The employer employee relationship is, by design, one where the employer holds greater bargaining power than its employees. In their use of this power, employers often convince employees to accept new responsibilities, changes job descriptions, working hours and the like. Employees, often feeling the power imbalance, may put up some initial resistance but, because jobs are hard to come by in South Africa, often cave and accept these changes with little to no benefit to themselves or their careers.
No more is this prevalent than with young Black professionals seeking to climb the corporate ladder with as little friction as possible. The problem is, in merely agreeing to changes to your job, you can end up doing work which is completely divorced from the role you originally occupied, and which is not connected to your ultimate career goals. All too often we hear people say things like “I started at company X doing marketing and wanting to become a specialist in that field but somehow I’ve ended up doing sales for the last couple of years, something I’ve never wanted to do”.
So how do you stop that from happening to you?
Well it begins with knowing your rights. The Constitution of South Africa gives every person in South Africa the right to fair labour practices. This right includes the right to not have your terms and conditions of employment unilaterally changed by your employer. See, most employers know this, and that is why they need and will ask you to agree to changes in your job description, because without it, such changes would amount to an unfair labour practice and you can approach the CCMA to have such a change reversed. This is why, when it comes to changes in your terms and conditions of employment, you hold more bargaining power than you realise. This is of course except in the case of retrenchments where both parties should attempt to meet each other in the middle in order to prevent job losses.
When we say terms and conditions of employment, we are talking about the terms of your employment contract, job description and your performance contract. Once you and your employer have agreed on the terms of the aforementioned documents, your employer cannot change them without your consent. As such, you are somewhat in the driver’s seat and have some negotiating power. Now this does not mean that every little additional task outside of your job description should be challenged or negotiated, after all taking on additional tasks here and there can broaden your knowledge and experience and help you achieve your career goals. We are talking about big changes, fundamental changes or long term changes. These should be negotiated so that you get some or other benefit from the change that will ultimately help you in your career. It should not only be the company that benefits from your willingness to change and adapt.
When you are faced with restructuring or your employer seeks to alter your job description, duties and/or responsibilities, use that time to negotiate better benefits and or opportunities for yourself. It is imperative that you do not turn the negotiation into a fight leaden with ultimatums. Negotiate and do it intelligently with lots of forethought. You would be surprised what employers will agree to if approached in a stern, clear and methodical manner. Further, as with any negotiation, neither party will walk away happy – concessions will have to be made – but just make sure you get something out of it. After all, its your career at stake and not just the employer’s desire for organisational efficiency.
Lastly, if your employer has made a unilateral change to your terms and conditions of employment without your consent, you may approach the CCMA to have the dispute arbitrated or you may, if the matter is urgent, approach the Labour Court. As the CCMA is a free resource, we would suggest you approach them first. Should you be faced with imminent structural changes to your terms and conditions of employment we would suggest you seek out legal advice. SASLAW is a great nationwide organisation which offers pro bono legal assistance with a special focus on Labour-related issues.
*Note that this article does not constitute legal advice for which you can hold the writer or the publication liable.
By Bonga Simelane