There is continuing debate about whether a staff forum can be as effective as a trade union and which of the two options an organisation should adopt to represent their employees. As I have often argued, it does not have to be a choice. The number of good practice examples of what can be described as a “mixed model” of a staff forum and trade unions working effectively together are enough to suggest that this model is an ideal way of ensuring that all employees in an organisation are able to express their views, good experiences and ideas to solve problems and improve the organisation and the working lives of employees.

Trade Unions

While it is still less common for these two types of representative structure to exist together, in 2022 we are finding that  trade union priorities have changed, and more are considering accepting the establishment of staff forums in organisations where they are recognised or agreeing recognition where a staff forum is already established. The reason why the “mixed model” is still a minority sport is not due to how the trade unions perceive it but more to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes a representation of the entire workforce.

This misunderstanding is rooted in a perception that a staff forum and a trade union are alternatives to each other. In other words, that they are two sides of the same coin. There are similarities but it is important to clarify their differences and how, because of those differences, they can be complimentary to each other. Many people understand the difference between consultation and negotiation. The former is can be undertaken by a staff forum, and the latter is the core of a trade union’s purpose. Trade unions can consult effectively but a staff forum cannot negotiate – that is the clear and obvious difference. However, the more subtle difference lies in what representation actually is. A staff forum can represent the views of an entire workforce – the engaged, the disengaged and the ones somewhere in the middle. Trade unions tend to represent the majority view but are also able to act as peoples’ advocates if they are members of that union.

Employee Representation

There is a good business rationale for an organisation to have both types of representation on offer for their employees. There will always be senior managers who do accept this and will choose neither. With these organisations, at least everyone knows where they stand. Problems seem to be occurring where organisations want to provide employees with a voice through representation but are unsure how to deliver it.  In several of these cases, employees have been presented with a question that translates into a choice: would you rather have a staff forum or a trade union?

What would an employee base that decision on? Those who have a knowledge of trade unions and believe they will add value will obviously vote that way. The number of people working in organisations in 2022 that will have that knowledge is unlikely to be high. I would also anticipate that very few employees would know what a staff forum was. Owing to this lack of knowledge, the organisation will try to explain the pros and cons of each and unwittingly get involved in a debate that strays away from facts and into the difficult territory of ideology. These difficulties can then be exacerbated when a small majority of employees choose one and the rest of the employees feel resentful that their preference was not chosen. It is better to avoid these surveys and either/or questions. The benefits of staff forums and trade unions are too nuanced to capture in a couple of paragraphs under a survey question. It is even more difficult to start discussing the disadvantages of either, without moving into the bounds of subjectivity.   

Staff Forums 

The good news is that our best practice examples show that organisations can and should avoid these comparative choices. If organisations are concerned that their recognised trade union does not represent the entirety of its employees due to their levels of membership, talk to that union about whether a staff forum is a means of addressing that. Similarly, if an organisation is hearing that some employees aspire to having a trade union recognised despite there being a staff forum already established, engage people in a discussion about why that may be and investigate how a trade union might also benefit the organisation. It is invariably better for an organisation to offer voluntary recognition to a trade union rather than force that union into a statutory ballot. 

I understand that many people will disagree with this strategy. In the current industrial relations climate, it would be easy to dismiss the idea of recognising a trade union or establishing a staff forum as a direct alternative. Both representative structures offer different benefits and different challenges, and it is rarely advisable to set up either without a clear understanding of the purpose of each and a mutual understanding of how the relationships are going to work in practice. There is enough information available to avoid the traps of unwittingly disengaging employees through the presentation of an uninformed choice. Organisations still have an opportunity to embrace the “mixed model” and to reap the benefits of the staff forum and trade union’s similarities and, equally importantly, their differences.  

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