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Worker–Management Relations: A Child Care Worker's perspective

Trevor Harrison

The majority of child and youth care practitioners work in organizational contexts that, to a significant degree, define the nature of the work. Within such environments people called "management" are considered to have the power over groups generically referred to as "the workers." In this scenario, most of us struggle with power-relations issues that, in our opinion, are relics of our unfortunate childhoods. But, for whatever reasons, practitioners, managers, and governments seem to expend as much energy playing this game as they do in providing services to clients. In Trevor’s presentation of the child care worker’s perspective, it is important for the reader to understand that this article should not be read as another attribution of blame to particular individuals or groups. Rather, it is a view from one place in the tedious mosaic (notice we didn’t use the word hierarchy). As such, it is an interesting participant observation study that taps into one particular group of players — child and youth care workers. This article addresses a fundamental aspect of child and youth care practice and it speaks to the reader in a clear and uncluttered manner. We invite you to consider Trevor’s analysis, not as another saga of the good guys and the bad guys but as process in which we all collude for our own reasons.
— Editor of the
Journal of Child and Youth Care in which this article first appeared.

Traditionally, child care literature has dealt with the subject of worker-management relations from an ideal or theoretical perspective (Beker et al., 1972; Klein, 1975; Adler, 1976). More recently, this literature has focused upon legitimizing the professional aims of people in the field (Austin, 1981; Peters, 1981; Berube, 1984). To a greater or lesser degree, both of these approaches have ignored the manner in which workers actually experience their jobs. This paper attempts to examine one area of workers’ experience: their relationship with management. In particular, the accommodations made by workers in the course of the relationship are examined. Finally, some areas of particular dispute are discussed.

The data used in this paper were obtained through participant observation and interviews conducted by the author at a residential child care facility in Alberta. However, the information reported here has been generally observed by the author in numerous other child care facilities in the province, and, hence, may be considered to have wider significance.

In this paper, "child care worker" will refer to front-line staff in adolescent child care facilities. "Management" will mean the immediate, internal staff of the facility, including supervisors. "External management," when mentioned, will refer to Departmental authorities outside of the facility.

Two conflicting situations condition the interactions which occur between internal management and the workers. On the one hand, workers are contractually bound within a relationship in which they hold a subordinate status. Workers understand the differentials of power which underscore their relationship with management. At the same time, it is not unusual for child care workers and management to develop a sense of closeness. This is facilitated by such factors as proximity, length of time together, and mutual stress. In many cases, the sense of closeness achieved on the job spills over into off-hours socializing. This may present a substantial problem for some workers when their professional and personal needs are at variance with those of the employer.

The role of management is perceived by workers as being concerned with two functions: performance and budget. The former involves meeting the needs of children; the latter involves meeting these needs within budgetary guidelines. The day-to-day interactions of workers with management centre primarily on performance issues. However, budgetary matters affect many of the serious problems which workers have with both internal and external management.

Management tries to get "the most" out of workers. "The most" includes efficiency, adherence to the rules, and dedication to the aims of the institution. Anything which negatively affects a worker’s performance, including aspects of his personal life, may be questioned by management. Workers are variously instructed, encouraged and reprimanded for the purpose of getting the most out of their performance.

The area in which general performance issues are brought forth by management is either the staff meeting or the shift change. On these occasions, new rules and policies are presented. While those prescribed by external management are primarily informative and beyond discussion, internal policies are more open to change.

Individual problems concerning either performance or contractual issues are generally dealt with in one-to-one meetings between each worker and management.

The underside of interaction
As stated, workers recognize the power of management to command the most from their performance. At the same time, workers perceive that "giving their all" does not result in any substantial or emotional reward. Furthermore, workers perceive the interests of management (both internal and external) as often being at odds with their own interests. To control or deflect the power of management, or to otherwise ameliorate potentially unpleasant situations, workers have devised a number of informal adjustments to the job.

The first of these maybe described as "covering up." This occurs more often within teams than between teams. Its potential for occurrence exists, however, any time that two individuals or groups recognize the reciprocal benefits to be gained through the mutual retention of the other’s secrets.

