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…

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.

Just how hard is it to treat people decently?

Every so often the internet throws up some serendipitous issues. A discussion on Twitter about the recent case of the Vicar unable to make an unfair dismissal claim since he was deemed to be employed by God caused me to look at Rerum Novarum, the 1891 Encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, which said among other things that

  • Employees should be paid a “living wage”and receive stable working conditions
  • They should have proper rest breaks
  • Trade unions were on the whole a good thing
  • Even if they had the economic power to do so, employers shouldn’t exploit or treat their staff badly

At the same time, the latest post from blogger Maid in London, which details life as a hotel housekeeper, popped up in my timeline. I think it’s fair to say that her employer takes the opposite view to Pope Leo.

Some people do pretty awful jobs in unpleasant conditions. They clean hotel rooms, collect bins, make or assemble things in hot and noisy environments, work with dangerous equipment, or deal with people in difficult or crisis situations. Although it’s true that you can get job satisfaction from even the most mundane or demanding task, most in those roles don’t do it for the love of the job. And despite what some in social media suggest, these jobs aren’t all going to disappear in the next 5-10 years.

So why do we think that just because someone does a manual job, for low pay, that it’s somehow okay to treat them like dirt? While some HR people might get slightly orgasmic at the thought that the world of work is full of “cool” organisations like Google, where employees drink lattes while sliding down pool tables, others boast of their commercial prowess by looking at new and innovative ways to cut employee terms and conditions in pursuit of the “bottom line”, and a third group wander around ineffectually bemoaning the fact that line managers don’t listen to them or follow their carefully constructed processes. None of these groups seem to consider that just treating people with a little common decency might pay dividends both in terms of staff morale and productivity.

Let’s face it, if a celibate theologian from the Victorian era can “get it”, then twenty first century HR professionals should be able to.

Custom and Practice is no Yolk

“It’s Custom and Practice” is a phrase that I used to hear a lot when negotiating with trade unions. And even though today far fewer workplaces are unionised, virtually every one has its own customs and practices. It could be the company gives people a day off pre-Christmas; it could be that the company always gives enhanced redundancy terms; it could be that staff can swap shifts between themselves without reference to managers. Whatever it is, it’s almost certainly not written down as part of the organisation’s policies and procedures.

Trying to change these things can be one of the hardest parts of employee relations – not because there are any particular legal difficulties but because people have an expectation of these practices. And the argument that “it’s not written down” simply does not wash. I had very little sympathy with Mondelez, the firm that owns Cadbury’s Chocolate, when the furore over the chocolate used in Creme Eggs broke last week. As consumers complained that the company was now using a cheap substitute rather than Cadbury’s signature Dairy Milk brand, the company spokesman pointed out that Creme Eggs weren’t marketed as “Dairy Milk Creme Eggs”. Factually of course, he’s correct –  the company have done nothing ‘wrong’ in changing the type of chocolate. But consumer egg-spectations (sorry) were that if they bought the product, they would get a particular type of chocolate, the same they had had for over 40 years.

It shows, yet again, that imposing change on people – even if you have a good reason for doing it – is likely to lead to a backlash. If you need to make changes within your business, don’t make the same mistake as Mondelez