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Kevin Dougall

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Going postal – the role of HR in a strike


The industrial dispute which has engulfed Royal Mail in recent weeks has led many commentators to predict another 'winter of discontent'. Kevin Dougall explores the role of HR and how to avoid bitter disputes in the first place.

Many younger HR workers will not remember the strikes which blighted the 1970s and 80s, but recently echoes of images past have re-emerged as picket lines, banners and trade union statements flood the news. It's not just the post workers. Already, members of British Airways cabin staff are threatening strike action in the run up to Christmas. Refuse workers in Leeds are engaged in industrial action. Others are expected to follow suit over the coming weeks.

What is the role of HR in a situation like this? Not easy, immediately springs to mind. Yes, HR will be involved in the dispute resolution process and may act in a mediation capacity; attempting to bring the two sides together. Alternatively, HR may take the side of the employer; after all it is the employer who pays their salaries.

Perhaps a different way of looking at the role of HR in an industrial dispute is to ask if HR could have played a part in avoiding the dispute in the first place. Could a dispute have been anticipated?

If one accepts, for the sake of this argument, that the economic shock that occurred at about this time last year should be viewed as something equivalent to a major personal trauma, then the route towards a winter of discontent had already been set.

By trauma, I mean the emotional trauma that many people experienced as the news media brought us stories of a 1930s style depression, of which commentators and politicians believe we are reliving in this current economic downturn. Are they therefore surprised that people feel so miserable?

I would argue that HR professionals could, by looking closely at the emotional impact of last year’s calamitous events, have anticipated how people would, eventually, respond.

After a person suffers a trauma, and they survive, they go through various recognised stages of emotions; feelings may be a better description.

The first stage is one of shock. This can sometimes be likened to a rabbit in the headlights. Having realised that they have not been hit by the car, they scramble for safety – the second stage. In this case, we all stopped spending and we did our very best to avoid redundancy.

Stage three is when we stop panicking and realise we have survived – at least for now. We still have our home and we have not been made redundant. Relief becomes palpable and eventually we start to feel euphoric. You only have to see what has happened to the world’s stock markets and the UK housing market to see that we went in to this stage in the spring of this year. The warmer and sunnier weather helped us to feel better as well (I do not recall there ever being a summer of discontent).

During these first stages, the Dunkirk spirit kicks in and, bizarrely, it becomes almost fun being one of the survivors. But there is a menace lurking just ahead of us. That menace is called retribution.

The Dunkirk spirit fades and we become tired of working harder just to stand still and to survive. We are also probably working harder for less pay. It is time to project our increasing anger, and discontent, on to someone or something else. After all, it is not our fault.

We need to find someone to hold accountable and to punish for what we went through. We seek retribution.

And so we target those that we work for because it must be their fault – isn’t it? So intense are our feelings that we lose sight of the fact that our actions may actually lead to the demise of the organisation for who we work. This would appear to be happening with the Post Office, where the strikes are giving their rivals just what they want; Post Office customers. Similarly, British Airways’ current financial woes could do with a series of strikes by cabin crew as much as they would welcome another hole in their head.

So if we had the foresight to see this coming, what could we do about it? Well, the answer is incredibly simple. Ask people how they are feeling and help them to understand that their feelings are entirely legitimate and quite normal given what the world has been through. Tell them that you really care about how they are feeling (and mean it) and that you want to maintain open and honest communication. Tell them that you want to work with them to get through this difficult time. And tell them how you are feeling as well.

Invite your colleagues to tell you what they would do differently. Ask them to look towards a brighter future that you can all share and ask them how, collectively, you will get there. You will then have a common context for what each individual is doing. There will be a common goal and if people feel cared for and they feel that their opinion counts, you will have to force them out of the door come the end of the working day.

And what if you didn’t see it coming and are now faced with industrial action? Well, be honest and say that you didn’t see it coming. Then ask people how they are feeling. Keep communication open and honest.

Interestingly, Willie Walsh, Chief Executive of British Airways, was quoted in the newspapers today saying that “this just proves to me that the unions just don’t understand how difficult things are”. Better communication may help but I suspect that it comes down to feelings. And by the way, Willie Walsh needs to hold someone accountable too – the unions in this instance.


Kevin Dougall is Managing Director of AP HR Solutions

One Response

  1. How to avoid strikes

    I do not disagree with the above but would add just a small additional perspective.

    Much of the above deals with the role of HR. I would however say the real issue lies with management itself and its responsibility to avoid strikes as the ulitmate sign of managerial failure. It is probably an apocryphal story but it is said that an early UK managing director of Mars the confectionary firm, was told by his US owners on his appointment that he could do what he needed to do to run the company but if there was a strike he would be fired.

    Not surprisingly this MD paid close attention to how his staff were feeling and sought constant feedback about numerous situations where there was potential for misunderstanding and possibly strike action.  Needless to say no strike ever occured at Mars!

    One wonders how things could have been different at say both BA whose record of industrial relations is a text book example of how to disengage staff, or the Royal Mail if a similar message had been given to their respective chief executives.

    Of course it can be argued that being told you will be fired if there is a strike, while doubtless concentrating the mind in the same way an impending hanging may do, would lead to managerial weakness is the face on strong union behaviour. However there is considerable evidence that unions generally want to resolve confrontations and seldom revel in them the way they are sometimes portrayed as doing.

    In contrast, weak managers rely on confrontation as a means of bullying their way to a solution. It is symptomatic for example that the Royal Mail management have taken the stance that "we won’t go to arbitration without you going back to work first." This is tantamount to demanding that the enemy give up their weaponse as a condition for stopping the war. As we know from the history of Northern Ireland and dealing with the IRA this is to treat your opposite number with barely concealed contempt. That is no way to resolve differences.  

    Andrew Leigh


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