The IPA launched its new Hub for representatives on 29 September 2016. Since then we have held two further meetings in London and Edinburgh involving many organisations including Standard Life, United Welsh, HFT, B&Q, Stonewater, Bank of Ireland, CSEP, Victrex, Royal College of Physicians and Prudential. This eclectic group have discussed a number of key themes facing representatives and employee relations professionals as diverse as engaging line managers and mental health. The latter will be addressed in more detail in a later Bulletin.

The issue of how representatives deal with and engage with line managers is, in the view of the Hub, one of the most important. As long ago as 2004, “A Practitioner’s Guide to Sustaining Industrial Partnership” identified line managers as one of the key barriers to embedding partnership working throughout an organisation who adopted the strategy. That had not changed when the study was updated and re-published in 2011. By this time, however, the strong view was forming that this was not an ideological problem amongst line managers generally, but was more to do with a lack of evidence that trade unions or staff forums helped them rather than hindered them.

At the latest Hub meeting held on 28 March 2017, it was identified that representatives had to become more proactive in proving their worth to the line managers they reported to in their day jobs and to the wider group of managers in their organisation. It was also identified as an important part of moving employee engagement from transactional to transformational.  

We know that all representative structures have to be based on a strategic on-going agenda involving the major changes that are affecting the organisation. However, the operational aspect of representation often plays a more marginal role leading to a lack of information at middle-manager levels resulting in misunderstandings about general time off for representative duties, attending meetings, travel and about whose budget the activity should be charged to.

The Hub has identified a number of strategies that representatives can use to engage their line managers. It is important to stress, however, that the engagement of senior managers is critical in creating the foundation for line managers to buy-in to what the representatives are trying to achieve. It is perceived that this is less of a problem despite an acknowledgment amongst representatives that there is more work to be done in this area as well.

For line manager engagement, it is crucial that the representatives are not seen in a negative light and this means that they cannot simply concentrate on the concerns of staff – they have to represent the people who like their jobs, people who are ambitious and those who do not see conspiracy theories behind everything that senior managers do. The accurate temperature check is an important first step to building credibility and trust.

Line managers also need to see “what’s in it for me?” Referral of issues that representatives identify will allow line managers to potentially address problems early. Some representatives pose the question, “What happens if the manager doesn’t address the issue?” – that becomes a judgement as to whether it has been addressed but not to the conclusion sought by the individual. This does not constitute a reason not to involve the line manager. Representatives need to build relationships with line managers where open conversations become the norm where two potentially different perspectives can be mutually understood.

Representatives can play an important role in filling the information gaps for line managers. This is not about breaking confidentiality but many line managers have valued the context to decision-making provided by representatives that they may not get from their senior managers or when they do not have the confidence to seek clarification.

If these positive approaches fail to engage the line managers, there is nothing wrong in trying to convince them by quoting senior managers who do value the representative structure. This, however, requires a discipline for representatives to seek those quotes by asking the right questions. I have noticed either a reluctance amongst representatives to do this or they simply forget. My own experience as a full time trade union representative was made a great deal easier when the chief executive stated to me that “the partnership results in change with assistance and not resistance” and this quote must have resonated with line managers as their engagement noticeably increased throughout the organisation when it was publicised. His other quote, “you keep my managers honest” was slightly misunderstood so you do have to be careful!

VIVO, the staff forum at Standard Life use a number of methods to engage with line managers including their proposition document, an annual review, “VIVO Connect”, pie-charts to illustrate areas of benefit and a series of videos to raise awareness. The Bank of Ireland use their Barometer and, in HFT, managers are trained to improve their understanding of what their Partnership Forum can do to help the business. Michelle Simpson, in her role as the Partnership Forum Lead at HFT recently answered questions at a Parliamentary Select Committee meeting alongside her chief executive – I suspect that this did no harm to the Forum’s credibility amongst the line managers there.


If you want more information about our new Hub for Representatives, please contact me:

[email protected]

07780 697024