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Download the Human resource management podcast.

Download the Human resource management podcast

In the early-1970s, 20 years before the arrival of cheap air travel, students’ equivalent of the modern ‘gap year’ was to spend the long summer break between finishing A-levels and starting university ‘inter-railing’. This involved buying a four or eight-week pass for unlimited travel on slow, uncomfortable and, usually, unpunctual trains, across the length and breadth of Europe. For most, it also involved spending 30 or 60 consecutive nights failing to sleep properly in train carriages, station concourses or (police allowing) the local beach, followed by 30 or 60 days ‘taking in’, through an alcohol and insomnia-induced haze, sites from the Prado to the Parthenon and from the Pazzi Chapel to the Pont du Gard. The students with stamina would cap off this character-forming experience with several weeks’ of early-autumn grape picking.

The idea behind this was to re-establish one’s finances before embarking on the great university adventure in October. After all, grape picking not only offered free food and lodgings (and a daily free bottle of wine) but also the promise of payment according to the weight of grapes one was able to pick. It was the purest form of bonus system, directly linked to the worker’s individual efforts. But for some reason it never quite resulted in the riches the student, unschooled in the ways of the world, expected. Tales abounded on ‘scales weighing light’. The simple fact, though, was that few of the students had any experience of hard manual labour and so little, if any, conception of the amount of effort an employer could reasonably expect in return for a decent day’s pay.

Many of these students, on leaving university, would work for employers with systems of performance-related pay. These were an attempt to bring the traditions of piecework associated with the agricultural age to the late stages of the industrial age and early stages of the information age. But these systems, too, were often unsuccessful in motivating the workforce. Sometimes this was because the targets were too high, so the bonus was never won. Sometimes, in contrast, the targets were too low, so that the bonus came to be seen as a de facto ‘right’.

In today’s workplace, employers have found more sophisticated – and often quirky – methods to motivate their employees. Matthews (Personnel Today, 7 Aug 2007) examines some of them.

John Lewis Direct, for example, organizes a team salsa-dancing day, which the company believes to be of great value in building and improving relationships. P&G (formerly Procter & Gamble), has a singing programme, which it credits with making employees feel less intimated about speaking in public, and more energized and motivated at work. Co-operative Financial Services, meanwhile, rewards success in the customer-contact centre with two days of training, which the organization credits with bringing about significant improvements in employee morale, customer enthusiasm and staff communication.

Mountain (Organisations & People, Aug 2007, Vol 14 No 3), meanwhile, emphasizes the importance of good employee communication to organizational success. The article suggests that it is important for leaders and managers to demonstrate that they value and appreciate each member of the workforce, and examines how the concept of ‘okayness’ can be used in discussions about change. Effective communication, the author contends, can be achieved by making people feel comfortable, safe and relaxed with colleagues.

What, then, would Mountain make of the current discussion in the USA about whether it is ‘okay’ for employees to keep guns in their cars while they are parked in company car parks? Grossman (HRMagazine, Sep 2007, Vol 52 No 9) identifies three main arguments on the subject: that if it is legal to carry a gun in a car outside the workplace it should also be legal to keep a gun locked in a car when it is parked on the employer’s premises; that bringing guns on to the employer’s premises increases the risk of workplace violence; and that employers should have the right to rule on what happens on their property.

One of the USA’s strongest pressure groups, the National Rifle Association, has weighed into the debate. We await the outcome with interest…