In December 2019, the Federal Government issued a discussion paper “to collect and collate the techniques, structures and practices that produce the most mutually beneficial and productive workplaces for both employees and employers”. The paper sought feedback on “practical experiences and techniques of best practice in cooperative workplaces”.
Various industry parties made submissions in response to the Government’s paper. However, the process has somewhat stalled, presumably in the face of the pandemic. The topic of cooperative workplaces has not directly featured in any of the tripartite committees tasked with drawing up reforms to industrial laws.
What is a cooperative workplace?
Academics Mark Bray, Johanna Macneill and Andrew Stewart put it as simply as employees and management working together to the same ends. They suggest in their book, Co-Operation at Work (Federation Press, 2017), that you need six conditions for cooperation between employees and management in an industrial issue:
- define the issue in terms of what you want to achieve;
- increase motivation to resolve the issue;
- share information about the issue;
- develop the skills needed to resolve the issue;
- work out how management and employees will work together to resolve the issue; and
- build sufficient trust to work to resolution.
Why are we falling short when it comes to cooperation?
The reality is that Australian workplaces have in large part failed to reach best practice in workplace cooperation. The reasons for this will depend on the values and reference framework of the person making the assessment. Inevitably, industrial laws will get the blame from all sides.
Those that believe workplace cooperation is best achieved by direct engagement with employees, through effective leadership by management, will seek industrial laws that minimise third-party intervention by government, industrial tribunals and unions into that process.
Those that accept that different stakeholders in a workplace bring competing interests to any discussion about an industrial issue will look to industrial laws to help managers negotiate common ground as far as possible between these groups.
It is arguable that the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) facilitates competition not cooperation. The framework for enterprise bargaining focuses on dividing up rights and benefits. The Fair Work Commission has a diminished role in preventing disputes. The unfair dismissal and general protections laws enable a rights-based legal framework, not interest-based.
The New Approaches program that has operated under the auspices of the Fair Work Commission has sought to guide and support interest-based negotiations between industrial parties in workplaces where cooperation has been scant. However, the program has suffered from diminished expertise and resources.
An exception, of course, to the propensity for Australian workplaces to be characterised by adversarial rather than cooperative approaches, has been the way that employers, employees, unions and governments work together to make workplaces safe. A workplace that enables consultation and training about safety matters, and adopts structures for management and workers to achieve this, is better equipped to achieve workplace cooperation in other matters. Cooperative workplaces are generally safer workplaces – but are in fact safer workplaces more cooperative?