’ categories.

Another problem is that the degree of participation with one scheme could differ from

one organisation to another. For example, JCCs could vary in power from merely

rubber-stamping management decisions to forming joint consultational mechanisms covering

a rich variety of organisational topics.

Marchington et al. (1992: 13) divide EI schemes into four categories:

– Downward communications (top down), for example from managers to other

employees. This includes forms of EI such as house journals, company newspapers,

employee reports and regular briefing sessions, often with videos as well.

– Upwards, problem-solving forms, which are designed to tap into employees’ knowledge

and opinion, either at an individual level or through the mechanism of small

Employee involvement and communication 549

Degree Levels of involvement

Local (workplace level) Both local and distant Distant (company or

organisational level)

Control (by workers Worker self-management Worker self-management

or workers and of cooperatives

management together)

Co-determinational Union shop steward JCCs; works councils;

representation worker directors;




Consultational Quality circles; Attitude survey; Video conferencing,

(two-way job enrichment; suggestion customer care; TQM, e-mail, Internet, intranet

communication) scheme; appraisal e-mail Internet, intranet

Communicational Team briefings; department E-mail, Internet, intranet Mass meetings, e-mail,

or group meetings Internet, intranet

Informational (top down) Noticeboards, e-mail, Memos; briefs, e-mail, Company newspaper/

Internet, intranet Internet, intranet magazine; bulletin

Table 14.1 Some types, levels and degrees of employee involvement

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