Organizational civility: assessing IR competencies of HR professionals.

AuthorPremalatha, P.
PositionReport - Statistical data

This article adopts an assessment center (AC) methodology to understand how the industrial relations (IR) competencies of HR professionals in their early career are evolving. We find that IR competencies are correlated with several other competencies which are essential for professional success. However, IR competencies lag behind the others. It is argued that the erosion of IR competencies embodies a loss of civility in organizations. This loss of civility is closely associated with the proliferation of functionalist and instrumental discourses which severely corrode dialogical possibilities in organizations.


Industrial Relations (IR) competencies may not be as much about the efficacy of negotiations as they may be about producing organizational spaces as sites of civility. Negotiation relies on instrumentality. On the other hand, civility implies a larger sense of ethos. When people are uncivil in their engagements with each other, they produce a variety of affects. The absence of civility implies a breach in social relations. There is interesting data about the lack of civility that Porath and Pearson (2013) have collected over a decade and a half.

About a quarter of employees surveyed felt that they had experienced uncivil behavior at least once a week in the workplace in 1998. This number increased to a half in 2011 (Porath & Pearson, 2013). We argue that this could be on account of a significant erosion of industrial relations competencies which have been taking place over the years. The erosion of industrial relations competencies often leads to an erosion of a common sense of justice from the workplace. Yet, this common sense of justice is vital for reducing negative emotions and emotional exhaustion from the workplace (Frenkel, Li & Restubog, 2012).

In the absence of civility, people may nurture a sense of resentment towards each other. In contemporary times, one of the major concerns of industrial relations thinkers and trade unionists is the individualization of the employment relationship. We argue that the loss of civility is a major cause of individualization of agency. Employment relations become psychologized and less social when the lack of civility permeates interactions between people. The absence of civility inaugurates a climate of personalized nastiness. When an important IR competency such as knowledge of labor laws declines, what declines is the ethos of the law.

In this article, we present evidence from an assessment center that measured competencies of thirty five participants. The participants are pursuing their final year post graduate program in human resource management. Upon completion of the two years post graduate and professional qualification, they will be placed in different organizations as human resource professionals. We compare the IR competencies of these budding HR professionals with other competencies that were assessed during the assessment center. We, then comment on the gaps which exist and how they can be bridged in order to build a greater sense of civility in organizations. We also comment on which other competencies that IR competencies are correlated with and suggest what implications these correlations may hold.

In what follows we first discuss a theoretical conceptualization of IR competencies in the form of offering a catharsis of dialogue. Next, we offer a brief description of the methodology of the assessment center conducted by us and the range of competencies that were measured in the assessment center. We, then, present the results of the assessment center and compare IR competencies with other competencies. Finally, we offer some suggestions for the IR community of practitioners and academics about the alarming erosion of IR competencies during the past few years.

Situating IR Competencies

HR can process grievances and resolve issues. HR makes a decision which is resolved in favor of one actor or another. HR engages in an act of judgment. An act of judgment is always sub-optimal. There is an element of violence in the exercise of judgment. It has been found that HR managers are hugely inadequate to the concerns of employees such as bullying. Instead of doing anything to prevent employees from being subjected to bullying, HR managers often enact symbolic violence against employees by legitimizing the bullying behavior of managers as being a part of normal performance management processes (Harrington, Warren & Rayner, 2013).

HR practitioners can argue that civility can be sustained in an organization without an accompanying process of judgment. Instead, it may be brought about by building systems and processes inside organizations. But the nature of these systems and processes is likely to be theological rather than dialogical. HR systems and processes rely on the sovereignty of the human being. The imagination of sovereignty is often a fetishized image of the human being that is deployed inside organizations (Arnould & Cayla, 2015). The sovereign human being as an individual is recruited and selected into the organization.

She is then compensated and appraised. She is also developed. Her career is managed. She may even be mentored. Whenever, there is a need, she may also require disciplining. At the end of the day, the imagination of HR engages with sovereignties. In conceptualizing human agency as being sovereign and not politically negotiated, HR processes may end up producing a range of injustices for employees (Joseph & Jagannathan, 2015). Sovereignties often tend to be theological. The sovereign atom immersing itself in a universal truth. The atom is however an enclosed space. The very act of rendering the atom enclosable also makes it autonomous. Conceptualizing fundamentality in terms of atomistic existence is a process of reductionist social analysis (Thalos, 2011). The human being as an atomic unit is also held culpable for her actions.

She will eventually be judged for her actions. There is an accounting calculus of sin and virtue that she is accumulating. However, an accounting calculus of sin and virtue is also closely associated with the politics of producing guilt and the figure of the criminal (Brennan, 2003). The moment we start accounting for sin and virtue, we may force people to regard themselves as some form of criminals who are always deviating from one or the other moral norm. An interesting balance can arise here. We argue that authority and power can often influence the asymmetry of nastiness inside organizations. However, if HR is a theological process that holds human beings accountable, then there may be a possibility of counteracting the effects of power and authority.

Yet theological processes have a strange, mystical method of escaping accountabilities. In an institutional sense, theologies are often about legitimizing the spirit of status quo. In a critical sense, theologies are about contesting climates of injustice by...

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