Unpacking Informal Contractual Relationships: Psychological Contracts Established by Australian Business Academics

By O'Neill, Grant; Krivokapic-Skoko, Branka et al. | Irish Journal of Management, July 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Unpacking Informal Contractual Relationships: Psychological Contracts Established by Australian Business Academics


O'Neill, Grant, Krivokapic-Skoko, Branka, Dowell, David, Irish Journal of Management


ABSTRACT

This paper addresses the findings from exploratory research on the content of psychological contracts formed by business academics within an Australian university. The research used a sequential multi-method research design, where focus groups were initially conducted to elicit insights into the content of the academics' psychological contracts. A cross-sectional survey was then administered and exploratory factor analysis of the data collected was undertaken. Cluster analysis was used to further examine perceived employer and employee obligations within a university context, and it proved useful as a means of deepening understanding of academics' psychological contracts, variation among them, and their possible workplace effects. The research identified the existence of quite divergent expectations, interests, motivations and levels of commitment by the academics to the university. It is argued that sensitivity to such variations, and appropriate tailoring of management initiatives and messages, is important if the university is to achieve its goals.

Key words: Psychological contract; Academics; Employee commitment; Professionalism

INTRODUCTION

The past two decades have seen enormous change in the number, funding and focus of Australian universities. Such changes have profoundly affected the context and conditions of academic work. Australian academics work in universities that have been characterised as increasingly managerialist and market-oriented (Marginson and Considine, 2000), where academic freedom and autonomy have declined and performance expectations have sharply increased (Winter and Sarros, 2002). Government funding now comes with more strings attached and managers within universities commonly apply tighter conditions and controls upon faculties, departments and individual academics as they allocate funds internally. However, despite increased accountability and responsiveness, Australian academics and universities are regularly criticised by politicians and the press for being out of touch with, or unresponsive to, the current and future needs of industry and students.

Across Australia we have seen the practice and language of business increasingly become the practice and language of university leaders and managers (Curtis and Matthewman, 2005). Such changes reflect, and have contributed to, the emergence of the increasingly dominant view of university education as a matter of private investment rather than a public good (Jarvis, 2001). Of course, many of these changes and challenges facing Australian academics and universities have also been experienced by academics and universities in the UK and in some other parts of Europe (Newton, 2002; Jarvis, 2001). As in the UK, Australian academics are working longer hours, experiencing greater stress, and have declining morale. In many universities staffstudent ratios have reached new highs, and value conflict between principles and practices associated with commercialisation and those traditionally associated with a commitment to teaching, learning and scholarship has become a well-recognised problem (Winter and Sarros, 2002; Marginson and Considine, 2000; Jarvis, 2001).

In this current university context, we believe that the psychological contract is a particularly relevant and powerful construct that can help explain, and inform effective management of, contemporary academic work performance and workplace relations. The psychological contract can provide insight into contemporary employment relationships; indeed, it has been argued that perceived obligations within the psychological contract are often more important to jobrelated attitudes and behaviour than are the formal and explicit elements of contractual agreements (Thompson and Bunderson, 2003). By focusing on aspects of the employment relationship that go beyond the terms set in formal employment contracts, a number of authors analysed important employees' attitudes and behaviour as well as their alignment with the organisation's values (Conway and Briner, 2005; Robinson, 1996; Robinson and Rousseau, 1994; Nelson et al. …

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