Virgin on the Ridiculous

This tweet – and the responses to it – has been bouncing around my Twitter timeline over the last day or so. 

It’s been used as an example of the incompetence of management of railways in the UK; as a case for the renationalisation of the rail industry where profit isn’t the motive; and as a warning against privatisation in the NHS (where apparently Virgin are keen to become involved). Even a national newspaper weighed in

Sadly however, the real reasons why this problem occurred is more complex and mundane, and comes back to the Cinderella of HR, Employee Relations.

There are three factors at work here: Firstly, being a train driver is not an unskilled task that anyone off the street can do. So Virgin can’t just simply recruit to fill its staffing gaps without planning for the extensive training period required (nor, as a passenger, would I want any old individual sitting in the cab of a 140mph Pendolino as it hurtles along busy train routes). Nor are there vast numbers of qualified drivers sitting around twiddling their thumbs in the hope that someone from Virgin Trains will give them a call.

Secondly, train drivers hours are – again as a passenger, quite rightly – restricted, originally by the wonderfully named Hidden Regulations, with maximum length of shift and minimum rest periods, and now by agreement between management and unions in accordance with the Working Time Regulations.  So even if someone wanted to work overtime they might not be allowed to.

And finally, it’s because management and unions have – for many years, certainly back to the days of nationalised British Rail – have had agreements in place to allow drivers to supplement their income by working overtime on their rest days. Staffing rosters have been designed so that there is always overtime available. (I believe it dates back to the 1970s where people got around the Government-imposed pay restraint policies during a time of high inflation by ensuring that overtime would make up the difference – but if you know differently please let me know).

And most of the time, the system works well. Drivers are generally willing and able to work overtime and the train operators are happy to maintain good employee relations by ensuring it is available. Occasionally, as happened at the weekend, the system fails, but the industrial strife that would be caused by trying to ensure it never happened would be far more disruptive.

Frames of Reference (Part 2)

About 10 days ago, I posted a blog post which consisted of a series of images and the simple question: What do you see?

The reactions it gained, both in the comments and on social media, were interesting and varied – as I’d suspected, everyone saw the images in a slightly different way – some saw them individually, some saw them thematically, and the same picture could elicit different reactions.

The differences occur because we all perceive things based on our own knowledge, experiences and values – everyone has a different frame of reference. And these frames of reference transfer into the workplace as much as any other aspect of life.

Sociologist Alan Fox broke these workplace frames of reference down into 3 broad categories:

·         Unitarist – everyone in the organisation shares similar values and culture and they are all working to the same end

·         Pluralist    people have different aims and objectives, which may depend on where they are in the organisation and as a result organisations become a coalition of interests –  and these interests can and do sometimes conflict

·         Radical (or Marxist) – the groups in a workforce (which can crudely be split into ‘managers’ and ‘workers’) are inherently in conflict – if one gains the other loses.

For the last 30 years, the dominant viewpoint in HR and business has been the Unitarist one – whether it’s Tom Peters and his “excellent” companies, or HR concepts like ‘best practice’ and ‘employee engagement’. But is it time to reconsider the idea that “we’re all in it together”? The increasing numbers of industrial disputes – which I highlighted here – suggest that increasingly groups of employees are considering that their interests are better served by opposing the wishes of their managers. While the so-called Uber model of employment distances people from their organisation even further.

After all if we interpret 5 photographs differently, why on earth should we all interpret something as complex as a business in a unified and agreed way?

Strikes, Strictly and Brexit

I heard an interesting theory put forward recently (by comedian Frank Skinner) that Strictly Come Dancing led to Brexit. In the 2008 series, journalist John Sergeant was possibly the most hopeless contestant to ever appear on the programme. However despite the  frequent condemnation of the dance judges, the public voted week after week to keep him in the show. Skinner suggested that it was perhaps the moment that people realised they could ignore “experts” and get the result they wanted through voting in sufficient numbers.

In common with every other area of business, HR professionals are currently grappling with the implications of Brexit. Much of the debate surrounds employment law (will it change or not, and if so how?), recruitment (what will be the rules on recruiting EU nationals, will they be required to have work permits), and skill shortages (will we still be able to employ existing EU staff, and if not how will we fill the skills gap?).

However, one overlooked area is that of Employee Relations. We’re currently seeing a wave of industrial disputes – railways, airline staff, Post Office workers, airport baggage handlers, Weetabix factory workers. While some suggest this is some wave of 1970s style union militancy, the fact is that the majority of these disputes are over ‘old-fashioned’ pay and conditions matters, and they are overwhelming supported by affected staff in secret ballots. Perhaps the Brexit vote has convinced ‘ordinary workers’ that they can change things by voting?

What it has also revealed is the poor approach of management in most of these situations. It may be arrogance – a belief that management proposals can always be implemented because the employer wants to, irrespective of the views of employees. Or it could be a refusal to believe that people will do something so ‘stupid’  – they won’t vote to strike and lose pay before Christmas (just like they won’t vote to leave the EU or for a dancer as poor as John Sergeant). Mostly however I suspect it’s a lack of competence – managers, including many in HR, just don’t know how to negotiate on a collective basis. It’s interesting that several of the disputes have been quickly solved when expert negotiators from ACAS have become involved.

So perhaps that’s another Brexit issue for HR people – the need to brush up on, or even gain in the first place, the knowledge and skills to manage employee relations. As someone who cut their HR teeth in this area, I’m looking forward to some full and frank discussions with trade union colleagues in the coming months and years!

Doing the Deal

Recently, I’ve been attempting to read “The Art of the Deal”, published in the 1980s by a New York businessman called Donald Trump (wonder whatever happened to him?).  While it doesn’t contain any dramatic new insights into deal-making, it shows that the author does understand that to be successful in business, it is necessary to negotiate.

When the book was published, most HR professionals would have seen this as a core skill. Negotiating with staff, whether via unions or not, was a day to day occurrence and something that was an integral part of the job. HR people understood that the interests of employers and staff were not always aligned and that there needed to be an element of give and take on both sides. Hardline confrontational tactics might be used on occasion, but normally only if a red-line had been crossed (or if there were some hidden agenda at play).

These days, negotiation skills are very much a lost art. “Employee Relations” means, to many HR people, the ‘nuisance’ of dealing with an individual grievance or a disciplinary matter. If workers aren’t completely sold on the company’s mission, it’s due to a failure of our employee engagement initiatives and we need to redouble our efforts to get our happiness scores up.

The problem of course is that when a serious dispute occurs, HR professionals have no idea how to deal with it. Managers at Southern Rail decided that the best way to resolve their dispute was to troll their staff on social media in an attempt to bulldoze their position through. After a prolonged period of deadlock, the junior doctors dispute was only resolved when the arbitration service ACAS helped both parties to negotiate a deal (unfortunately, attitudes had become so entrenched by that point that the deal was later rejected, despite being recommended by the union).

So here are my “Negotiation 101” tips for any HR practitioner – before you even start a negotiation.

·         Understand that the other party has different objectives to you. What may seem a ‘logical’ argument to you may cut no ice with them

·         Be clear about what items in the negotiation are tradeable and what are not (your ideal, realistic and fall-back positions). You can’t have your cake and eat it!

·         Anticipate what the other party may want, and the arguments they may use – and then develop counter-proposals

·         Aim for a win-win – something which allows the other party show they have gained something for concessions they may have to make.

And when you get there, listen. Half the skill of a negotiation is understanding when the other party might be willing to discuss a tradeable item.

It may be a little more time-consuming than the current approach of what “management says goes” but it will be far more effective. Just ask Donald…