35th EGOS Colloquium

Enlightening the Future:
The Challenge for Organizations


University of Edinburgh Business School

July 4–6, 2019

Edinburgh, United Kingdom




Sub-theme 54: Exploring the Labour Dimension of Sustainable Organizations: Ideologies, Struggles, Solutions

Markus Helfen
University of Innsbruck, Austria
Andreas Pekarek
University of Melbourne, Australia
Rick Delbridge
Cardiff University, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

Profound changes in the world of work (Delbridge & Sallaz, 2015) – often ascribed to technological advances, demographic changes and globalization – are challenging established institutions and practices in organizations, triggering considerable speculation over the future of work. At the same time, there is a widespread debate over whether and how organizations contribute to ‘sustainability’, i.e. the usage of environmental, social, and economic resources in a way that avoids their degradation and exhaustion (e.g. Ehnert & Harry, 2012). In management and organization studies, both issues are debated rarely in combination, despite calls for engaging with the human side of organizational sustainability (e.g. Pfeffer, 2010). And employees did not feature significantly in early discussions on sustainability in management and organization studies, although the labour dimension of organizational sustainability has been acknowledged and propagated as a key goal in policy debates (e.g. ILO, 2017). One reason for this neglect might be the implicit tension about the meaning and scope of the labour dimension of the sustainable organization. From a management perspective, the sustainable organization is often viewed as a new strategy for long-term business success that is respectful of the regeneration and reproduction of “human resources” (Kramar, 2014). From an employment relations perspective, in contrast, a sustainable organization embodies workers’ concerns regarding collective voice and representation, work in accordance with human health and safety needs, adequate material rewards and social security as well as equal opportunities and investment in skills and careers.
How work and workers are managed within organizations has important implications for their sustainability (Pfeffer, 2010, Kramar 2014); and multiple trajectories for the evolution of work in today’s uncertain and dynamic organizational contexts are imaginable. Two views might be juxtaposed: Davis (2013), for example, suggests that the large public corporation has outlived its capacity to provide secure employment and to serve as a pillar of social sustainability. In its place, Davis traces the contours of a future based on principles of ‘postcorporate economic organization’ which centre on alternative forms of collaborative organizing such as mutuals, cooperatives, and locally-owned companies (s. also Ozarow & Croucher, 2014; Adler, 2001). In more dystopian scenarios, the workforce models of leading platform firms in the rapidly-expanding ‘gig economy’ – characterized by insecure contracting, atomized tasks, low pay, lack of benefits, digital control, and lack of worker voice – will proliferate more widely and threaten social and economic security (Graham et al., 2017; Healy et al., 2017). Either way, organizations face challenges and choices regarding the labour dimension of sustainability and are also the social sites where associated ideologies and struggles will be played out. Yet, we know very little about how the quest for more sustainable organizations is currently materializing at the organizational coalface were workers perform their jobs.
Building from two successful EGOS sub-themes in 2017 and 2018, this sub-theme continues the interdisciplinary exchange between the fields of organization studies and employment relations by focusing on the ideologies, struggles and solutions around the labour dimension of the sustainable organization. We invite contributions that illuminate how labour shapes and is shaped by questions of organizational sustainability and what this means for future world(s) of work.
Ideologies. Sustainability is essentially a question of values and principles and thus prone to ideological debate within and across organizational boundaries. Hence, actors may disagree over how organizational sustainability should be defined, how important it is to business and society, and how the responsibilities to achieve it should be distributed amongst different private and public interests (Scherer et al., 2016). Specific questions include:

  • How do different organizational and institutional logics shape symbolic and substantive organizational efforts to manage labour sustainably?

  • How do different organizational actors interpret the labour dimension of sustainability?

  • What external factors are important in shaping ideologies and which view prevails in public discourse?

  • What internal organizational patterns may be discerned regarding practices, cultures and leadership?

  • When might the labour dimension of sustainable organization contradict other sustainability objectives?

  • How are contemporary sustainability discourses similar or different from earlier debates around enlightened labour management?

