Quiet decline of conflict at work

 Have we passed the high water mark of conflict at work in the UK? That is the way it appears from the latest figures on tribunal claims. In 2004-2005, there has been a colossal 25% drop on the year before in the number of people taking their employers to tribunal – a far greater fall than anyone expected (see weblink at end).

The figures have been rather erratic for several years, with surprising dips and sudden surges. Yet this is the clearest evidence yet of a decisive downward movement in conflict. We have to go back to the pre-Blair years to find a time when so few employees decided to exercise their legal rights at work.

If you take the statistics on individual rights cases and put them next to the figures on collective disputes that came out in June from the Office for National Statistics (2004 saw the lowest number of labour disputes since records began), it is not far-fetched to wonder if employment relations have ever been as placid as they seem today.

These figures should reinforce our ability to advance some daring hypotheses about the state of our workplaces. But first I have some old scores to settle.

Shame on you – all of you – who moaned about the eternal upward curve of the ‘compensation culture’. These pages have played host to some nasty, narrow-minded commentary about have-a-go tribunal ‘punters’.

After last year’s freak 17% rise in claims, John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, declared that the “compensation culture is spiralling out of control”. At that time, employment litigation in the UK was the sixth lowest of the 25 members of the European Union, according to a league table maintained by the Federation of European Employers.

Then, his view seemed exaggerated. Today, after a year when just 86,181 people took a claim to a tribunal in a workforce of 28 million, I suggest it is completely bankrupt.

And there is another viewpoint that needs revising in the light of the decline in tribunal claims. It has been commonplace in the past few years to observe that if there is more employment law, more people will use it. Since it ascended to power in 1997 the Labour government has steadily expanded the volume of legislation affecting the employment relationship, so that today, there are more than 70 separate legal grounds for workers to complain about their treatment – more than ever before.

But evidently, there is no simple, causal relationship between the volume of law and the volume of claims. The theoretical right to use the courts does not mean people exercise it. Employers should pay attention here. The next time they resist a new employment reform on the grounds that it will add to the tribunal caseload, their opponents will, with good reason, opine ‘not true – see 2004-2005’.

How significant have the changes to workplace dispute handling, introduced last October, been in dissuading people from bringing claims? They certainly seem to have played a part. All the maddening bureaucracy and awkward meetings when people whose relationship has entirely collapsed have to face each other, has probably made a few workers feel the emotional cost of pursuing a claim is too high. The correct translation of ‘case management’ is ‘deterrent’, after all. Intriguingly, though, while there are fewer cases going through, workers appear to be winning more of them. An 18% success rate is their best (and employers’ worst) score for some years.

However, there should be no rush to judgement on the impact of the procedures. The new rules probably merely accelerated other trends. A pronounced, and mysterious, 39% dip in multiple cases on last year (that freaky year again) is equally significant.

But enough dry statistics. It is time to zoom out to the glorious sun-dappled uplands of theory. Many readers will probably be familiar with the ‘individualisation of conflict’ theory. People had fled the old collective, class-conscious battleground, and instead were expressing their dissatisfaction through exercising individual legal rights. If you will forgive the jargon, a ‘deproletarianised’ workforce was trusting in the seemingly classless justice of the courts, hence sharply higher levels of litigation from the mid-1990s, as has been the story across Europe.

Before, I fully bought this theory. It made perfect sense. But in the light of these statistics, I think it looks weaker. The most interesting feature of conflict at work in the UK is no longer its locus, but its overall decline – nay, its relative absence. Whether that means the workforce is more savvy and business-focused, or more submissive and cowed, and whether managers are getting better at their jobs, or avenues of justice are being shut down, are both interesting debates for another day. But it seems to me that we must get used to a new reality: the British workplace as a comparatively pacific and compliant place.

This reality emerges not just from the tribunals themselves, but also from the recent Workplace Employment Relations Survey. In 2004, only 3% of UK employers faced industrial action, while just 8% had a tribunal claim brought against them (both up slightly on 1998). It may not fit with the experience of HR professionals, but – statistically at least – formal conflict at work appears to be very rare indeed.


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