Desi Industrial Psychologists

Unauthentic/Fake relationships in the workplace

The inequalities that characterise South African society are a breeding ground for insincere and/or false relationships in the workplace. This state of affairs is perpetuated by the bifurcated nature of South African society. The South African society is divided along racial, ethnic, social, and economic lines. In as much as the country has, in the main, experienced democratization, there have been cases of racial discrimination reported. These cases are expressly prohibited in the South African labour jurisprudence. Ethnicity and social segregation are hard to prove as they often manifest inscrutable. These kinds of dynamics are observed in multiple cases of workplace ostracism experienced by employees. This can be both subtle and overt, depending on the industry and workplace culture. Such instances of employee exclusion should be taken with a grain of salt as they could be construed as contravening the perpetrators’ right to freedom of association.

A right to freedom of association is an entrenched right constitutionally attributed to everyone, as contemplated in the Bill of Rights. This essentially constitutes the cornerstone of our democracy. Often situations exist at work where a victim’s psychological need for belonging and being accepted is juxtaposed with the perpetrator’s right to freedom of association. Furthermore, a legal loophole exists that allows people to experience and/or endure perpetual discrimination. Organisations that are serious about diversity and inclusion are not satisfied with being legally compliant and politically correct. They take steps to ensure that their human resource management systems are engineered appropriately to accommodate all their workforce needs. In addition, these firms ensure that their business operational practices are culturally and socially sensitive. Below is an elucidation of observed fake or unauthentic relationships as they manifest in the workplace.

Unauthentic or fake relationships among employees

The bureaucratic school of thought still underpins the organisational structures of many organisations. The influences of the bureaucracy on the structure of the organisations could be a likely root cause of fake and unauthentic relationships. The organisational design of a bureaucratically underpinned organisation is such that informal relationships are discouraged, and professional relationships are prioritized. This school of thought is not culturally sensitive to the South African context espoused in the philosophy of Ubuntu. However, many South African companies (especially in the labour-intensive sectors) are still influenced by the bureaucratic paradigm. Hierarchical organisational structures are observed in such firms. The problem with the hierarchical structure is observed in the historical background of the South African labour landscape. Despite the burgeoning enrollment of the previously disadvantaged groups in institutions of higher learning, there still exists a situation where the employment landscape becomes a highly contested terrain. The low economic growth rate intensifies the competition among prospective employees to secure jobs, as job creation becomes difficult. Consequently, a loose labour market leads to an oversupply of labour talent across the spectrum. The impact of the surplus of labour for those who are already employed creates uncertainty and/or insecurity for employees. The tension and insecurities in the employee’s minds tends to induce negative perceptions about their job-seeking (or newly employed) counterparts. Individuals who enter spaces of employment are viewed as threats by those who have been in the fold for a while. The relationship of trust among colleagues is thus threatened and often delayed. This results in employees competing to ensure their relevance and survival in the workplace. The unhealthy competition among employees leads to deliberate strategies to withhold vital information among co-workers, sabotaging tactics, infighting, conflict and unproductive disputes, accidents, as well as counterproductive behaviours.

Employees in this instance may withhold information from their colleagues to stay relevant and favoured by the employer. Some view information that no one else knows in the company as a competitive advantage. This puts the holder of information in a privileged position of power over his/her fellow employees. In other words, the person with the information is now viewed as a knowledge repository in the organisation. It gets to the extent that everything about the organisation is asked of them as holders of precious currency. Such individuals take pleasure in being the reservoir of company knowledge as they derive a sense of importance over other colleagues. Lack of openness about important information is caused by cynicism which develops over time. This cynicism stems from the organisational culture and climate that perpetuate unhealthy competition among co-workers. A relationship of trust among fellow employees is thus affected and consequences of this include unscrupulous conduct of some among others. Invariably this may negatively affect the company’s image. A plethora of unnecessary disputes may likely follow the hostile working environment. These disputes could range from product quality, theft, insolence, reduced effort in teamwork, and lack of creativity. The unhealthy working environment could affect the employees emotionally and psychologically; as they may experience stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, burnout and other such forms of mental illness.

It should be noted that the nature of relationships in such workplaces tends to be transactional rather than intrinsic. The transactional nature of these relationships is intensified by the fact that the parties do not voluntarily enter into sincere connections in the workplace. An individual employee needs his/her fellow colleagues for purposes of getting something instrumental (and of value) out of them.

