You scratch my back…

You scratch my back…

Much has been made of the deal between courier firm Hermes and the GMB union which gives self-employed ‘gig economy’ workers various benefits, such as holiday pay, provided they sign up to follow delivery routes laid down by the company rather than simply set their own delivery route.

One interesting side debate that has occurred among some HR professionals is whether this deal is indicative of the lack of trust that businesses have in employees, and the underlying assumption that employees are inherently less productive than the self-employed unless they are controlled.

It’s an opinion, but one which I think is incorrect. It seems to ignore that work is a complex relationship, with economic, psychological and sociological aspects, which has at its heart a ‘bargain’ – I (the worker) will give you (the business) my time and skill in return for pay, a safe environment and fair treatment by the employer. The power in the relationship usually lies with the employer although there can be times when the employee has the upper hand.

The nature of any bargain is that if I give something up, I expect something in return – otherwise it’s not ‘fair’. So in this situation, the employer giving extra money to individuals wants something back for it – in this case a higher degree of control over the working arrangements. It doesn’t necessarily suggest a lack of trust (the existing system of drivers setting their own routes seems to have worked well enough for both sides) but a recognition that the relationship has subtly changed – and crucially still feels fair to both sides.

Think about it this way. When you are dating someone it’s a fairly loose arrangement, a little like true self-employment. When you’re not with your boy/girlfriend, there’s a certain element of trust (you assume that they are not dating others when you’re not around) but generally you don’t bother too much about what they are doing. When you move in together, the relationship changes –  you give up certain things (the ‘right’ to come and go as you please, watch what you like on TV, decorate your room in a particular way) in return for other benefits. No-one is suggesting that loss of control over the TV remote or letting your partner know where you are implies a lack of trust or an inherent belief that single people have more freedom than the cohabiting. You each make a bargain to give certain things up in return for other things, in order to preserve fairness and balance.

So rather than examine the specifics of the GMB-Hermes deal, look at it in the round – it’s about maintaining equilibrium in the relationship.

(If this all sounds a bit theoretical and airy-fairy, there  are some real practical implications in the world of work –  find out more here)

people walking on street between concrete buildings

Photo by Irina Iriser on


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…

Anger, Brexit and Moving Forward

I was reluctant to write a post about last week’s EU referendum. Enough keyboard warriors have already given their reactions, opinions and solutions. But a couple of recent posts and comments from HR people have changed my mind.

First, let me state that, as a Remain voter, I’ve been through anger, disbelief, shock and all the other emotions that many others (like this, this and this) have also experienced.  It’s small consolation to live in a city which voted overwhelmingly to remain and where I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s anything other than horrified by the result and its implications for them and their children.

But what I will not do is get involved in a blame game. People who voted Leave did so for a variety of individual reasons – some will have had well thought out principled arguments, some were out and out racists, some had a rose-tinted and nostalgic view of England in the 1950s and some were just conned by the duplicitous snake-oil salesmen leading the Leave campaign.  To start trying to demonise the old, or working class people from the de-industrialised north, or those who live in rural areas, or those without a degree, for the way they voted is neither constructive not helpful. Indeed, the demonising of certain groups, particularly by politicians (and I don’t just mean UKIP) is the sort of tactic that has led us to the present situation.

We talk in HR a lot about “engagement” – an ill-defined concept which provokes a range of reactions from evangelism to cynicism. But I remember in one discussion a colleague saying “I can’t really describe what an engaged employee looks like – but I certainly know what a disengaged one is”. What we saw last week was the result of a disengaged population who wanted to kick back against something. As an old boss of mine used to say when discussing union negotiations, “when you’re in a lose/lose situation, do what you want to do”. And that’s what they appear to have done.

The UK seems to be in a collective Kubler-Ross curve at the moment. But the only way we will move forward to is get past the denial and anger stages and start to make the best of our new circumstances.  And maybe that means applying some of the ideas we use to try to improve employee engagement on a wider basis.

Time to Worry about the Trade Union Bill

HR professionals (and indeed any businesses that employ staff) live and act within the employment law framework. Some laws are sensible, others are bureaucratic and others just plain unhelpful. So in one sense, the Government’s new Trade Union Bill is just another piece of legislation that we’ll have to live with, whatever your view of it. And since Bills are often modified before they become Acts, it’s the final version we need to worry about rather than the first draft.