  • And to what extent are sustainable initiatives mere ideology to disguise, whitewash and escape responsibility and accountability?

Struggles. The sustainable organization is subject to contestation and negotiation over its boundaries. At the field level, the entry of new organizations may give rise to power struggles and unexpected cross-class coalitions (Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010), for example where employers and unions join forces to prolong the life of conventional industries such as coal-fired and nuclear power generation. Similarly, conflict can arise where seemingly sustainable management practices such as flexibility initiatives produce paradoxical effects (e.g. work intensification) (Putnam et al., 2014). Likewise, institutional and organizational initiatives to diversify the managerial ranks of organizations by promoting women and minorities leaders have often led to distributive struggles with incumbents (Wright et al., 2012, Gray & Kish-Gephart, 2013). Specific questions include:

  • To what extent are societal inequalities intensified or ameliorated by the attempts to create sustainable organizations?

  • How are struggles between alternative and traditional forms of organization fought out on the battleground of sustainability?

  • How is management as an institution and how are managers as individuals involved in these struggles?

  • Do debates over sustainability differ from traditional organizational contests, for example in the ways that they are informed by wider societal discourses?

Solutions. The creation of sustainable organizations is not easy as templates are not readily available and institutionalized types of organizing, regulating and representing work face their limits. Traditional firms, unions, NGOs, and state agencies all face the dual challenge of juggling external demands for sustainability with internal tensions and transitions towards more sustainable organizing. Furthermore, negotiations to institutionalize sustainable standards can be complex and protracted (e.g. Schüßler et al., 2014; Weil, 2011). This is not only the case with respect to global labour standards (e.g. Donaghey & Reinecke, 2015; Anner et al., 2013), but also holds for designing sustainable work systems (e.g. Kochan et al., 1994), implementing diversity programs (e.g. Kalev et al., 2006) or providing labour with a collective voice (Tapia et al., 2015). Specific questions include:

  • How do organizations choose compliance over achievement in managing work sustainably?

  • To what extent might organizing work and labour be carried out in an enlightened fashion that genuinely values sustainable work?

  • How do firms, unions, state agencies, civil society organizations or professions reorganize to account for sustainable work and organization?

  • And does organizational sustainability presuppose alternative modes of organizing, including direct forms of worker participation, co-determination by workers or producer and consumer cooperatives?

  • What are the comparative and international dimensions in how organizational sustainability plays out in practice?

Based on the above, we invite short papers that aim to deepen our understanding of the organization-work nexus in sustainable organizations. We are interested in both empirical and conceptual papers that engage with comparative institutional examination, various forms of institutional work, and the enactment of labour processes and work organizations as well the management of meta-organizations. To the same extent, we are curious about contributions from diverse theoretical perspectives such as social movement theory, CSR & corporate sustainability, Marxist organization studies, the sociology of the professions, micro-politics, labour law or diversity management.


