Why resistance persists in the workplace… and why it might actually be good for companies!


Back in 2010 Professor David Courpasson of the OCE Research Center pointed out that, while Europe and the USA may not see so many mass demonstrations of it that they did in the past, resistance around subjects such as globalisation and climate change is still commonplace. Now he has published a new paper, Impactful Resistance: The Persistence of Recognition Politics in the Workplace, which looks at how resistance is also often seen within the corporate environment and how, despite preconceptions it can sometimes benefit the organisations which host it.

Courpasson points out that there is a long-standing and continuing debate as to whether resistance needs to be recognized by opponents to have an impact, or whether it can intrinsically generate hope and motivation because of the very cause it is defending. Whichever is the case, he states, resistance does seem to be capable of winning victories which are unlikely to say the least.

As part of a wide-ranging study of resistance movements Courpasson focused on a group of sixteen workers who took on their employer, a multinational insurance giant, over the sacking of more than 200 staff who refused to accept a drastic change in the terms of employment.

From early 2007 to 2011 the group fought, not just the company, but also the courts, through a steadily escalating series of measures which began with a blog and ended with a life-threatening, 84 day hunger strike. Faced with this the organisation finally conceded defeat and paid out an average of €30,000 in compensation to everyone directly affected by the initial decision.

What Courpasson finds so interesting in this case is not just that hitherto unpoliticised individuals became radical supporters of a cause, but that they came to see themselves in charge of a wider debate about the values of contemporary management and, crucially, that the processes and policies that management had enacted were not just detrimental to individual employees, but were actually detrimental to the future of the company itself.

Up until now, many analysts of the phenomenon of workplace resistance have framed it as the struggle of the weak against the strong, the victim against the victimiser, which will almost always lead to the defeat of the former. Similarly resistance has been positioned as purely negative and unproductive, at best a useful safety valve for the powerless rather than as something with a substantive vision. Consequently many of these analysts have posited that, if it has not already almost completely disappeared, then workplace resistance is on the brink of doing just that.

However Courpasson maintains that the insurance company resisters had most definitely delivered a meaningful and easily comprehensible challenge to corporate power. By showing an impressive ability to analyse and communicate the fallibility of both commercial and legal decisions which went against them they demonstrated to a wide audience that they were fighting an entrenchment of power, a defence of privilege and a short-termist approach to business that was not necessarily for the company good. As he puts it, effective challenge to corporate power must be based on engaging and compelling content – on a clear case that the resistance is not just for possibly individual, selfish reasons, but for the good of the company and its customers or clients. And it must also be based on a willingness to do whatever is necessary to win the final victory, even, as in the case of the resisters in the example, at the risk of damage to health and welfare or in the most extreme circumstance actual loss of life.

David Courpasson

As Professor of sociology, I study new forms of resistance at work as well as the dynamics and processes of power and domination in organisations. To my mind, social science research requires genuine and enthusiastic commitment to understanding the lives of working people. How do new organisations influence those lives? What mechanisms can people use to cope with the constraints and contradictions imposed on them by new labour laws? Is it possible to observe the creation of forms based on productive collective solidarity in today’s organisations? What vision of work do they serve? Does industrial action still have a future in economically liberal organisations? These are just some of the questions I attempt to explore in my work.

More information on David Courpasson:
His CV online
• His ResearchGate page

Further reading…

  • Courpasson, D. (2016). Impactful Resistance: The Persistence of Recognition Politics in the Workplace. Journal of Management Inquiry, 25(1): 96-100. doi: 10.1177/1056492615600354.
    View article abstract