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Unitarist and Pluralist Perspectives in Management


Employee relations and management is an essential aspect of organisations. This cuts across organisations that prevailed in ancient days and the organisations in the modern days (United States, 2011). Different models and perspectives have been adopted by various organisations to manage employees. The employee relations in organisations emerged amidst industrial relations which began in the 1920s in Europe. During this time, ‘industry’ was the term used to mean ‘the manufacturing firm’ (Ferner and Hyman, 1998). However, in modern days, the meaning of the word has expanded to include the manufacturing firms and other sectors of the economy that do not deal with manufacturing. The definition of industrial and employee relations covers all forms and kinds of employment (Barry, 2011).

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Scholars in the field of industrial and work relations have come up with three management perspectives that differ significantly. These perspectives are different in their explanation, understanding and analysis of relations at places of work. These theories include the unitarist theory or framework; the pluralist perspective; and the radical perspective. Each of these perspectives has specific workplace relations perceptions. Utilising the specificity in perceptions, the theories describe and interpret a number of events which include conflict at the workplace, the function of unions, and the regulations of work (Kaufman, 2008).

In the pluralist perspective, firms are perceived to have been made up of powerful sub-groups that are divergent in roles and goals. In the unitarism framework, the firm is perceived as being an integrated and harmonious whole. The firm works closely whereby the management and employees share common objectives or purpose. The radical perspective is sometimes referred to as the Marxist view. This perspective explores the behaviour of the capitalistic society, which has a division of interests that exists between capital and labour (Bendix, 2000).

This paper analyses the relationship between unitarist perspective and the pluralist perspective as applied in management. It compares these two perspectives in a broader sense, and from the analysis, the most useful view of employee management shall be singled out.

Overview of the Pluralist Perspective

The philosophy underlying this framework is that enterprises or organisations have people with unique interests, objectives and aspirations. Power in this perspective is distributed among major bargaining groups in the organisation so that no party takes advantage or manipulates the other. Pluralism suggests that employment relationships in organisations are open-ended and in a way, indeterminate, which creates structural antagonism. This has the potential of creating conflict in the labour market as well as in the workplace (Farnham and Institute of Personnel and Development, 2000).

The theory cites the state’s role as being that of guarding public interests; protection of the weak; and restraining power for the strong. According to this perspective, unions are viewed as legitimate representatives that represent the interests of employees. This perspective sees conflict as something unavoidable and a legitimate impact of the varying interests at the workplace (Lewin, Mitchell, Sherer and Industrial Relations Research Association, 1992).

The pluralistic theory is built on the assumption that the workplace is composed of unique aspects, including different values, attitudes, and beliefs. The theory also holds that organisations have divergent sources of leadership which are opposing in nature. Organisations also have different kinds of attachments. According to pluralism, conflicts must exist in organisations because competing interests are present. Conflicts that come up in organisations can be beneficial to the organisation. This is especially when these conflicts are identified and put under control by using institutional responses. The management acts as a mediator between the perceived competitors. Trade unions have legal backing in the representation of workers as they aid employees in emphasising their power in decision making (Colling and Terry, 2010).

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Strengths of Pluralism

The pluralist form of management emphasises the fact that conflict in organisations can be resolved by way of using effective industrial relations. The management uses consultative approaches in reacting and providing solutions to conflicts. This perspective also considers alternative processes that can be used in decision making (Edwards, 2007).

Under this perspective of management, conflict is not overlooked or ignored, but it is managed effectively through the participation of stakeholders of the firm. Therefore, conflict can be used in the understanding of the deep-seated tensions to identify and adequately address them. It is worth noting that this framework utilises conflict management strategies in engaging conflicting groups in the organisation to find solutions which are then implemented (Hills, 1995).

This perspective embraces a wide range of policies related to employee relations. Under this management strategy, companies can adopt non-union policies, especially when there are employee organisations in existence. Other firms can choose to allow trade unions. The level of employee relations in pluralism makes it appropriate for diverse organisations and national cultures. This perspective is also best suited for collective industrial relation systems. This is because it values labour unions and their roles in managing conflicts between employers and employees (Balnave, 2007).

