The article by John Purcell and Mark Hall illustrates a number of key issues that have faced organisations when they have set up formal consultative processes since the early 2000’s. The high levels of churn identified between 2004 and 2011 strongly suggest that a number of questions raised by the IPA in 2007 have rarely been addressed:

 

  • Why is our agenda full of the basic “tea & toilets” issues? 
  • Why do representatives bring us a wish list of requests from employees?
  • Why do so few people stand for election?
  • Why are employees disengaged from the process? 
  • Why are managers unwilling to participate fully?
  • Why do we not see improved results from employee satisfaction surveys when they have been given a “voice”?

It is clear that Joint Consultation Committees have a better chance of enduring if representatives are elected and they receive training. All IPA training has been designed to maximise participation in order that a sound foundation, based on good practice, for the forum can be established. In many cases, organisations have accepted an agenda focused on “tea and toilets” issues. Meetings have been dominated by issues which would be better raised with line managers who are better equipped to deal with them. As a result, many senior managers have not seen the value of the process and have quickly become disenchanted with it. 

The IPA has argued that, to have a more informed and strategically-minded employee voice, it is necessary to apply a strategic agenda based on the major changes that are affecting the workplace. In conjunction with this, the process needs representatives with good business acumen who will ask those questions that the employees will not think of asking and relaying high quality information back to the workforce. 

It is no surprise that only 45 per cent of these forums have survived between 2004 and 2011. Although it does not follow that all of these 45 per cent are successful forums, the IPA has worked with many that have endured serious challenges relating to major organisational change, pensions consultations, redundancy and TUPE transfers. In every example, the two key requirements identified – elected representatives and training – have been met. 

Purcell and Hall also note that Consultation Forums are more likely to endure if Trade Unions are involved. The IPA had seen clear evidence of this and published a supporting article in March 2009 called ‘Information and Consultation and Trade Unions.’ This article noted that trade union representatives could act as role models and help the staff representatives to keep the agenda at a strategic level. Although this is not always the case and there are examples to the contrary, trade union recognition does create a culture of representation that helps a consultation forum to survive by avoiding the common pitfalls.

Perhaps the key issue identified by Purcell and Hall is that of staff expectations. One of the major problems identified by staff representatives is that they often feel like they have become “agony aunts” dealing with individual issues that people seem to want to “get off their chests”. This is, of course, not the intended role of a staff representative. Unfortunately, the Terms of Reference of many forums tend to suggest to staff that the representative is there for that very purpose. It is increasingly important that the role of a staff forum is positioned correctly to the staff in order that realistic expectations can be set. Until these lessons are learnt, it is unlikely that the 82 per cent of workplaces that do not currently have a Forum will be persuaded to change that situation in the near future.

Derek Luckhurst is the Training and Development Director at the IPA.

The IPA provides high-quality training for staff and trade union representatives as well as election services. Please contact Derek Luckhurst, Training & Development Director ([email protected]involve.com) for information on our training programmes or Sarah Dawson, Business Development Manager ([email protected]) if you’d like to know more about our election services.