  • Adler, P. (2001): “Market, hierarchy, and trust: The knowledge economy and the future of capitalism.” Organizations Science, 12 (2), 215–234.
  • Anner, M., Bair, J., & Blasi, J. (2013): “Toward joint liability in global supply chains: Addressing the root causes of labor violations in international subcontracting networks.” Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal, 35 (1), 1–43.
  • Davis, G.F. (2013): “After the Corporation.” Politics & Society, 41, 283–308.
  • Delbridge, R., & Sallaz, J.J. (2015): “Work: Four worlds and ways of seeing.” Organizations Studies, 36, 1449–1462.
  • Donaghey J., & Reinecke, J. (2015): “After Rana Plaza: Building coalitional power for labour rights between unions and (consumption-based) social movement organisations.” Organization, 22 (5), 720–740.
  • Ehnert, I., & Harry, W. (2012): “Recent developments and future prospects on sustainable human resource management.” Management Revue, 23 (3), 221–238.
  • Graham, M., Hjorth, I., & Lehdonvirta, V. (2017): “Digital labor and development: Impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods.” Transfer, 23 (2), 135–162.
  • Gray, B., & Kish-Gephart, J.J. (2013): “Encountering social class differences at work: How ‘class work’ perpetuates inequality.” Academy of Management Review, 38, 670–699.
  • Healy, J., Nicholson, D., & Pekarek, A. (2017): “Should we take the gig economy seriously?” Labour & Industry, 27 (3), 1–17.
  • ILO – International Labour Office (2017): World Employment and Social Outlook. Sustainable Enterprises and Jobs: Formal Enterprises and Decent Work. Geneva: ILO.
  • Kalev, A., Dobbin, F., & Kelly, E. (2006): “Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies.” American Sociological Review, 71, 589–617.
  • Kochan, T.A., Smith, M., Wells, J.C., & Rebitzer, J.B. (1994): “Human Resource Strategies and contingent workers: The case of safety and health in the petrochemical industry.” Human Resource Management, 33 (1), 55–77.
  • Kramar, R. (2014): “Beyond strategic human resource management: Is sustainable human resource management the next approach?” International Journal of Human Resource Management, 25 (8), 1069–1089.
  • Ozarow, D., & Croucher, R. (2014): “Workers’ self-management, recovered companies and the sociology of work.” Sociology, 48 (5), 989–1006.
  • Pfeffer, J. (2010): “Building sustainable organizations: The human factor.” Academy of Management Perspectives, 24 (1), 34–45.
  • Putnam, L.L., Myers, K.K., & Gailliard, B.M. (2014): “Examining the tensions in workplace flexibility and exploring options for new directions.” Human Relations, 67 (4), 413–440.
  • Schüßler, E., Rüling, C.-C., & Wittneben, B.B.F. (2014): “On melting summits: The limitations of field-configuring events as catalysts of change in transnational climate policy.” Academy of Management Journal, 57 (1), 140–171.
  • Scherer, A.G., Rasche, A., Palazzo, G., & Spicer, A. (2016): “Managing for political corporate social responsibility: New challenges and directions for PCSR 2.0.” Journal of Management Studies, 53 (3), 273–298.
  • Tapia, M., Ibsen, C.L. & Kochan, T.A. (2015): Mapping the frontier of theory in industrial relations. The contested role of worker representation.” Socio-Economic Review, 13, 157–184.
  • Weil, D. (2011): “Enforcing labor standards in fissured workplaces: The US experience.” Economic and Labour Relations Review, 22, 33–54.
  • Wright, C., Nyberg, D., & Grant, D. (2012): “‘Hippies on the third floor’: Climate change, narrative identity and the micropolitics of corporate environmentalism.” Organization Studies, 33 (11), 1451–1475.
  • Zietsma, C., & Lawrence, T.B. (2010): “Institutional work in the transformation of an organizational field: The interplay of boundary work and practice work.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 55, 189–221.

Markus Helfen is Professor of Human Resource Management and Employment Relations in the Department of Organisation and Learning, Faculty of Business and Management, University of Innsbruck, Austria. Markus has recently published in leading management and industrial relations journals like ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Human Relations’, ‘The British Journal of Industrial Relations’, and the ‘International Journal of Human Resource Management’. His research focuses on management, industrial and employment relations, advances in institutional theory and collective action in inter-firm networks.
Andreas Pekarek is a Lecturer in the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Andreas has published in such journals as ‘The British Journal of Industrial Relations’, ‘Industrial Relations Journal’, ‘European Journal of Industrial Relations’, and ‘Industrial and Labor Relations Review’. His research focuses on unions and worker representation, collective bargaining, professional work, and interdisciplinary and comparative approaches to work and industrial relations.
Rick Delbridge is Cardiff University’s Dean of Research, Innovation & Enterprise and Professor of Organizational Analysis at Cardiff Business School, UK. He has published widely in leading international journals across the range of employment relations, management and organization studies. His current research interests include work, workplace relations and the management of innovation. Rick is currently leading Cardiff University’s plans to create a social science research park (SPARK).