Weakness of Pluralism

A significant shortcoming of this perspective is that it puts a lot of emphasis on guidelines and procedures. In this case, the view disregards the processes which contribute to the resolution of conflicts. For instance, workplace conflict resolution rules or laws can be established through industrial relations (Grady, 1993).

Overview of the Unitarist Perspective

This perspective views the place of work as being integrated and a harmonious entity which exists to serve a common purpose. According to this perspective, the management’s role involves the provision of strong leadership and fostering of good communication. Workers have to be loyal to the firm that they work for and the firm’s management. The perspective sees unions as being competitors who compete for the loyalty of employees as well as their commitment. Therefore, unions are disliked. The philosophy suggests that conflict is not an inherent factor in the place of work. According to this perspective, conflict is an indicator of faulty communication in the organisation (Collins, 1998).

Towards the end of the 20th century, a shift in the management of worker relations has been experienced. The current focus emphasises the strategic and integrated frameworks based on the commitment of workers and the shared interests at the place of work (Collins, 1998). In the unitarist framework of management, authority in an organisation only emanates from a single source. Management is the source of power. There are no opposing leaders in the organisation. Leaders act to promote the commitment and fidelity of employees to the organisations. Also, firms are seen as composing teams which work together to reach mutual goals. Therefore, conflict appertaining to interests does not exist between employees and management (Hyman and Mason, 1995).

The unitarist framework holds that workers and managers can pull together to achieve common objectives, values and interests. The management has to show strong leadership to meet the goals set by the organisation. The other point that forms the basis of unitarism is that the activities of trade unions are not legitimate. Therefore, trade unions are not seen as essential elements in managing employees and conflicts in the organisation. In this case, conflicts are negatively portrayed as they are regarded to be dysfunctional and a sign that there is a lack of loyalty which is harmful to organisational success. Last but not least, unitarism holds that the state is an autonomous entity and plays a significant role in shaping industrial relations (Giri, 2008).

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Strength of the Unitarist Perspective

This perspective tries to integrate the interests of managers and employees to enhance the commitment of employees as well as their loyalty. This can be critical in managing stakeholders in which case employees are regarded as essential aspects of the organisation. Therefore, it is crucial to handle the concerns of workers with a lot of care to ensure the organisation’s success. This perspective emphasises the management role, which entails attaining a win-win situation for both workers and the firm in general. Therefore, managers are made to go out of their way and show their management and leadership prowess. If the managers become convincing and influential, the need for trade unions can quickly be done away with (Giri, 2008).

There is an assumption by this perspective that all stakeholders in the organisation are rational and thus confides in finding common interests. Such a belief gives a steady argument for focusing on the commonality of goals to achieve a stable employee relations system. Unitarism is essentially individualistic in the way it approaches employee relations. This can work well for individualistic systems of industrial relations (Martin and Fellenz, 2010).

Weakness of Unitarism

Unitarism fails to realise the existence of power inequalities between managers and workers. This generates different kinds of constraints. Managers have great power, and they exert influence on employees in determining the environment under which the employees work. This mostly works for blue-collar jobs. Under this perspective, workers are denied ownership of power. In this case, workers are forced to accept management decisions. Also, the unitarist perspective regards conflict negatively. Thus, conflicts are not seen as aspects which can be used to bring about a harmonious environment in the workplace. Some conflicts are said to be of value to firms and, therefore, are necessary for organisations (Wilton and Wilton, 2011).

The unitary perspective is normative in nature. It does not have descriptions of how individual employee interests and sentiments can be fully integrated into the objectives of the firm. Unitarism also lacks a descriptive framework of how the firm’s common interests can be identified and how they can be shared in different organisations. The perspective fails to give human resource guidelines that would make it more effective. The theory depends on the assumption that organisation members have logic and potential of making rational decisions concerning the combination of their interests and the interests of the organisation (Wilton and Wilton, 2011).

Unitarism and Pluralism as a Form of Soft Human Resource Management

The application of unitarism has been adopted in human resource management. However, it has had constraining factors that undermine it. A central assumption in the application and practice of ‘soft’ human resource management is that the firm is unitarist. Unitarism lies at the centre of the philosophy of human resource management. This theory regards the place of work as being integrative and harmonious. The pluralist theory is accommodative in nature.

