Which workplace and organisations were more prone to unreasonable treatment?

We have already noted on p. 45 that measures of organisational change can be considered a workplace characteristic as well as an occupational one. Change in the workplace creates plenty of opportunities for unreasonable treatment; indeed, organisational change may itself be unreasonable for some employees. It is therefore not a surprise that all three of the measures of change in our survey were predictors of unreasonable treatment. The strongest effect overall was where employees said they now had less control at work. This was also a very general effect, significant across seven of the eight types of unreasonable treatment. It is perhaps not surprising that losing control over what one does at work should be correlated with someone continually checking up on one or one's work when it is not necessary. On the other hand, having less control was just as strongly correlated with being treated unfairly. We need to remember that this finding is very definitely about employees having less control than they used to have, because whether an employee had a lot of, or very little, autonomy in deciding the amount, pace and choice of work, or the quality of what they did, made no difference to his or her chances of suffering unreasonable treatment.

Employees who said that the nature of their work had changed, and/or the pace of their work had increased, were also more likely to say they had been unreasonably treated, but the correlation was not as strong and covered fewer (three) of the eight types of unreasonable treatment. One other question provided further evidence that change was a less important factor in unreasonable treatment than the feeling that work was out of control. Those employees who thought the pace of their work was too intense were a lot more likely to say they had been unfairly treated than those who reported that the pace of work had increased or the nature of their work had changed. Again it is no surprise that saying the pace of your work is too much for you is correlated with an unmanageable workload but, once more, the correlation with unfair treatment was also strong.

It is also worth pointing out that these correlations held irrespective of whether people felt they had less control over the pace of their work, whether they or their manager decided how much work they did or how fast they did it, and whether or not they had control over quality. This raises the interesting question of how much of the connection between high-intensity work and unreasonable treatment involves employees who are driving themselves to work harder, perhaps because they are complying with normal expectations of their jobs. We have already heard of the shop-floor workers at Strand who were expected to do 'something a bit special' for their employer every so often. It is worth adding that some of these workers did not bother to claim back the time in lieu earned in the process. The trade union convenor for shop-floor workers told us that '[s]ome people do not want to take holidays even. We have to force them to take holidays'. In fact the company had once used this fact, before the law changed, to argue against the union in a negotiation over holiday entitlement, and 'when we used to get paid up front, there were people who booked their holidays and then come into work, have the money and then work the week as well. Oh aye. You wouldn't believe it'.

In the introduction to this chapter, we suggested that the key predictor of the troubled workplace seemed to be that individuals did not matter there. In the survey, we measured with the following three questions the degree to which this applied to the places our interviewees worked:

Where I work, the needs of the organisation always come before the needs of people.

Where I work, you have to compromise your principles.

Where I work, people are treated as individuals.

Large minorities of the British workforce agreed with one or more of these statements: 39 per cent said the needs of the organisation always came first, 30 per cent maintained they had to compromise their principles and one in five stated that people were not treated as individuals where they worked. Even though so many people agreed with them, we have found these three questions to be most important to the diagnosis of workplace problems that we have given them the collective acronym of FARE questions, standing for FAirness and REspect (also see Walker and Fincham 2011: 61–2).

Figure 7 shows that there was some variation in these results between industries, with employees in utilities and public administration and defence tending to be more critical across the board. We had initially imagined that the more critical responses would be in the private sector, so the results for public administration were surprising. Overall, the private sector did come out worst in the FARE questions but, while people were less likely to say the needs of the organisation came first if they worked in health and social work or (especially) education, employees in health and social work were more likely than those in most other industries to feel they had to compromise their principles. Health and social work employees were the only ones who were more likely to say they compromised their principles than they were to say the needs of the organisation always came first (something worth bearing in mind in Chapter 7). Employees in education were, however, amongst the least likely to think they had to compromise their principles or were not treated as individuals.

