Monday, November 22, 2010

Research: Crisis of Capitalism

David Harvey has provided an interesting explanation of the nature of the current economic crisis. While perhaps not directly related to labour and employment in Alberta, this explanation of the crisis examines some of the structural causes of the pressure that now directly affects employment and does so in a very engaging manner.

Research: Motivating Employees

Employee motivation is often an area of interest for HR and LR practitioners. While an interesting debate can be had about the political economy of employee motivation, most practitioners are more interested in practical advice.

Most HR texts do a poor job of handling motivation. One of our learning designers passed this video of Dan Pink discussing employee motivation. It summarizes the literature of motivation set out in his book Drive. It is also exceptionally entertaining to watch.

Another good book on motivation is Driven (by Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria) examines motivation from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, November 15, 2010

Research: Effective corporate self-regulation

An upcoming article in Administrative Science Quarterly sheds new light on organizational self-regulation—a strategy often advocated as a replacement for direct government regulation of the workplace.

Making self-regulation more than merely symbolic: The critical role of the legal environment” concludes that organizations were more likely to effectively self-regulate when their industry was subject to heavy regulatory surveillance and when self-regulation was voluntarily adopted. By contrast, poor performers were much less likely to effectively self-regulate, suggesting that self-regulation may not be an appropriate strategy to improve compliance among such companies.

This paper provides further empirical support for the long-standing criticism of self-regulation: internal regulatory structures tend to be improperly influenced by managerial priorities within the organization. Crassly, when the inmates are in charge of the asylum, rehabilitation tends to give way to baser impulses. Where this article provides new insight is into specific circumstances when self-regulation works better and poorer.

The specific results were really quite interesting. Organizations disclosing violations that were not facing regulatory threats and which committed to self-regulation exhibited improved outcomes in the future. By contrast, facilities disclosing violations while facing regulatory threats did not improve their outcomes. This supports the notion that heavy-handed government intervention can undermine organization’s motivation to effectively self-regulate. At the same time, high levels of state surveillance appear to make an important contribution to promote the effective self-regulation, even when not accompanied by punishment.

The researchers also found that organizations with poor histories of compliance tended not to show the same improvements as companies with better compliance histories when asked to self-regulate. In this, we may be seeing organizations using self-regulation as a smoke screen to hide from enforcement behaviour.

This research has direct application to Alberta. Here, the government runs a Partners in Injury Reduction program wherein employers are encouraged to self-regulate and receive various workers’ compensation premium rebates based on obtaining a Certification of Recognition (COR) and their injury claims records.

The April 2010 Auditor General’s report called into the question this program as some employers with CORs “do not comply with OHS orders and their workers are much more likely to get injured on the job, yet these employers continue to receive Partners in Injury Reduction financial rebates and use their COR to bid on contracts with major companies in such industries as construction, and oil and gas” (p.42).

It will be interesting to see how the government grapples with the complexities of self-regulation as it continues to cope with the public attention to Alberta's workplace injury problem.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, November 8, 2010

The political economy of health and safety

Late last week, the government provided some additional information about its renewed emphasis on workplace health and safety. In an interview, Minister Thomas Lukaszuk noted that the government is pursuing companies which have outstanding OHS fines--fines levied for injuring or killing workers.

Lukaszuk is spinning these efforts as a good news story. Yet some questions are in order. The most obvious is why are these fines--which total at least $1.7 million--unpaid in the first place? If you get a $100 traffic ticket, the province will pursue you to the ends of the earth and eventually revoke your right to drive by not renewing your license.

Yet millions owed by companies whose workers were maimed or killed continue to operate with impunity. It is only because of a confluence of events--a bad auditor general report and a Calgary Herald investigation of workplace fatalities--that the government is seeking payment.

This says some important things about the political economy of employment that are often obscured by the day-to-day hustle and bustle. On the one hand, governments must facilitate the capital accumulation process. That is to say, they must act in ways that allow employers to produce goods and services in a profitable manner and thereby encourage private investment. Failing to do so may result in an economic downturn, for which the government may well be held responsible. This may have significant social consequences for society and electoral consequences for the government.

On the other hand, governments must maintain their own legitimacy with the electorate as well as the legitimacy of the capitalist social formation. The operation of capitalist systems often negatively affects workers, who comprise the majority of the electorate. We see this in the form of low pay, poor working conditions, and the specter of workplace injury and death. These effects can cause a loss of confidence in a particular government or in the capitalist social formation.

So long as concerns about workplace injury can be contained--by ignoring them or explaining injuries away (e.g., as the fault of careless workers)--the state can safely ignore occupational health and safety. It is only when there is a legitimation crisis--when the state's credibility is imperiled by its lack of action for the public good--does the government bother to enforce its own laws.

It will be interesting to see whether the government's renewed interest in workplace health and safety continues once the furor of this summer dies down. It will also be interesting to see if the government truly has the stomach to meaningfully address the issue of occupational disease--an issue that quickly bumps up against environmental disease and whose remedy may impose significant costs upon employers.

-- Bob Barnetson