Decent work: what matters most and who can make a difference?

Publication Date08 Apr 2020
AuthorStephen Gibb,Mohammed Ishaq
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour,Industrial/labour relations,Employment law
Decent work: what matters most
and who can make a difference?
Stephen Gibb
MOP, University of the West of Scotland School of Business and Enterprise,
Paisley, UK, and
Mohammed Ishaq
Business School, University of the West of Scotland, Paisley, UK
Purpose What matters most for improving work quality and who can make a difference are perennial topics
in employee relations research. The literature on work quality provides answers to these with regard to various
constructs on a continuum from softto hardvariables and stakeholders seeking to influence employers
who fall short of reasonable expectations with regard to these. A construct of decent workwith both soft and
hard variables was adopted for research and methods which were collaborative and participative with
stakeholders in one national context.
Design/methodology/approach The decent workconstruct was operationalised from the literature and
refined by collaborative and participative research. Exploring the relative importance of the constituent parts
of decent work involved research with a range of stakeholders; employees, employers and advocates. The study
involved most prominently low-paid workers, with employers and advocates alsoengaged through interviews.
Findings Primarily hard decent workvariables were identified among employees, primarily soft variables
among employers and a mix of hard and soft among advocates. There are some common priorities across these
Research limitations/implications The main implication is that to engage a range of stakeholders
requires a combination of soft and hard variables to be included in research and policy development. However,
generalisation about what matters most and who makes a difference to work quality is intrinsically limitedin
context and time. In this research, the extent of employer engagement in the collaboration initiated by
advocates and concerned most with the experiences of low-paid workers is a limitation.
Practical implications What matters most are a set of soft and hard priorities to engage across
stakeholders. Pay is an abiding priority among these and the priority most prominent for many advocates
seeking to make a difference through influencing low-paying employers to provide a living wage. While the
living wage is a significant focus for work quality, it is not in itself sufficient, as other soft and hard variables in
the workplace matter as well. Those who can make a difference are the employers falling short of benchmark
standards. Influence on these may emerge through decent work knowledge and skills in management and
professional development programmes as well as in initiatives advocating wider adoption of the living wage.
Social implicationsProblem areas of work quality, and problem employers, can be influenced by strategies
shaping hardfactors, including legislation. This needs to be complemented and integrated with strategies on
softfactors, including identifying positive role models on themes of well-being, worklife balance and
precarious forms of employment, as well as pay.
Originality/value The identification of what matters and who can make a difference is based on an original,
collaborative, research project, in one national context, offering analytical generalisability about decent work
and an experience of collaborative research.
Keywords Employees, Job satisfaction, General management
Paper type Research paper
Introduction: researching work quality
Studies typically indicate that while work quality is perceived by many to be good, there are
clearly significant minorities for whom this is not so, with a consequent need for further
research to identify what matters most and who can make a difference in improving work
quality (CIPD, 2018;Tagian, 2007). The current interest in work quality on what matters
most, and who can make a difference, is formed in part by the persistence of perceived
shortfalls in some sectors and in part by the changing workplace context. Ifthe old workplace
Decent work
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 6 April 2018
Revised 2 August 2018
8 November 2018
11 December 2018
Accepted 11 December 2018
Employee Relations: The
International Journal
Vol. 42 No. 4, 2020
pp. 845-861
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/ER-04-2018-0099
context was one with employment in large manufacturing and service organisations, with a
strong trade union presence and an espousal of participatory management, the current and
emerging context is one with employment in organisations adopting or experimenting with
new business models, particularly those enabled by digital technology (Boudreau et al., 2015),
with no trade union presence and flatter, or even virtual, management structures. This
current context as a focus is clearly seen in the recent UK review and consultation on good
work (Taylor, 2017), which aimed to engage stakeholders and source views on potential new
legislation for this changed context.
A specific example of the current context, widely reported and discussed publicly, is the
company Amazon. Amazon had come to be perceived as an icon of poor work quality and
employment (Boewe and Schulten, 2017;Osborne, 2018), from their pay rates to their working
conditions and employment terms. Until, that is, in 2018, Amazon appeared to change in a
dramatic turnaround, to become a leading proponent of ending low pay and become a role
model for this (Lauerman and Kahn, 2018). How the reversal of reputation from being
pilloried to being feted as a role model came to pass, and its extent and sustainability,
provides a significant contextual case about what matters and who can make a difference.
The short answer, in the case of Amazon, is that pay mattered most; and a combination of bad
publicity, public pressure, threats of legal action and rethinking business strategy in the
longer term each had a part to play.
Yet single cases, even these more dramatic and striking ones such as Amazon, cannot be
relied upon to answer more generally the themes of what matters most and who can make a
difference. The three objectives of the research undertaken and reported here to contribute to
addressing these themes in a more empirically grounded way were:
(1) Objective 1: Is decent worka useful construct in the field of work quality?
(2) Objective 2: Does a collaborative approach to research help illuminate key
problem areas?
(3) Objective 3: What lessons about impact in a specific context can be identified and
The research reported in this paper adopted a construct of decent workand a collaborative
approach to research in a specific context, Scotland. The literature on work quality was
reviewed to identify the options available on constructs and research design. The choice of
decent workas a construct emerged from this. The collaborative approach and choice of
methods are explained. This meant engaging a range of employees, employers and
advocates, in a collaborative identification of priorities for improving work quality. The
findings of the primary research are presented. The extent to which findings from this
context may be generalised provides the basis for, in conclusion, contributing to the key work
quality themes of what matters mostand who can make a difference?
Literature review
Work quality research has generated a range of constructs, indices and typologies
(Sehnbruch et al., 2015;Warhurst et al., 2017). The literature on work quality is quite extensive
and complex as a consequence of this (Sengupta et al., 2009;Findlay et al., 2013;Wright,
2015b). The constructs share a purpose, to capture what matters most for more goodjobs
and fewer badjobs (Feingold, 1984;Nolan and Wood, 2003;Clark, 2005;Williams, 2007).
They vary in scope and focus, generating multiple constructs, indices and typologies of work
quality (Oldham and Hackman, 2010;Eurofund, 2012;Crespo et al., 2013;Maclean et al., 2013;
Burgess et al., 2013) which include: job design; ergonomics; decent work; competency; fair
work; quality of employment; quality of working life; quality of work; job quality; good jobs;

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