We would argue that the FARE questions may be a better guide to the existence of troubled workplaces than conventional questions about job satisfaction, bullying or stress. For example, once we controlled for things like the difference in FARE scores between industries, all three questions were significant for all eight types of unreasonable treatment, and employees who thought people were not treated as individuals were twice as likely to report one or more types. This was the strongest predictor of unreasonable treatment across the board in our model, stronger even than having less control over one's work or having a disability. The second FARE question about compromising one's principles was just as strong as having less control and stronger than having a disability.

Which workplace and organisations were more prone to unreasonable treatment?

Figure 7 Fairness and respect (the FARE questions) in different industries

Of course, there will be some unreasonable treatment where the FARE questions do not indicate whether an interviewee works in a troubled workplace. We would argue that it is these, rather less frequent, situations in which the more individual, psychological or clinical models of bullying and/or stress might apply (Walker and Fincham 2011). More sociological researchers should be trying to understand the characteristics and underlying causes of troubled workplaces. This is not to say, however, that they should neglect those factors such as disability, managerial duties and reduced control over work, which were correlated with unreasonable treatment even when we controlled – as we did in all our multivariate analyses – for the answers to the FARE questions.

As we shall see in Chapter 3, the FARE questions were strongly correlated with measures of incivility and disrespect. We also suspect the FARE questions predict when employees are dissatisfied with the service their employer gives to clients and customers, or feel the organisation they work for does not contribute to the public good (perhaps they feel it is involved in corruption or environmental degradation). These are all potential indicators of the troubled workplace, just as unreasonable treatment is, but none of them explain what the source of trouble is. The case studies discussed in Part Two are designed to help us with this, however.

The other workplace characteristic which predicted unreasonable treatment in our multivariate analysis was the region in which the employee lived. Those who were resident in any region except London, but particularly Yorkshire and Humberside, and Wales, were more likely to report unreasonable treatment. The differences between regions were startling and quite unexpected. Employees in every other region than London were more likely to say their opinions and views were ignored, and they were subjected to unnecessary checking, denied entitlements, given unmanageable workloads and their employers did not follow proper procedures. Employees in Yorkshire were five times as likely as those in London to say they had an unmanageable workload and four times as likely to say their opinions were ignored.

As with the results for ethnicity, it is possible to come up with some suggestions as to why the results for region might have something to do with troubled workplaces. We know that very little unreasonable treatment originated with clients and customers. We might guess, therefore, that someone who was in a job where the behaviour of clients of customers was a major factor in determining the quality of their working lives would be less likely to report unreasonable treatment. It might matter more to them than what their managers did. Indeed, their managers might also be focused on customers and clients and used to judging whether organisational goals had been met through monitoring customer feedback. This is not always the case, even in a 'customer-facing' role in an organisation like Banco which prided itself on the standards of service it achieved. Here, a male employee who worked in one of their customer service centres a long way away from London explained how taking too long over the delivery of a service to customers caused him difficulties in meeting managers' expectations:

So once you have taken a call this clock appears on your screen, starts ticking. As soon as you are three or four minutes in [to the call], you are not available to take another call, [the clock] alerts and then it goes red. The manager's screen will be able to see that, and then you are challenged why you are not taking a call. If that is a certain percentage that is enough to ruin your performance, and it will be looked at. So you would fall down the ladder and after three periods of not achieving those targets you would be then taken into some disciplinary action, whether it be informal or a formal decision to potentially relieve you of your duties.

So what we need to do or what our role is, putting the customer first, making sure the customer experience is fantastic, we are putting them at the heart of our business decisions, we are showing empathy, you know that type of thing. How to fit that into our everyday role when we have our targets to meet, and we can't be not taking a call for a certain percentage of our day without it being detrimental to our overall performance. The two things don't meet and that is what seems to be the general sort of feel amongst all employees.

If we assume that people who worked in London were more likely to work in jobs where clients and customers were a more important factor in the quality of their working lives, the fact that Londoners were less likely to report unreasonable treatment might well have nothing to do with managers in London being more reasonable. It could simply reflect the fact that clients and customers were more important factors in the kinds of jobs done by Londoners.

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