This is because it allows for differing interests of workers and managers. This leads to conflicting interests that human resource management will be required to negotiate and mediate and resolve to meet the goals of firms. On the other hand, the unitarist theories base on the assumption that all stakeholders in organisations, especially workers and managers, have unified interests in meeting the firms’ goals and objectives. This is argued to be just a ‘fiction’ that has intentions of drawing away from the theoretical constraints associated with pluralists as it applies to managerial prerogative (Radcliffe, 2005).

Unitarism has been applied in various models of human resource management in several states that are found in the South East Asia region. It is also claimed that unitarism has been used in management in western countries. This has not been fully proved. Though it is argued that most of human resource management theory has a foundation in unitarism, most of the big and mainstream firms have put minimal emphasis on changing the management style that they use-the pluralistic manner. In a study conducted in organisations within the United Kingdom in the year 1992, it was discovered that both pluralism and unitarist perspectives of industrial relations exist in organisations.

However, it was noted that the perspective that dominates the Japanese and several other Asian firms, is the unitarist perspective. Western firms, particularly the Australian firms, have tiny elements of pluralism. This itself has a significant effect on managers and employees who carry out their work under human resource management practices in their pluralistic organisations. There exists a wide gap in proving that unitarism exists in Western organisations. Nonetheless, the validity of human resource management does exist, putting in mind that human resource management theories are formed basing on unitarism as the core assumption (Radcliffe, 2005).

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It can be argued that some firms are putting in place measures to ensure that their employees do not adopt pluralist tendencies. This has been backed by findings of research that was conducted in the year 2003. The results were that a number of entrepreneurs and employers have begun to make attempts to de-unionise their firms. This has been done through different means. One of the means adopted is through strategies that are used in the recruitment exercise where managers look for recruits with unitarist tendencies and leave out those who seem to have union tendencies. The primary malady in this approach is that appropriate employees may be left out, which can, in turn, negatively impact on the productivity and the general performance of organisations (Radcliffe, 2005).

A case study of Human Resource Management in Germany

In a research that was conducted in organisations in Germany, it was found out that some United States firms utilise a unitarist Human Resource Management Strategy. These firms included the United States Pharmaceutical, United States Chemical and the United States Merchant Bank. These firms do not entirely comply with the institutions that govern labour markets in the country. They do follow a non-union labour policy. These organisations have a relatively high priority in human resource management. This example has demonstrated that a unitarist type of human resource management that is prevalent in the United States can be adopted in Germany. However, very few companies operating in Germany apply the unitarist perspective of management (Michael, 1999).

Although there is no significant backing, it can be speculated that Germany has many organisations which follow the unitarist approach of management. However, there is no single company which operates in Germany that has fully modelled itself as a valid user of unitarism in its human resource management. This includes the three United States companies that have been mentioned above.

Even the Hewlett Packard Company, which is broadly acknowledged for pursuing human resource management in an excellent manner, has never been described in the sense of being a model for unitarist management. It is worth to note that the Hewlett Packard Company has not been known to embrace collective bargaining. This is different from firms in the United Kingdom and the United States. Numerous well-known firms have been brought out as having applied the unitarist perspective in human resource management. It has been argued that the reason as to why this is not the case in Germany is that it is costly to apply this perspective within the context of Germany.

However, it is also important to note that some companies in the United States Companies, such as the United States Branch Bank, the United States Consumer Oil, and the United States Chemical, follow a pluralist strategy of human resource management. This is a bit strange as the parent companies back in the United States are known to use the unitarist form of human resource management (MichaeL, 1999).

A majority of small organisations which operate in Germany prefer to use the market-type personnel management instead of the pluralist approach of human resource management. From the research, it was deduced that the administration of Germany gives preference to the pluralist form of human resource management. Medium and large companies that carry out their operations in Germany are forced to apply collective bargaining in their market operation. Although firms in Germany can choose to use practices aligned with human resource management, they are limited when adopting unitarist human resource management values. The Germany system does not give room for using the unitarist framework of human resource management (Michael, 1999).

