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The original managing Director of Mars, one of the UK’s major companies and a US subsidiary, was told by his boss that he could manage how he liked locally, but “if there is a strike you’re fired.” It was said the MD duly paid particular attention to industrial relations at Mars and there was never a strike.

Though the story is probably part of the Mars mythology of good management, one cannot help thinking of it in relation to two current disputes reverberating in the UK. Would the UK director of Total have allowed the mess at Britain’s third biggest oil refinery to get to its present level of conflict had his own job been on the line?

Likewise, would the combative head of BA have permitted the endlessly and ongoing poor industrial relations at the airline to continue had someone tapped him on the shoulder and explained that as a result he was personally starting to head for the exit?

When matters reach the point where “our most important assets” start throwing tantrums and using language such as: “we’ve been trying to long and hard for eight days to get Total and the employers to come to the negotiating table. We’ve always been up for negotiation and that doesn’t stop now” you know that management has not been doing its job well enough.

Unless you dismiss such rhetoric as purely self serving, which of course you might well do if you are Total’s local MD, it is clear that its management has lost it. It has forgotten that what makes a company really effective is when its employees (or contractors) feel fully engaged and committed to the work, not alienated and persecuted.

Poor industrial relations come at a high cost for companies. They can damage major brands as has happened in the case of BA. No matter what the rights or wrongs of the case, headlines like “staff asked to work for free,” are hardly likely to convey a picture of a company in robust health or one that is particular well managed. Do you fancy flying on a plane knowing that the pilot and the stewards are doing charity work by turning up?

There is also a potential cost to the rest of us that makes the issue not just a local matter for the company management concerned. For example, the 2007 inquiry into the tragic Grayrigg derailment which resulted in one death and injury to 22 others revealed that animosity between the patrollers and supervisors was a key obstruction to a safe inspection procedure. This almost certainly had its roots in long-standing industrial relations problems facing the rail industry.

Adversarial relationships between management and those whom it manages is always a clear warning signal that something is going seriously wrong and the whole relationship dynamic needs to change. There is almost certainly no single “bundle” or set of HR practices that will ensure good industrial relations in any company. The essentials though are:

1) Never condone an adversarial climate or allow it to go unchallenged
2) Ensure a constant and open dialogue between the management and those managed
3) Establish clear and mutually agreed codes of practice for how conflicts and disagreements will be settled
4) Train managers in how to deal with conflict and handle disputes in a humane and respectful manner
5) Use the full range of available conciliators, mediators, and arbitrators to push for a rapid and mutually acceptable solution.

www.maynardleigh.co.uk

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