In the South African labour jurisprudence, it is recognised that the start of the employment relationship is established by having a written contract between the parties. The rights, responsibilities and obligations of each party to an employment relationship will be spelt out in the employment contract. The doctrine of locatio conductio operarum underpins this relationship. This doctrine means that the employee is subjecting him or herself to the employer’s control. The contract of employment will therefore stipulate the duties and boundaries of both parties. The employer’s duties are to accept the employee to their service, provide the employee with work, pay the agreed upon remuneration, provide a safe working environment, and comply with all statutory obligations. The employee is obliged avail his service to the employer, to warrant his competence and reasonable efficiency, to be loyal, faithful and obedient to the employer, to be subordinate to the employer, to maintain bona fides, to exercise care when using the employer’s property and to refrain from misconduct (du Plessis & Fouche, 2006).

It could be deduced from the detail outlined above that there is an asymmetrical relationship between the employer and the employee, as depicted in the employment contract. This statement does not take away the employer’s prerogative as the business owner. However, the point of contention is that the employer should recognise the history of South African labour relations and take deliberate steps to address any past imbalances that may be prevalent in the workplace environment. The existence of the contract of employment is a necessary requirement but not the magic potion for establishment of authentic workplace relationships.

If the employer accepts the employee to service means, in an authentic employment relationship, essentially this means that the employer takes reasonable steps to embrace the employee’s character, background and personal cultural heritage into his service. The employee’s character traits can be assessed using objective and scientific methods such as psychometric assessments. These assessments will provide the employer with an overview of the employee’s personality strengths, development areas and behavioral derailers that may have a bearing on performance impact. Such knowledge can assist the employer in understanding the employees in his firm better, well beyond the superficial (and often fabricated) interview. The employer is better positioned to know who they are dealing with and what the individual brings to the organisation. Furthermore, insights generated by the employee assessment reports give the employer clues on how to tap into and leverage the employee’s talents.

The employer has an obligation to provide their employees with work as per the contract of employment. The knowledge of the individual worker’s strengths and weaknesses, which are gathered objectively, will enable the employer to allocate work to his employees according to their strengths. This is not to say that the employer will have to tailor the job description to suit individual employees. However, the knowledge of the individual worker will enable the employer to assign meaningful work to each employee, towards establishing person-job-fit. When an opportunity arises for advancement, an employer will have a legally justified decision to appoint workers to senior positions following this objective approach.

Given the high unemployment in the country and low literacy rate, how can a blue-collar worker looking for a job be in a position to negotiate on appropriate remuneration? At what point could such an employee be sure that the proposed remuneration package on offer is fair? The requirement that the employer pays the agreed remuneration to the employee is problematic in current times. It suggests that the employee has the power to bargain on the appropriate remuneration. It also suggests that the employee is aware of the going market wage rate for the job. Lastly, it suggests that the employee has an option to turn down the job offer if they feel that it is not matching their skills and worth. Job evaluation becomes an effective tool to establish all these answers. Employers who are sincere about human connections at work make use the most objective methods to determine to pay parameters of the entire workforce. Evaluating jobs should be carefully embarked upon with involvement of all relevant stakeholders, to avoid unnecessary disputes. In a unionised environment, the majority union should be involved in the job evaluation process from start to finish.

What is a safe working environment? Compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Employment Equity Act and Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Disease Act is not enough to constitute a safe working environment. A safe working environment is a safe space that is created intentionally, nurtured continuously and protected fiercely by the employer. Creating a safe working environment should begin by dismantling the organisational culture that may harbour features of oppression of some groups versus others. As mentioned above there should be no room for othering and malicious alienation in an authentic organisation. The culture of inclusion should be instilled and supported by the organisation’s top management. Diversity literacy and change management programmes should be institutionalised. This will ensure the physical and psychological safety of the workers. The contractual requirement of the employer to comply with statutory obligations is mandatory. These statutory duties are not a shopping list. They are a start-up recipe for authentic connections to be formed between the management (who represent the employer) and employees in the employment relationship. Employers could make commitments to sincerely cultivate these relationships by coming closer to employees in a quest to really see them and understand all that they are about. Information obtained in a process of learning can be leveraged to maximize mutual gains in the relationship; all the while showing up and acting in good faith. Consistency is critical if the gains of trust are to be achieved. When parties in the employment relationship get to a level of being real and brutally frank with one another, the dreaded (and almost sickening) superficiality in the relationship will be eliminated. At the same time employees may be elevated to own the game in the workplace and protect the cause of the employer. Similarly a good majority may be persuaded to refrain from misconduct of any form of destructive behaviour.


du Plessis, JV. and Fouche, MA. (2006). A Practical Guide to Labour Law. Durban: LexisNexis.


Compiled by:

Khayalethu Zono
Employee Relations and Engagement Specialist