Influencing employers roundtable: helping employers improve the quality of work they offer

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Executive summary

One of the ways for Workertech to have an impact on low-paid workers is by developing new tools and incentives that encourage businesses to improve the quality of employment.

In October the Resolution Foundation brought together some leading organisations with experience of influencing employers via standards and accreditation to improve the quality of their work to discuss strategies for shifting employer behaviour in this space.

It was noted that some employers prioritise other pressures, such as recruitment and retention, and lack capacity to engage with good work due to internal constraints, such as limited HR functions, and external pressures, such as inflexible procurement frameworks.

Many organisations are already providing valuable support to employers to help them improve their employment practices, for example data insights on employees’ current attitudes to work, clear roadmaps to improvement, and connections to other employers tackling similar issues.

Careful communication, making a business case, and working with industry groups are strategies that these organisations cite as effective to persuade employers to take steps to improve the quality of work on offer.

While the discussion identified existing good practice, there is still a lot of work to do in order to progress the good work agenda and understand how our portfolio ventures can engage with employers to do so.

 

Introduction

One of the ways for Workertech to have an impact on the world of work is by creating new tools, resources, incentives and pressures that encourage employers to improve the quality of employment, particularly for low-wage and insecure workers. While this is one way to improve quality of work for employers already meeting baseline standards set by employment law, and a route that can complement the important work of other organisations such as trade unions, a recently published report from the Resolution Foundation reminds us of the extent of non-compliance with existing laws and explores the most effective levers for enforcing legal rights.

Many prospective Workertech ventures are building solutions that seek to change employer behaviour for the benefit of the workforce, whether that be providing recruitment platforms that source diverse candidates, improved worker benefits, or using worker-feedback tools to improve conditions.

In October 2021 we brought together leading organisations with direct experience of influencing employer behaviour to improve the world of work in different ways to share insights about what works, what doesn’t, and what else might be needed to shift employer .

While this roundtable focused on ventures working with employers, it’s important to note that trade unions also have a key role to play in influencing employers and inform our broader work around worker power and voice. Our event earlier this year with Prospect Union and Unison explored the potential of technology and worker power.

 

How are employers responding and what barriers do they face?

Broadly three categories of employers and their relationship with good work emerged from the discussion:

  • Employers who are reluctant to engage with the good work agenda
  • Employers who are already doing something positive but actually have quite a way to go
  • Employers who are very engaged with the good work agenda

We’re most interested in influencing and working with the middle group – those who are aware of the importance of good work and have room to improve. The journey to providing better work to employees can be broken down into two stages. First, engaging employers with the importance of good work and convincing them that it’s a business-critical issue, and second, turning this into action.

A key barrier to this first step is that employers don’t cite good work as a top business priority. Some argue that recruitment is a bigger issue. Attracting workers in certain sectors is tricky in the current labour market, leading employers to believe that it is a lack of labour, not the quality of work available, that is leaving gaps in the workforce. Improving quality of work, some believe, won’t fill more vacancies if there just aren’t the people to fill them.

The second stage involves supporting employers to turn this understanding into action. While initiatives exist to help employers to do so, businesses face the following barriers to taking this step:

  • No internal capacity: small employers don’t have the internal bandwidth to engage with external organisations who can support them to offer good work. Without dedicated HR capacity, elements of good work are deprioritised against the bottom line.
  • Lack of data insights: employers frequently feel overwhelmed by the issue of good work. They don’t have the capacity to gather or evaluate data around the quality of work they offer to employees and therefore struggle to engage with potential solutions.
  • Incentives don’t encourage action: public procurement doesn’t often encourage quality work. Businesses that rely on government contracts cite bidding criteria that are based on value for money, often squeezing out room for higher wages or more predictable and secure work. Another issue raised was the lack of flexibility in contracts, which call up resources on demand, which means little notice is given to employers or workers.

 

What do existing good work initiatives offer that employers value?

Many organisations already offer programmes or initiatives that help move employers through these obstacles. These include accreditations, such as the Manchester Good Employment Charter, or the Real Living Wage, or more bespoke support that digs into an employer’s practices and offers appropriate solutions. Broadly, employers value initiatives that offer:

  • Bespoke support: Organisations that support businesses to become better employers create tailored solutions depending on their size, sector and business model. Employers value a personalised approach to support that acknowledges the circumstances of their sector and business.
  • Data insights: Data on the problem can be a pre-requisite for engaging, but companies often don’t have it, and aren’t willing to pay to collect it until the problem is visible – so it can be a loss-leader for these initiatives to gather that data in the first place. It’s hard to charge companies for data that might be challenging to hear.
  • Different offers or tiers of engagement: Some initiatives offer an easy first step to improvement such as simply signing up to or expressing interest in an initiative, and can then work in the longer term on taking more action as they build internal capacity to do so.
  • Public support and private criticism: Helping employers to get reputational benefits from a particular good work accreditation or signing up to an initiative, while at the same time helping to progress impact behind the scenes.
  • Connections to others: Employers value the peer network that engaging in programme can bring. This is particularly relevant for place-based initiatives where employers are able to connect and share ideas with other local businesses facing similar issues.

 

What specific strategies can organisations use to persuade employers to engage with these programmes?

While the strategies outlined above may work for established programmes or initiatives, there are some more specific tactics that ventures and other organisations new to good work can embed into their engagement strategies to capture the attention of employers:

  • Making a business case: The most obvious incentive for employers is improving the bottom line. Demonstrating how providing better work can improve productivity and reduce staff turnover can act as a strong message to engage with good work initiatives.
  • Choosing the messenger: Not only is the message important, but also who delivers it. Employers tend to respond better to a non-confrontational familiar messenger willing to empathise and support them to seek solutions.
  • Following the crowd: Making the most of competition between employers can encourage engagement and action. Persuading groups of employers to act can also be effective, or using one successful employer with good work practices to encourage other employers to follow suit.
  • Raising expectations among future employees: Teaching school and university leavers about good work enables them to select employers with the best working standards and hold them to account, again creating a competitive advantage for employers who are more engaged with good work.
  • Reframing the issue: A conversation about good work often doesn’t start there – it can start with recruitment, skills, diversity and inclusion, or flexible work. Institutions that offer broader business support such as loans or skills support can also be useful places to start conversations about good work.

While we have identified some good starting points to understand and tackle these issues through Workertech, there is still a lot of work to do in order to progress the good work agenda and understand how our portfolio ventures can engage with employers to do so. What sector nuances should we be aware of? Which other allies do we need to involve? How do these approaches relate to the work of trade unions and others in civil society?

We’re keen to hear more from other organisations working in this space, so if you would like to contribute to this conversation please get in touch via ventures@resolutionfoundation.org.

Thank you to the organisations and contributors involved in this roundtable: Timewise, Living Wage Foundation, Institute for the Future of Work, ShareAction, Behavioural Insights Team, Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter, RSA, Greater London Authority, Fairwork Convention, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.