In her article published on the IPA Website titled Employment relations – back with a bang (and how to avoid an explosion), Nita Clarke outlined a changing industrial relations landscape being shaped by the pandemic and Brexit. Her conclusion that “those organisations which take employees seriously and try and identify the sweet spot of mutual interest, stand a good chance of coming through strengthened and not weakened” should be the focal point of discussions in boardrooms and senior management meetings across the UK.

It was certainly not the case in the boardroom of P&O Ferries. The fallout from their online announcement that 800 staff had lost their jobs and the admission that the legal requirement to consult with their trade union was ignored continues, and it will be interesting to see whether public opinion translates into fewer people using their services in future.

Industrial Relations

There is no doubt that the current industrial relations climate is presenting organisations with a serious challenge in discussions with their trade unions, particularly against the background of difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. It is right to conclude that this is a great opportunity for trade unions to flex their industrial muscle at a time when trade union membership is beginning to rise again. Many trade union representatives, however, would argue that the situation is more complex than that.

Situations like this create a dilemma for trade unions. On the one hand, they will be under pressure from some of their members to push for higher wages and better terms and conditions, particularly with inflation and the cost of living rising. Other members, however, believe that protecting jobs is the number one priority for their trade union representatives. Whether those views are expressed to those representatives is open to question. Trade union representatives are more aware of the “silent majority” than many senior managers give them credit for. Just as it is difficult for organisations to make decisions to future proof organisations, it is equally difficult for trade unions to represent the different views and expectations of their membership.

Trade Unions

It was, therefore, a huge assumption that P&O Ferries made in assessing that the RMT would not enter into constructive dialogue. It may well have been the case but, quite often, a reaction from trade unions is caused by the point in time in which they are consulted. It is open to speculation as to whether their early involvement would have changed the outcome but it would have potentially mitigated the reputational damage caused by the way the announcement was made if nothing else.

Any discussions, consultations and negotiations in the current climate will be difficult. Both organisations and trade unions are grappling with the challenges created by a more confident workforce who will readily articulate their wishes about flexible working and how fairly they believe they are being treated. As Nita pointed out, the “Great Resignation” is indicating that people are increasingly leaving organisations that fail to engage them. Some feel that they have no choice due to poor health and their employer’s unwillingness to accommodate personal responsibilities. A necessary focus on mental health and employee burnout makes any discussion between organisations and their trade unions anything but a simplistic collective bargaining process. There is a great deal more at stake for all parties.

Proactive Engagement

The key question for most organisations and trade unions is whether they have the necessary skills and experience to address the complexities of the current industrial relations landscape. A Google search of the question “do managers know how to speak to trade unions effectively?” reveals that the first match is an article titled, “when can I refuse trade unions access to my staff?” so that is not an encouraging start. Although there are more progressive references, the trend in the articles is to play down the benefits of proactive engagement with trade unions and, in particular, the benefits associated with early involvement in discussions.

When trade unions are presented with a single option (or fait accompli as many describe it), there is little space for nuanced discussion and the sharing of mutual and separate dilemmas. This results in a one-dimensional narrative from both parties often leaving a workforce in a confused mass of information gaps. Early involvement of a trade union in discussions provides both parties with an opportunity to explore options, different perspectives, risks and potential knock-on effects without anyone being boxed in to a corner. Why, in that case, does it happen so infrequently?

Building the business case

The answer lies in a lack of confidence in building the business case, concerns about confidentiality and a lack of trust in the union engaging constructively. However, building the skills to navigate the first obstacle often results in managers realising that the other two do not apply. The reaction of one senior manager recently trained by the IPA revealed that the individual was “surprised at how the trade union representatives were open about their own dilemmas in engaging the different views of their members and how they made a number of innovative suggestions about how we could meet our objectives” when the initial reluctance to engage them early was “overcome by meticulous preparation”.

It may not always work as well as this particular example but that should not be a barrier to trying to develop better relations with trade unions until a specific problem arises, which is what many organisations do. The world of industrial relations will remain challenging for several years to come so it is exactly the right time to start building the managerial skills that can create a culture of joint problem solving rather than one of “us and them”. It is very clear that organisations need to do that now rather than risk a disaster on the P&O Ferries scale.  

Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at IPA

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