Re-imagining the workplace: The legal contract and its vicissitudes

It is important to note that in a conflict zone or space, the law should be uplifted and used to protect people from being hurt by others and in our case to protect the employer and the employee from each other’s excesses.


We have spent quite some time on the subject of the problems found in the workplace to the extent that someone might accuse us of being prophets of doom and gloom. It is not the intention of this column to recruit anyone into a community of mourners and whiners. I do not believe in whining because it can easily affect our level of thinking and creativity. We easily put ourselves in a space of incapacitation by whining. In my world, we work to address problem and we get so busy with that leaving no time to whine. I don’t want to belabour the fact that it is of paramount importance to fully understand the problem anyone is dealing with because when we are not thorough in our exploration, understanding and description of the problem, it might get aggravated.

The likelihood that we would proffer the wrong solutions is high when the problem is not fully understood. The doctor will give the wrong prescription if the illness is not fully understood, and the fire fighter might apply the wrong chemicals in trying to extinguish a fire and make it worse. It is more than important to fully understand the problem and we go round in circles because we don’t invest enough time and resources in understanding the many problems we come across in life, and in our case here, in the workplace.

It is easy to think that we have found the solution to a problem we have not fully understood, and the repercussions of such mistakes are huge, affecting not only the current generation but also overlapping to posterity. In my experience in the workplace, and in management of people to be precise, I have observed that we tend to use the law as if it was the only way for human beings to come and work together well. Disregarding the law and presenting it as a problem would also be wrong and misguided. The law is indeed important and has its place in all relationships, including family relationships where love is expected to take care of everything. What we need to talk at length about, though is the way the law has been turned into the panacea of all ills in the workplace, rendering it difficult to invest in community building practices and activities that have the benefit of growth, happiness, profitability, and sustainability. Big organizations that one would never have imagined would collapse did collapse because management was lazy, hiding behind the law. The late American Baptist minister and civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr had this to say about the law,

Even though it may not be true that the law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. And so, while the law may not change the hearts of men, it can, and it does change the habits of men. And when you begin to change the habits of men, pretty soon the attitudes will be changed.

I would like to direct your attention to what Luther says the law cannot do. It cannot, for example make a man love you and it cannot change the hearts of men. I also contest his assertion that it can change attitudes because that would amount to real transformation and beautiful change. When attitudes are changed then transformation is happening and that’s the outcome we want when we deal with change, to change attitude resulting in change of behaviour.

It is important to note that in a conflict zone or space, the law should be uplifted and used to protect people from being hurt by others and in our case to protect the employer and the employee from each other’s excesses. No one wants to make that kind of living and working together the permanent modus operandi because it means that we view each other as rivals and there are no attempts to close those gaps and connect to perform in the workplace. Luther lived under difficult race relations in America, and we understand why he had to put emphasis on the need for the law to be upheld as a way of protecting human beings from other human beings and it’s good that, even under his circumstances, he still noted the limitations of the law. His assertion contains an important line if we read it carefully and it’s the salient expectation for a deeper connection called love that would render the law unnecessary. Of course, we know that in the workplace we don’t talk about love and that’s fine but at least we can talk about a working connection and a sound industrial climate. This means there is a search for something deeper between the employer and the employee that the law should pave the way for, if given enough attention based on understanding.

It is important to reiterate that the law is important under specific circumstances but organizations that want to build sustainable and growing businesses will be thorough in formulating their laws through contracts and codes of conduct that are informed by the labour laws of the country and having been thorough in ensuring that ‘no brother lynches another’ go on to use psychologically informed practices and systems to build smooth worker relationships for the present and the future. This would mean that the codes of conduct and contracts may gather dust in the shelves while organizations are busy building relationships that hold people together for business, profitability, and the human face in the workplace. Now that is more profitable than leaving this to the law and handling hearings that cost organizations huge sums of money through litigation and through strikes that worsen tensions and give employees a further sense of not belonging and employers a siege mentality of thinking that employees are always up to no good and they need to protect themselves from them.

In my experience as a human resources practitioner and learning and development I have noted that one gets accolades for toughness and the application of the law more than serious attempts to build relationships. I remember as a young practitioner working with my mentor to handle a strike needing to go to the archives and search for precedent cases to get a good angle to handle this disturbing development in our space. We had to be clever because the managing director, and other senior executives were looking to us to perform miracles and save the company from marauding employees who were making difficult demands. Our creative juices regarding labour legislation had to run riot or we risked being labelled inept and incompetent. It is indeed correct to expect a human resources or labour expert to come up with the answers for crisis management around the human resource but to make this the order of the day and live at the level of reactivity is to be collectively incompetent. When Charles Dickens referred to the law being an ass, he meant the stupidly rigid application of the law. Yes, organizations do need to be serious about their labour laws and have tight legal systems and processes, and these need to be communicated fully to the employee and any concerned parties. Having done that, having locked themselves inside a well-built legal system, they then need to work together to connect and build tight workplace relationships based on psycho-social principles.

  • Bhekilizwe Bernard Ndlovu’s training is in human resources training, development and transformation, behavioural change, applied drama, personal mastery and mental fitness. He works for a South African organisation as a Learning and Development Specialist, while also doing a PhD with Wits University where he looks at violent strikes in the South African workplace as a researcher. Ndlovu worked as a human resources manager for a number of blue-chip companies in Zimbabwe and still takes keen interest in the affairs of people and performance management in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on [email protected]

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