A second method of keeping managerial authority at a distance is "make work." This form of behavior is found in various work places (e.g. Goffman, 1959, p. 109) and involves workers in "looking busy" whenever management comes around. Idle chatter decreases, replaced instead by the re-arrangement of files, the fine-tuning of reports, or the increased involvement of workers with the children. Even when the children are engaged in a programmed activity, such as school, "free" workers are reluctant to do anything which might be construed by management as "doing nothing." For example, workers will not play pool or cards with each other while management is present. It may be assumed that leading this "double-life" constitutes a source of at least minimum stress for workers. The problem, of course, is that the size and routine of many child care facilities limit the number of available functions. For this reason, part of the task of workers is often to create tasks for themselves.

A third method of adjustment used by workers may be termed "distancing." This consists in meeting the functional requirements of the job while withholding emotional involvement. Usually, this method is an unconscious adjustment to the emotional demands of the job. While distancing may represent only a temporary stage in the involvement cycle (Goffman, 1961), in some cases it appears to be a relatively constant feature of a worker’s performance. Indeed, there is reason to believe that this is an index of burnout. At the same time, the difference between "putting out" and "withdrawing" is not readily measurable by management. Thus, a worker may fulfill the functional requirements of the job while retaining some distance from its demands.

A fourth method by which workers may control their relationship with management is through "repression." When workers disagree with some aspect of their job, they must decide if they want their disagreement to be known. Next, they must determine whether openly disagreeing is likely to effect any change. Workers’ answers to both of these questions often appear to be "no." Even if they are not actually intimidated by management, workers often tailor their verbal responses to meet the expectations of management. This suggests that, despite the personal relationship which they often have with internal management, the structural basis of power is both recognized and acted upon by workers in their formal interactions with them.

Finally, it should be stated that workers may occasionally call upon their union as a formal method of dealing with management’s authority. However, because the grievance procedure is perceived by workers as being both "dragged out" and ineffective, this tactic is only used as a last resort. Furthermore, the grievance procedure brings the worker into open conflict with management.

Even if their grievance is found to be valid, workers believe that such actions place them in a position of future jeopardy with management. Thus, although some workers will privately "gripe" about such things as holidays, sick leave, or their employment status, these complaints rarely result in union action. This constitutes a further example of self-imposed (but structurally-conditioned) repression.

As stated previously, workers often perceive the interests of management as being contrary to their own interests. This perception is particularly evident in workers’ concerns involving safety and security and performance ratings.

Safety and security
Workers feel that they are frequently requested to implement policies and procedures which are unworkable. They often believe that their attempts to express concerns for their own safety and security are met by responses from management which either trivialize or minimize the issues. For example, workers’ concerns may be deemed to be "unwarranted" and "hypothetical" and their actual responses pejoratively termed "emotional" as opposed to "professional."

At the same time there is also a widespread feeling that management jeopardizes safety and security for financial reasons. Teams in many facilities often work short-handed. Supervisors who leave are not immediately replaced with permanent staff. Even the upper management positions in many child care facilities have been filled by acting officials during the last few years. Workers perceive these occurrences as systematic attempts by internal and external management to save money.

Understandably, workers view these attempts to save money as a risk to their security and safety.

Finally, workers also feel that management will not support them if they are harmed. Many believe that they are open to assault by the youth in their care while lacking sufficient legal, financial, or emotional support from management.
In short, workers often feel that management neither shares nor supports their concerns regarding safety and security. On the contrary, workers believe that the monetary and political concerns of management occasionally place them at risk.

Performance ratings
Within Alberta Government departments, the Employee Performance Appraisal Schedule is a formal measure of employee performance (which I will use as an example of such appraisals in this paper). It is updated annually by the employee and his supervisor. The basic criteria against which the employee is rated are contained in his job description. By asking him to state the areas of his performance which he wishes to improve, the supervisor induces the employee to indicate his own ineffectiveness in meeting some of these criteria. Both the supervisor and the employee must agree on the contents of the Appraisal before it is submitted to higher administration in any given year. The following year, the worker’s performance in meeting the requirements and the goals stated in the previous EPAS are re-assessed. A failing grade on an EPAS means that the employee fails to receive a salary increment. On the other hand, an exceptionally good passing grade may win a double increment for the worker.

