21 August 2020

Maryam Aldossari shares details of her Venture Fund-sponsored project investigating idiosyncractic deals in the UK university sector.
Investigating Idiosyncratic Deals in the University Sector

Through the Venture Fund, I have led (in collaboration with Dr Sara Chaudhry) a research project that focuses on the 'dark side' of idiosyncractic deals (I-Deals), with British university serving as the context.

I-Deals are represented as an illustration of the growing trend of individualisation of the employment relationship, whereby employees can negotiate non-standard personalised agreements with their employer. In our project, we explored cross-level factors, including institutional, organisational, and individual-level characteristics that are likely to impact the negotiation of I-Deals. We also examined the underlying attitudes and behaviours coworkers are likely to exhibit when they see their contemporaries getting special arrangements that they are not privy to.

Our multi-case approach highlighted that several macro aspects of the socio-institutional context of British academia influence, and enable, individual employees' ability to negotiate I-Deals. In particular, the institutional pressure on publications (in response to external Research Excellence Framework pressures) creates an implicit understanding that academics have to be 'research active' and those who publish in highly ranked journals are considered as 'star' academics. Across all case study organisations considered, academics' 3- and 4-star publications, and to a lesser extent their teaching scores, were increasingly being used as bargaining chips by individual academics to negotiate a range of atypical arrangements, such as faster promotion, out-of-cycle, and significant salary raises, reduced workload.

The project also highlighted coworkers' awareness of these atypical, individualised negotiations through a range of sources, such as the informal grapevine, close personal friendships in the workplace, as well as formal group meetings and school-wide communication. However, this knowledge of I-Deals by coworkers was a poisoned chalice because it ignited a desire to ask for atypical arrangements without having access to the strongest bargaining chips. This resulted in perceptions of inequality and organisational injustice, and created undercurrents of demotivation, disengagement, and fractured organisational citizenship among those who had not been granted I-Deals.

Our project revealed that in cases of both successful and unsuccessful I-Deal making, a range of negative consequences emerged at the individual and organisational levels of analysis (for example lower levels of trust, cynicism around institutional policies and practices, fractured group ties, loss of talent, reduced flexibility, and so on). In addition, in a context where I-Deals were an embedded organisational norm, coworkers in particular experienced a range of negative outcomes such as feelings of demotivation, dissatisfaction, disengagement, and higher intentions to leave.

Maryam Aldossari is Lecturer in International Human Resource Management at the University of Edinburgh Business School