Trapped into Reverse Asymmetry: Public Employment Services Dealing with Employers

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Dario Raspanti and Tatiana Saruis. Click here to access the article.

That employers play a role in active labour market policy (ALMP) implementation is often neglected by policy-makers and scholars. Whether they participate in policy design or hire ALMP users, they can determine the success or failure of these policies. Public employment services (PES) develop different kinds of employer-oriented services; our focus is on job-brokerage, aimed at supporting employers during the recruitment process. PES’ job-brokers oversee the recruitment process, from defining job requirements to the screening of job candidates. They are aimed at increasing the probability of matching employers’ requirements and job seekers in terms of skills and expertise.

Our contribution is identifying job-brokers’ strategies in dealing with employers. We found that job-brokers elaborated three strategies to cope with the characteristics of the service relationship with employers that we term “language switching”, “output maximisation”, and “red tape reduction”. The strategies are constituted by four interrelated components: relational, perceptive, technical, and tactical.

This analysis may help policy-makers, PES managers and job-brokers in developing a much more aware strategy to interact with employers.

Why a ‘reverse asymmetry’?

The literature on street-level bureaucracy stresses frontline workers’ ability to control citizens’ access to public benefits and services, acting as de-facto policy-makers. Service recipients are non-voluntary users since they depend on the benefits and services provided by the public administration, have limited control on service outputs and suffer from lack of information, resources, and agency. As a result, frontline workers can develop routinised procedures to minimise uncertainty and stress stemming from the service relationship.

We define the relationship between job-brokers and employers as characterised by a reverse asymmetry, since the latter have the capacity to withdraw at any moment without repercussions and play a fundamental role in achieving service outcomes.

These features derive from the characteristic of labour market intermediation in the context we studied. We base our findings on 38 semi-structured interviews with managers and job-brokers from 10 job-centres located in Tuscany, a region in central Italy.

In this context, firstly, employers rely on different channels of intermediation. The most common is the informal relationship with employees. There are also private providers, employers’ organisations, universities, and other non-profit entities. As a result, only a very limited share of the total recruitments is channelled by the PES.

Secondly, the realisation that the service outcome – i.e. the recruitment of a public service candidate – primarily depends on employers’ willingness. Although employers have become a specific target group for the PES, their relationship with the public service is not regulated by national law and the commitment to their needs at the regional level is still insufficient. Employers are not forced to register job vacancies on public job-boards, nor they are obliged to choose among the shortlist of candidates as they contact the PES. Frontline workers seek to influence employers’ recruitment decisions without controlling the relationship. It is also essential to establish a long-lasting relationship with employers based on mutual trust, which increases employers’ commitment in PES activities.

Job-seekers’ strategies to deal with employers

Our findings show that frontline workers perform three strategies to interact with employers: language switching, output maximisation, and red tape reduction.

1) Language switching regards frontline workers’ communicative skills in achieving the collaboration of employers. The frontline worker uses informal and professional lexicons to gain employers’ confidence while showing them professional expertise in labour market intermediation. Language switching is also deployed to translate employers’ requests into the classification of the PES database.

2) Output maximisation concerns the screening procedures of the candidates according to the employer’s request. Contradictions arise when an employer’s expectations collide with no-discrimination rules. Employers may indicate selection criteria forbidden by the law, e.g. age, sex, race, ethnic group, marital status, and so on. Job-brokers face a dilemma between maximising the service’s outcomes and guaranteeing equal opportunities to all candidates, as stressed by the law.

3) Eventually, red tape reduction is aimed at speeding up the delivery time of candidates’ curricula to employers.

Four interrelated components of these strategies emerge from the analysis: 1) The relational component is based on the emotional aspects of the relationship, which are employed to create a climate beneficial for the realisation of service goals; 2) the perceptive component refers to frontline workers’ attempts to influence users’ perceptions about the service and their professional ability; 3) the technical component is grounded on streamlining the procedures and handling work instruments to deal with their job; and 4) eventually, the tactical component stresses frontline workers’ inclination to consider the long-term effects of their decisions.

The identification of the components enriches the comprehension of the interaction between frontline workers and users at the street level and also informs policy-makers concerning frontline workers’ behaviour.

The result is much more awareness of service dynamics at the frontline, which is crucial to develop regulations and procedures tied to the actual service implementation.

About the authors

Dario Raspanti is a Research Assistant at the University of Florence.

Tatiana Saruis is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia.


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