The Art Of Employee Relations


We hear more and more about collective workforce disputes as businesses continue to look to restructure their operations in order to survive, compete, or grow, and these disputes have received something of a renaissance in recent years.

A quick glance at the national news outlines the various ballots and strikes continuing to take place at businesses right throughout the UK, such as Southern Rail, the Prison Service and Tata Steel. This industrial action is for a range of reasons too, including changes that could affect the health and safety of workers, employee’s working conditions or changes to pension arrangements.

An interesting development recently occurred at Southern Rail where employees who were members of the ASLEF union rejected a deal to resolve the ‘driver-only’ train dispute, a deal that ASLEF was recommending that their members accept, with this case being of particular interest due to the fact that Unions usually negotiate to the point of being confident that the deal they put forward to their members is more than likely going to be accepted.

HR have always played a key role in employment disputes and yet it does not seem to be mentioned as a core skill in the future direction often talked about by HR stakeholders. In the continued quest for HR to become strategic business partners, working proactively to develop organisations and the like, it is always important to remember that good employee/industrial relations and the management of such from a HR point of view, truly is, an art.

I was really fortunate to grow up in a true IR climate in the world of steelmaking. With colourful characters from a management and union side, I was given fantastic exposure as an up and coming HR professional to experience that world and understand how it works. I got to understand how important the mutual relationship was, and how issues could be addressed behind closed doors, out in the open, and even in those ‘tricky situations’ where the deal agreed behind closed doors was then played out in the open for full effect.

I often recall my first day in Steelmaking where I was introduced as a HR apprentice to a union representative who asked my boss if that meant I was a ‘Trainee Bastard’. I know it sounds bad, but I found it amusing, and I loved every minute in that environment.

But what I and my other ‘junior’ HR colleagues learned during this period, was a set of skills that nothing could have prepared us for, not the world of academia, not through our professional membership, and not in non-unionised environments. We learned the art of employee relations through watching how Employee Relations managers and Industrial Relations Directors operated. We watched them strategise, develop consultation plans, play a ‘chess game’ when considering what decisions they could and couldn’t make, watched them pick their battles and know when to deal. We also watched them love, almost every minute of it, unless the consultation was to discuss job losses, when conversations were more reserved and respectful. These skills were critical in the industries in which we operated.

My concern is that I gather this is now something of a dying skill, but if the recent news stories as I mentioned above are anything to go by, then these skills need to continue to be developed or businesses will suffer. Unions have continued to develop these core skills, largely as this continues to form a fundamental part of their job description, so if businesses fail to develop skills to represent their interests and their side of the debate, then employee relations disputes are in danger of no longer being a level playing field.

The rise of technology, automation, the fear of ‘robots are going to take our jobs’ and a difficult economic climate, means that businesses are going to need to consult and modify their working practices, terms and conditions, and even physical environments in the not-to-distant future which I predict will mean continued industrial action as it is inevitable that any proposed changes will not be to everyone’s satisfaction. And if the industrial action is going to continue, then the skills within the business environment to respond to this, will continue to be needed. So maybe developing HR professionals in the art of employee relations, needs a renaissance too.