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Andrew Bailey

Bilfinger Europa

Elected works council representative

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Adopting European Works Councils to give staff a greater voice


Instilling a culture of strong employee engagement is becoming increasingly important for businesses to retain talent and improve productivity. Andrew Bailey, elected UK representative to the Bilfinger European Works Council, looks at how adopting a European approach to industrial relations can help UK companies deliver greater transparency between senior management and the wider workforce without the red tape.

Well-engaged employees make a substantial difference for a business, but despite a strong reputation for ethnic diversity and technical savviness the UK actually has a moderate record when it comes to staff engagement.

According to recent research from ORC International, the UK was ranked 12th out of 20 leading countries in 2015.

Employee transparency and bridging the gap between senior management and the workforce are key goals for HR when it comes to addressing this issue.

For 10 years or more, multi-nationals with operations in two or more European Economic Countries (EECs) have been legally bound to engage staff through European Works Councils (EWCs), and although the majority of UK businesses don’t fall under the EWC Directive’s jurisdiction, they could benefit significantly from adopting a similar model.

Embracing a European approach to industrial relations

By definition, these councils are consultative bodies made up of employees, senior level management and occasionally trade union members, and provide staff with a direct line of communication to key decision makers to discuss issues that could affect their employment conditions or general working life.

Unlike UK businesses, they are mandatory for companies headquartered in the majority of the EU with at least 150 employees in two EU member states.

The process is very structured, with representatives from across a business democratically elected on the EWC, which then elects several members to take a seat on the Supervisory Board – a committee made up of senior decision makers and shareholders which sits next to the Executive Board in the European structure.

Bilfinger is a global company with operations in multiple countries across the EU, and as the influence of our UK business has grown over the last 12 months, this year has seen UK representatives participate in the Bilfinger EWC for the first time. Three individuals were elected following a company-wide nomination process, which saw almost 100 willing candidates from junior-level graduates to directors put themselves forward.

Representatives on the EWC don’t have the right to vote on certain business decisions, and there are some confidentiality agreements in place as to what can be communicated back to the workforce and what must remain private.

However, each new member has the opportunity to raise any relevant issue felt in the UK, and will speak with colleagues across their division before each quarterly meeting to ground source the topics that need to be discussed, these could range from flexible and remote working to training and development.

The outcomes of these meetings are then reported back to divisional HR teams and an agenda is assembled for the meeting of the Supervisory Board, which one of our representatives has recently been elected to sit on.

Creating greater transparency

Although our UK staff have only been involved with the EWC for several months, it’s clear that the initiative is set to have a significant impact on employee engagement.

While it arms us with a strong, two-way communications tool to engage staff on issues that affect their day-to-day working lives and collate ideas to develop solutions, it flattens the organisational hierarchy and provides our employees with a seat at key board meetings – something which is very rare among companies in the UK.

In addition, this approach to industrial relations lends itself well to delivering invaluable insight on how the business operates in other parts of Europe.

From different perspectives on working and how staff from different countries handle change, to tactics and technologies for communicating with other employees, the European model provides an excellent vehicle to spread expertise and best practice learning across an organisation.

For Bilfinger, and a plethora of UK businesses with staff split across separate divisions, this has the potential to be a very useful tool moving forward.

Reaping rewards without the red tape

While this approach to industrial relations provides some significant benefits, EWCs can be particularly restraining for those operating on the continent.

For decisions on business restructuring, staff changes, hiring or making changes to contracts and employment policy, our European counterparts must give the EWC the opportunity to consult and negotiate with management before any progress can be made on implementing plans.

In the UK, we’re far less restricted in terms of the legislative process.

We can be much more flexible in terms of moving into union negotiations or 90 day consultations once the business has agreed to progress a particular issue, meaning we can enjoy the benefits of the works council model without the drawbacks the red tape brings with it.

With this in mind, there are certainly some key learnings here for both large UK businesses with operations in Europe and smaller firms based in Britain.

Employee engagement is certainly high on the agenda for companies of all sizes, and businesses could put work councils in place to improve transparency without creating a more complex decision making process.

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Andrew Bailey

Elected works council representative

Read more from Andrew Bailey

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