However, the planned aim of the bill is one that should cause concern for the (ever-dwindling) band of HR people who work in unionised environments and who will be at the sharp end of its consequences.

Firstly, it ignores the fact that if a union is threatening a strike (something in itself which is pretty rare these days) it’s a signal that you have a serious problem in your business. You may be convinced that the change you need to make is correct but you haven’t convinced your staff or their representatives of it. Imposing your will on reluctant employees is not generally going to make something happen effectively, as anyone who’s ever tried to manage any sort of change in a business will know.

Secondly, trying to tie things up in legal knots is not a long-term strategy. It may be a tactic that you wish to employ on occasion but it’s not going to solve the underlying issue. (And if you want an analogy, the current immigration rules for non-EU workers are so complex that many companies just won’t bother to try and recruit someone from overseas. But has it solved the problem of a shortage of skills among UK workers? Not according to this from bosses’ organisation the CBI).

And thirdly, it simply sets up an environment where “low-level” activity becomes the norm. Staff won’t strike but might decide not to bother with voluntary overtime; sickness levels will go up; grievances will increase, as will issues around health and safety, while Union reps will become uncooperative when we need those “off the record” conversations with them. That may not attract the headlines or create short-term inconvenience for customers, but it will lead to a less efficient and less effective business in the long term.

One of the first things I learnt from a seasoned industrial relations manager nearly 30 years ago was “you always let your opponent take something away from a negotiation – humiliating them leaves them angry and they’ll seek revenge in the future”. It’s a mistake the miners made in the 1970s, and on a larger scale it may turn out to be a mistake made by the Eurozone in relation to Greece. To return to a theme of earlier posts like this and this, creating conditions where employers can treating employees as disposable is not a recipe for sustainable business success.

Machiavelli and Macho Management

Originally posted October 2013

As a young HR professional, I cut my teeth on what were known in those days as “industrial relations”, and spent many a happy hour (well, many an hour anyway) locked in negotiations with trade unions. Big industrial disputes (like big hair and shoulder pads) went out of fashion by the end of the 1980s, so it was with a mixture of professional interest and nostalgia that I watched how the Grangemouth dispute last week played out.  (If you missed the story, the background is here).

Depending on your viewpoint, it was a classic case of old-fashioned politically motivated trade unions attempting to resist change by an employer, or bully-boy tactics by a company using a pretext to drive down workers terms and conditions. Either way – and there seems to have been elements of both extremes at work – the dispute reached a head when Ineos announced that the plant would close with the loss of 800 jobs; the next day the union accepted the company proposals; and the following day the company said the plant would in fact stay open and that £300m would be invested in it.

A resounding defeat for the unions and a victory for macho management? I don’t think so. A wise old manager once told me “even if you’ve won your point, always give the union something to take back to their members. Trying to humiliate them will just lead  to resentment and they’ll look for an opportunity to gain revenge at some later date”. In fact that view goes all the way back to Machiavelli, who – although he advised Princes to kill or banish their opponents, since being merciful and magnanimous in victory would lead to a constant fear of plots and rivalry –  also counselled against trying to rule people (which in this case means the employees) by fear to the point of hatred.

So I’m going to indulge in a bit of crystal-ball gazing.

Grangemouth will reopen with the staff on worse terms and different work patterns, and Ineos will begin its investment. But as staff begin to resent the things they conceded “at gunpoint” the plant will be characterised for the next few years by “low level” industrial disputes, not necessarily formal action or even make the news but those which take up a lot of managerial time and effort. At some point, when the union feels on much stronger ground (probably after the investment is completed, or the economy is stronger), there’ll be another big dispute. Ineos will then be faced with a choice: play the “nuclear” card of threatening to shut the plant again (and risk looking like the boy who cried wolf); back down to the union demands; or decide to cut their losses and sell a troublesome plant to a competitor.  Whichever they chose, their significant investment won’t yield much of a return, and I wouldn’t fancy being one of their shareholders over the next few years.*


(*Note – this blog is not intended as financial advice. Shares in Ineos may go up, down, loop the loop or defy the ground. Past performance is not a guide to the future, as any football fan will tell you).