According to the Global Competitiveness Report of 2017-2018, South Africa has the worst labour-employer relations in the world — and this won't change unless the levels of trust between employers and employees in the country improve drastically.
"There are many reasons for high levels of conflict in our labour-employer relationship, but by far the low levels of trust underpin the reality we are facing," said Gawie Cillié, employment relations expert and lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).
He believes if there is little or no trust, cooperation suffers and conflict escalates quickly, resulting in a damaged relationship costing money and employee efficiency.
If trust is high, reliance on the rules becomes less necessary. Employees tend to be more self-motivated.
"The lower the level of trust are, the greater the need to rely on formal rules to keep employees productive and compliant. On the other hand, if trust is high, reliance on the rules becomes less necessary. Employees tend to be more self-motivated, conflicts tend to be resolved quickly, and equitable and formal rules — for example, relating to poor work performance or ill-discipline — only have to be applied as a last resort."
"However, iIf there is little or no trust, cooperation suffers and conflict escalates quickly, resulting in severe damage to the relationship — costing money and employee efficiency."
Cillié pointed out that despite an enabling statutory framework and a strong tradition of collective bargaining and labour mediation dating back to the late 1970s, there is little evidence of workplace relations today living up to the stated purposes of the Labour Relations Act, that is "to promote orderly collective bargaining, employee participation in decision-making in the workplace, and the effective resolution of labour disputes".
Solution — give employees a voice
Cillié said giving employees a "voice" is central to developing greater trust and collaboration.
Employees need the opportunity to influence decisions made, to have clarity on why certain decisions were made by management, and be the judge on how fair they were.
"Voice is a rare thing in organisations. Most organisational communications come from the top down through team briefings, employee surveys, problem-solving groups and workforce meetings. However, this is usually focused on an obsession with outcomes, rather than the inherent value of engagement.
"By keeping employees at arm's length, not allowing for opportunities where [management's] decisions or authority are challenged can create ingrained patterns of behaviour that further lead to a lack in trust."
He said that employees need the opportunity to influence decisions made, to have clarity on why certain decisions were made by management, and be the judge on how fair they were — based on the fact that no employee input was consulted at the time.
"Following a fair process in decision-making builds trust and commitment; trust and commitment produces voluntary cooperation, and voluntary cooperation drives performance, leading people to go beyond the call of duty by sharing their knowledge and applying their creativity.
"The key driver of engagement is a sense of being valued and involved — so whether the concern is with an individual about performance or with a trade union in the context of restructuring, voice means the same in both instances."
Cillié's top tips for companies
- Realise the potential value of conflict;
- Deal with conflicts as soon as they register themselves;
- Learn how to have difficult conversations;
- Keep employees both individually and collectively engaged and informed;
- Develop an organisational conflict-management strategy;
- Promote conflict literacy;
- Measure conflict-management styles;
- Build conflict-management skills;
- Develop team-working approaches;
- Create options for conflict resolution through internal grievance procedures that provide for "loop-back" to collaborative processes for resolution, such as internal mediation;
- Embed a new conflict-management culture.