Opinion: the way we are treated at work can shape our beliefs about how others should be treated

By Lorraine Ryan and Thomas Turner, University of Limerick

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris drew widespread criticism when he claimed that both far left and far right factions were involved in recent anti-lockdown protests in Dublin. He subsequently clarified that there was no 'corroborated evidence' that any far-left groups were involved, and the protests were conducted by ‘anti-vaccine, anti-mask and anti-lockdown protestors, far right groups, and those intent on trouble and disorder’.

Across the Atlantic, far right groups were said to have initiated the Capitol Hill riots, an event that tragically included the deaths of five people and was described by many as an assault on democracy. There are other recent examples across Europe and the rest of the world of a weakening of support for democracy and a rise in extreme right-wing or populist political groups. Such groups typically draw on a mass movement led by an outsider or maverick seeking to gain power by using anti-establishment appeals. They are also often linked with racist or anti-immigrant sentiments. Debates around Brexit are a prime example.

An individual's political views are shaped by many personal characteristics and life circumstances including socio-economic class, education, social networks and family. However, our work environment can also have a significant influence on our beliefs and attitudes.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry, career psychologist, Sinead Brady on crying at work

Workplaces are microcosms of society and democratic societies require democratic workplaces. How individuals are socialised in the workplace can shape their views and behaviours in important ways. Socialisation refers to the influence of environmental factors (such as workplaces) on social attitudes, including political ones. Most people spend a great part of their life at work and so exposure to democratic or authoritarian work environments influences the extent to which there is a positive or negative ‘spillover’ into democratic behaviours in society.

Democratic work environments are those where power is dispersed and workers can influence their working conditions, hold management accountable and participate in decision-making in matters that effect their working lives. Democracy does not require consensus and harmony among groups, but rather its’ bedrock is a recognition of pluralist interests and acceptance of difference. Equality and voice are cornerstones of democracy.

Factors that facilitate democratic work environments include the size of the organisation (larger workplaces tend to be more democratic), mechanisms for worker participation and the presence of a trade union. At root, trade unions are democratic institutions that have long provided an independent voice for workers.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in April 2020, Patricia King from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on proposals to ensure 'Covid-secure' workplace conditions

The democratic spill‐over thesis suggests that workplace democracy and participation increase workers' sense of political efficacy, which then transfers to the formal political sphere through, for example. an increased propensity to vote in elections. Research shows that trade union members report significantly higher rates of electoral voting and political activism than non-union workers. Trade unions also often advocate for greater inclusiveness in society, as seen for example in the recent Black Lives Matter movement and the marriage equality referendum. Thus, workers exposed to democratic work institutions such as trade unions are socialised into the legitimacy of equality and voice and the belief that workers can achieve change through a democratic system.

Conversely, authoritarian work environments are those where there is little opportunity for voice and decisions are made by a single authoritarian figure. In such organisations, power is highly concentrated and relatively immune from any challenge. Workers are often subject to strict control and expected to essentially do as they are told.

Authoritarian work environments emphasise conformity to rules, submissiveness to authority and aggression against outsiders. Those working in authoritarian work environments are uncomfortable with others who have dissimilar beliefs to their social group. Workers socialised in such settings are thus more likely to hold negative views towards outsiders such as immigrants and have weaker attachment to democratic values and processes in society.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, what might the future of work look like and are we ready for it?

The way we are treated at work can shape our beliefs about how others should be treated as we assimilate the norms and values associated with the organisation in which we spend much of our time. Organisations are integral parts of wider society and contain a significant social nexus and responsibility. Society and the workplace have a mutually reinforcing relationship whereby democracy in society must be mirrored in the workplace and democratic workplaces reinforce democracy in society.

Yet trade union membership and influence are in decline across Europe. Any replacement of the role of unions and collective bargaining faces challenges of legitimacy and independence that are crucial to democracy at work. Public policy interventions at workplace level that provide guarantees to representation and voice for workers can support democracy both at work and in the spillover into society.  

Ensuring democratic societies that embrace diverse populations is important in stemming the rise of far-right groups that advocate strong anti-immigrant sentiments. Providing effective voice for all demographic groups is critical in advancing more inclusive and equal societies. The beliefs, values and mechanisms that underpin democratic societies for citizens must be mirrored in the workplaces in which those citizens are employed to encourage active participation in the democratic process and secure the health and robustness of democracy in society.

Dr Lorraine Ryan is a Lecturer in Employment Relations and Human Resource Management at the Department of Work and Employment Studies at the Kemmy Business School at University of Limerick. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Thomas Turner lectures in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations at the Department of Personnel and Employment Relations at the Kemmy School of Business at the University of Limerick.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