Essentially, the EPAS for child care workers emphasizes three areas of performance. The first of these is her ability to write an assessment of a child. "Ability" refers to the insight which the worker displays in doing an assessment, and writing skills in conveying this information. The second area of emphasis is on the worker’s performance on the floor: her ability to follow rules, handle situations, and generally be part of the team. Finally, the worker’s efforts during the preceding year to improve her knowledge and skills is duly noted.

Workers do not see the EPAS as either a positive or even a neutral document. Rather, it is perceived as an attempt by management (both internal and external) to locate the worker’s performance "problems". Workers view the EPAS as a grading system which compares them with each other. Furthermore, it is seen as a grading system in which it is virtually impossible to get a high "mark." The only hope for workers is to receive an average grade which will allow them to obtain the standard incremental raise.

Workers’ dislike of the EPAS system extends beyond the purpose of the procedure to the criteria against which they are rated. Perhaps foremost, workers feel that the emphasis upon report writing is overrated. They believe that style is more esteemed by management than is substance. The value of reports is itself questioned by many workers who see them as "artificial." While management is seen as primarily rating workers on their theoretical abilities, child care workers tend to place more weight upon practical on-the-floor performance. While many child care workers admit the need for training in the human sciences, particularly child development and group dynamics, they describe a good child care worker in terms of flexibility, self-confidence, assertiveness, compassion, understanding, naturalness, calmness, empathy, instinctiveness, consistency, and a sense of humor. In short, workers perceive their major attributes as characterological, largely unteachable, and fundamentally unmeasured by the EPAS system. Workers do not perceive the EPAS as either a positive or accurate document but rather as a formal method for justifying salary increments. The EPAS system is seen as a game at which they cannot win and at which they may lose. The best they can hope for is a tie.

In this regard, it is interesting to note the role of team supervisors in this "game." In doing the evaluations, supervisors probably know their workers’ capabilities better than anyone else. They also know a good team is a harmonious team. There is an incentive for supervisors to make sure that their team members are happy. This suggests some pressure to avoid a "poor" evaluation for any individual worker. At the same time, a very good evaluation for an individual worker might cause dissension among the remaining workers. The supervisor must also justify a very good rating to internal management. Practically, it must also be noted that workers, because they are members of a team, have limited opportunity to display "exceptional" performance. For these reasons, EPAS ratings are regularly of the same grade with a concomitantly equal incremental raise for each worker.

Summary and conclusions
This paper has described the adjustments made by child care workers in the course of conducting their relationship with management. The types of adjustment utilized reflect the differentials of power and status between the two groups. In part, these differences also result in opposing perspectives concerning the meaning of child care to the worker’s life. While management believes that the role of child care worker is an end in itself, for which they are also paid, workers, in the main, see child care as only a means to an end. Management tries to demand "the most" out of workers. Workers, on the other hand, see such demands as tending to be excessive. This "excess" demanded by management may involve either direct outputs from the worker, restrictions on his work benefits, or intrusions into his personal life. Workers, in turn, attempt to maximize their benefits while limiting their output to 1) the functional requirements of the job; and 2) that extra portion which, as individuals, they freely choose to give.

This paper has also described the differences between workers and management in regard to issues of safety and security and performance evaluations. In the course of discussing the latter, workers’ views of what constitutes a "good child care worker" were examined.

As stated in the introduction, much of the literature dealing with child care has neglected an examination of the manner in which workers actually experience their job. This paper has attempted to shed some light upon the "lived reality" of child care work. It is hoped that, by doing so, equally real solutions will eventually emerge to deal with the problems faced by workers in the course of performing their necessary functions.


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This article reprinted from the Journal of Child and Youth Care, Vol.3 No.4, 1988