Partnership paradoxes : a case study of an energy company

This paper presents the findings of a case study undertaken in a British utility company, referred to as Energy Co. The main aim of the study was to assess how the agreement of a partnership arrangement in 1995 had affected the conduct of employment relations. The study found that partnership was borne out of a poor industrial relations climate, and driven primarily by management. They hoped that it might improve industrial relations, raise employee commitment, inform and educate the workforce, and increase employee contribution. Partnership was not intended to encourage joint governance or power sharing. In practice, partnership combined direct EI such as team briefing and problem solving groups, with representative participation through a formal partnership council system. Management suggested that, on balance, partnership had been successful, with benefits including improved industrial relations, quicker pay negotiations and increased legitimacy of decision-making. It was also suggested that there was a positive link –albeit indirect and intangible –with organisational performance. Union representatives also proposed that partnership was a success, citing benefits including greater access to information, greater influence, inter-union co-operation, and more local decision-making. Employee views were more mixed. There was also clear evidence of several tensions. Four were particularly noteworthy: employee apathy, management-representative relations, employee-representative relations and the role of FTOs. Despite espoused partnership, management hostility to unions was evident, and a preference for non-union employment relations clear. Consequently, the future of the partnership in its current form is uncertain.