Several scholars in the field of human resource management have criticised the use of unitarism as a model of management. These scholars have suggested that the pluralist framework of management is better and should be used instead of the unitarist framework. This argument is based on how it has been applied in Germany, where the pluralism framework of management is dominant, particularly in several large companies.

This is an illustration which points to the fact that pluralism is a right approach to management. Despite the high levels of unemployment, firms in Germany have remained relatively competitive. Nonetheless, it should not be assumed that a pluralist form of management can only be applied by organisations when pressured to do so. It is argued that pluralist form of management may become common and most preferred in European firms that follow a market strategy based on high quality to substitute the unitarist form of management common in the United States (Michael, 1999).

General Analysis and Discussion

Pluralism model of management combines economic factors of management together with psychological concepts in labour. Also, it links labour to human rights as applied in a democratic society. Furthermore, it combines all the attributes mentioned above with the complicated vision of relations in employment characterised by conflict (Mabey, Salaman and Storey, 1998).

The pluralist perspective has a strong link with the modern world. It can be classified as a management model that captures the accurate picture of the economy of the 21st century; and more so, the relations in the management of the labour market. The shift from personnel management to human resource management has a conceptual backing in the pluralist model of labour management. The personnel model majorly focused on the management of people as tools that were aimed at propelling the organisation towards the achievement of the stipulated goals of organisations which are geared towards profit-making. The leaders of organisations rarely considered the needs of employees as people were managed unitarily (Mabey, Salaman and Storey, 1998).

Modern human resource management has come to realise that employees are the most critical assets of the organisation. Therefore, the way they are managed determines how the organisation performs. In this case, human resource management, which has been adopted by many organisations these days, addresses the needs of employees in a significant way. Human resource management follows the models of human needs, such as the Maslow hierarchy of needs model, and applies it in the management of employee and their relations in organisations (Wilton and Wilton, 2011).

Pluralism is an inclusive form of management. It is also participatory in nature and acknowledges the prevalence of conflict in firms. The modern human resource management focuses on ensuring that employee and employer conflicts are settled properly. Conflict is an unavoidable aspect of the current economy, characterised by competition coupled with a lot of dynamics. These dynamics put a lot of pressure on labourers as well as the management of firms.

Conflict must be accepted as being part of what defines organisations in this modern economy. Pluralism recognises the existence of conflicts in organisations. This is contrary to the unitarist model of management, which does not identify the presence of a conflict in firms. Furthermore, unitarism ignores employees’ needs and treats employees as mere tools that help organisations reach or meet their objectives.

Unitarism further is not a participative style of management and ignores the idea of employees which could be used to alter the course of events in organisations positively. The unitarist is likened to utopic or authoritarian regimes. Therefore, many organisations are shifting from this kind of management and lean towards adopting the pluralistic form of managing employee relations in organisations (Wilkinson, 2008).

Pluralism captures the emerging dynamics in management. Since pluralism realises that conflicts are one of the essential tenets of organisations, it puts in place conflict resolution mechanisms that can be used in the management of conflicts. It acknowledges the use of collective bargaining in the negotiation process to resolve conflicts. When conflicts are effectively managed, the organisation gets a chance to have a new look and create more room for development.

It recognises the existence of groups in organisations as well as the existence of divergent interests. Groups are becoming essential in organisations when it comes to product development and improvement of quality or productivity of firms. The diverse ideas in this innovative world are codified through collective agreements. This leads to new innovations in firms. Modern organisations continue to adopt and use modern forms of management and administration. This means that pluralist approaches of management which form a big part of contemporary human resource management are being embraced in management today (Wilton and Wilton, 2011).


Employee relations emerged from industrial relations in Europe in the early 1900s. Employee relations refer to the patterns of relations in organisations between employers and their employees. There are different perspectives on managing relations in firms. These include the unitarism, pluralism and radicalism. Various organisations and their respective management choose a specific view in the management of employee relations.

However, in modern times characterised by management dynamics, organisations may choose to use more than one style of management though in an integrative way. Due to the dynamism of the modern economy, pluralism perspective is the best management approach as it captures the most needs of employees and managers. This is because it allows for a participatory aspect of management.

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