academic

Human Resource Management and Mistreated Workers

Jobs in “human resource management” – the part of organizations that manages employee-related functions such as hiring, training, and pay  – are becoming more professionalized. Professional designations such as Certified Human Resource Professional, which require human resource (HR) practitioners to demonstrate specific HR-related knowledge and skills, are becoming more common among HR staffers. But at the same time, working conditions for many employees are becoming worse.

This doesn’t make sense, because most human resource management (HRM) professional associations have codes of practice that explicitly state HR professionals should promote ethical and fair treatment for workers. For example, the guidelines of the US Society for Human Resource Management’s code of professional responsibility include “strive to achieve the highest levels of service, performance, and social responsibility” and “advocate for the appropriate use and appreciation of human beings as employees”.

Also, the concept of “socially responsible HR” has emerged as part of discussions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – the idea being that organizations have responsibilities to society as well as to their stakeholders, and that HR practices within the organization should align with an overall CSR strategy by encouraging fair treatment of employees. So if organizations have publicly committed to making positive contributions to society, but at the same time are allowing their own employees to be disrespected and mistreated, why aren’t HR practitioners doing something about it?

Two research studies – one from 2013, one just published – have explored that very intriguing question. The two studies (more…)

‘Fed Up’ and Emotional Labour

The genesis of Gemma Hartley’s new book Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward was an essay she wrote for Harper’s Bazaar, titled “Women Aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up”. The essay described her own experience of inequality in how she and her husband did, or didn’t do, housework – and the reaction to the essay showed that it wasn’t just her who was tired of doing everything. The essay went viral, and that led to the book.

Well, I’m fed up too, but not from doing emotional labour. I’m fed up with writers who grab a catchy-sounding term from social science research and misuse it for their own purposes. Hartley certainly isn’t the only author who’s done this, but what she calls “emotional labour” is clearly not what a substantial body of research says is “emotional labour”. That’s not only misleading to readers, but also insulting to the many researchers whose work has produced fascinating insights into this aspect of the workplace.

It’s telling that when Hartley mentions the first in-depth research investigation of emotional labour – Arlie Hochschild’s 1983 book The Managed Heart – she omits the book’s subtitle. The full title of the book is (more…)

The (Mis)Use of Teaching Evaluations

Student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are standard practice in almost every Canadian university and college. These are in-class or online questionnaires that students fill out anonymously to rate and comment on the instructor and the course, with the results passed along to the instructor and, usually, to their supervisor.

But although SETs are standard practice, they’re also controversial. SETs can provide instructors with valuable feedback that they can then use to improve the course or their teaching – the so-called “formative” purpose of such  evaluations. But SETs are also often used by universities and colleges as a measure of the quality of the instructor’s teaching – the so-called “summative” purpose. Using SETs for summative purposes can be a problem because there are lots of factors beyond the instructor’s control – such as the difficulty of the course material, the class schedule, the timing and content of the evaluation itself, and even the instructor’s gender or race – that can unduly influence students’ ratings. That is why we’ve seen pushbacks from faculty members and unions at several Canadian post-secondary institutions on SETs being part of (more…)

The “Skills Gap”

A lot of recent discussion about the labour force in Canada and elsewhere has focused on the “skills gap” – the alleged mismatch between workers’ skills and the abilities that employers need. One reason for the alleged gap is “digital disruption” – the automation or digitization of job tasks – which is changing how some jobs are done and thus changing the skills needed to successfully perform those jobs. These changes are so rapid that workers’ skills may quickly become outdated. Along similar lines, the Royal Bank of Canada recently released a report calling for post-secondary institutions to improve their graduates’ “human skills”, so as to better equip them for the parts of their future jobs that will involve working with people rather than with computers.

The narrative around the “skills gap” has mostly been controlled by employers and by the business community, and the business media have, generally, uncritically bought into the narrative. But the narrative is misleading in how it portrays the problem. It ignores (more…)

I Think This Is An Important Topic

And, um, I’d like to suggest that we should pay more attention to it?

A recent discussion on Twitter raised some provocative points about communication norms in workplaces, especially those norms associated with gender. The research of linguists and sociologists such as Deborah Tannen has shown that men and women communicate differently, especially in the context of work. Men tend to present their views and opinions directly, while women tend to frame their statements with qualifiers such as “I think” or “in my opinion”.

In any workplace, the dominant group’s norms – both linguistic and behavioural – usually become (more…)

Post-Secondary Institutions and Precarious Work

In February, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a study of precarious employment in Ontario colleges and universities. Last week, some of the challenges identified in this study became very real when contract workers at York University in Toronto went on strike. The bargaining issues that the union and the university haven’t agreed on include job security for contract workers and guaranteed funding for teaching assistants.

The CCPA report is extremely valuable – not only because its analysis has suddenly become even more relevant, but also because (more…)

Engineering Change

In January I made an unexpected trip to Edmonton, where I lived in the early ‘90s while I attended the University of Alberta.  Some things have changed, some are the same – like -30C weather that time of year – and some have adapted, like the student newspaper the Gateway. When I was a U of A student the Gateway was a once-weekly newspaper, but it now posts most of its stories online, and the print version is a monthly magazine.

An article in the January issue of the Gateway  caught my attention because it reminded me of a terrible event (more…)

It’s Everywhere…Again

The last couple of weeks have been full of news about workplace abusers and harassers being called out. It seems that every time I look at Twitter there’s a link to yet another story about an accusation of inappropriate behaviour. It’s good that this behaviour is being brought into the open. But two decades ago there was also a huge uproar about harassment when Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of harassing the staff in his office.

So it puzzles me why we apparently need to have this same conversation all over again – especially when most organizations now have statements or policies about zero tolerance for workplace harassment or abuse.

These discussions of high-profile incidents of obvious harassment also have another effect. They distract attention from other forms of harassment. Harassment isn’t just the big incidents; it’s also the little things that happen over and over again.

Earlier this year, a study pointed out some very good examples of smaller, ongoing harassment. Alice Wu, the author of the study, was (more…)

Same Question, Different Answers: How It Happens

How can two studies researching the same question come up with two different answers? That was the dilemma that several media outlets recently had to confront, with the release of the results of two studies looking at the impact of the city of Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance, which raised the minimum wage rate for workers in that city. Even though the studies were looking at the same issue, they came up with results that contradicted each other.

The results of the first study indicated that the wage increase didn’t reduce overall job numbers or hours of work. Media: “Yay! Minimum wage increases are a good thing.” But then the results of the second study indicated that the wage increase caused declines in both numbers of jobs and amounts of work. Media: “Um…okay, maybe minimum wage increases aren’t that great.”

The fact that these studies had different results doesn’t mean that one study is right and the other is wrong, or that both studies are wrong and nobody really knows what happened. The studies are admittedly not easy reading – both use complex forms of economic analysis that, frankly, I wouldn’t try to explain because I would probably get them wrong. But we can still look at how the studies were designed and carried out to see if there are reasons why their results might differ.

Here’s a table that (more…)

The Golden Passport

It costs $144,000 US to get a Master of Business Administration degree at the Harvard Business School (HBS). Anyone paying that amount of money isn’t just buying an education – they’re also buying into a reputation, and gaining entry into a self-perpetuating elite circle of control. That’s why business journalist Duff McDonald’s new book, The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, The Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite, is a much-needed critique. It takes an uncompromising look at how HBS operates, and how (more…)