ATLANTA–Georgia State University labor economist Bruce Kaufman is leading a team of researchers from Australia and Canada in a $500,000, three-year project to gauge the state of employer-employee work relationships in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Their research, funded by the Industrial Relations Counselors, Inc. (IRC) and the Australian Research Council, will produce a comprehensive picture of the quality or “health” of employment relations from the 1980s to today. Researchers expect their analysis to show whether reported differences in the climate of employer-employee relations across companies affect their financial and operational performance.
“In many people’s eyes, the employment relationship is one of the central institutions of capitalism,” said Kaufman, a professor in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. “It is important to know how this relationship is being impacted in today’s climate of growing job insecurity, stagnating wages, work intensification and growing inequality.
“We are conducting these employment relations ‘check-up exams’ in three different countries so we can better gauge how the U.S. system is working and not working.”
Kaufman got the idea for this research after he was given access to confidential consulting reports produced by the IRC in the 1920s. Described as “industrial relations audits,” each report provides previously unavailable company data on a variety of human resources practices. It then evaluates the relative health of the company’s employer-employee relations, diagnoses major problem areas and recommends management solutions.
“The reports have been kept under lock and key for more than eight decades in the IRC office at Rockefeller Center,” said Kaufmann. “Seeing them, which I vividly recall, was like first laying eyes on the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Kaufman resurrected the IR audit idea from the 1920s and updated it to provide what is in effect a “general physical exam” of today’s employment relationship.
“Amazingly,” he said, “no one to my knowledge has done this as a research project, so we are pioneering – but with roots back to the very birth of the human resources management and industrial relations fields.”
Research will first establish the big picture with a diagnostic portrait of the state of employment relations using data collected from nationally representative surveys of employees and managers in each country. Part of the purpose is to see whether managers and employees are on the same page about their relationship and whether they cite similar or different workplace problems and issues. Researchers will then probe deeper through interviews with top managers at about 40 companies in the U.S. and 20 in the other countries
“We will look at some legacy Fortune 500 companies, like IBM, AT&T and Delta, and see how they have changed their employment systems since 1980,” Kaufman said. “Then we will look at some high-tech start-ups that didn’t exist in 1980, like Microsoft, Google and Apple, and see what kind of employment relations systems they have and how these have evolved and differ from the legacy companies. Then we will do interviews in other sectors, such as financial services (Bank of America, Goldman, etc.) and retail (Target, Kroger, Amazon, etc.). We will also do some focus groups to get the small-business perspective.
“The end product should be the most in-depth picture of the changing state of the employment relationship and practice of human resources management in all three countries.”
Kaufman leads the research team of Michael Berry, chair of the Department of Employment Relations and Human Resources, and Adrian Wilkinson, director of the Centre for Work, Organization and Wellbeing, both from Griffith University, Australia. They are joined by Rafael Gomez from the University of Toronto. Kaufmann is a research fellow at Griffith University.