After a winter of unrelenting strike action, the green shoots of resolution are beginning to emerge across the industrial relations landscape.
There have been breakthroughs in talks with NHS workers, as well as some positive progress on discussions with rail unions.
The turnaround in the Government’s willingness to negotiate on pay has no doubt been in part due to an improving economic outlook and predictions that inflation will begin to fall from the middle of this year.
What the past six months has highlighted, however, is the dire state of relationships between employers and unions.
Reflecting on relationships
The strikes, which have reached all corners of the public and private sector, are a reflection of deep-rooted structural and systemic weaknesses in the way organisations handle their employee relations.
Some of the current disputes may be on the road to resolution, but employers must now take the opportunity to reflect on lessons learned and take practical steps to repair damaged relationships with employee representatives.
Here’s what they should be paying attention to:
The past six months has highlighted … the dire state of relationships between employers and unions
1. Develop partnership agreements
The relatively settled industrial relations landscape of the last 10 years has resulted in many organisations becoming complacent about the partnership agreements that have traditionally guided the way unions and employers work together.
Now is the time for management, HR and unions to sit down together and renew (or create) these agreements, focusing on what they want their relationship to look like, how they want to collaborate and communicate and what approach they will take to resolving any problems or challenges that may arise.
We need new partnership agreements that reflect the modern workplace and are fit for purpose when it comes to resolving both collective and individual disputes effectively.
The strikes … are a reflection of deep-rooted structural and systemic weaknesses in the way organisations handle their employee relations
2. Focus on restorative approaches
Restorative approaches, such as mediation and facilitated conversations, can do much to take the heat out of an industrial relations dispute.
But the problem is that these are often employed in the latter stages of the process, at a point where positions have become entrenched, employees have downed tools and negotiations are taking place under the glare of the media spotlight.
Now is the time for management, HR and unions to sit down together and renew (or create) … agreements
It is never too late to mediate
Highly skilled and independent mediators can deconstruct issues objectively and move the focus onto areas of mutual agreement, rather than disagreement.
They can unpick context and encourage a future focus.
The key to warding off these toxic and bitter disputes, however, is to make mediation a key tenet of the partnership agreements between management and unions, and to ensure that there is a clear route to accessing independent facilitators who can help the parties navigate difficult situations at the earliest possible stage.
Highly skilled and independent mediators can deconstruct issues objectively
3. Create genuine union engagement
In my 20 years of mediating complex labour and workplace disputes, I have sat through many combative and acerbic discussions, where it was clear that organisations were paying lip service to the concept of consultation with unions.
Forward-thinking organisations will recognise that unions have the potential to be key strategic partners, who can make a real contribution to the development of happy, healthy and harmonious workplaces.
Aligned needs deliver positive outcomes
One organisation I have recently worked with, for example, has taken a genuine partnership approach to the development and piloting of a new procedure for dealing with disciplinary and grievance issues.
Early in the process, it became clear that far from being on opposite sides, the needs of management and unions were very closely aligned.
This positive engagement on policy development will not only help organisations avoid disputes, it will also support the development of the fair, just and inclusive cultures they need for future success.
Forward-thinking organisations will recognise that unions have the potential to be key strategic partners
4. Develop a framework for resolution
Many organisations are still relying on outdated, and frankly harmful, policies for managing disciplinary and grievance and performance issues.
These policies pit people against each other in unhelpful right/wrong, win/lose scenarios, causing untold stress and damaging relationships to the point where they are beyond repair.
They are a mirage of justice and an illusion of fairness.
Many organisations are still relying on outdated … policies for managing disciplinary and … performance issues
We need compassionate and collaborative systems
Forward looking organisations – Burberry and Aviva to name just two – are developing a broader Resolution Framework, which allows for more timely and constructive resolution of issues, much closer to the source.
It’s a fully legally compliant alternative to traditional policies, and gives people access to a range of restorative processes, such as mediation and facilitated conversations.
Crucially, these organisations are actively involving their unions in the detailed design and development of these compassionate and collaborative systems, and working with them on an ongoing basis to gather feedback and refine the process.
Successful cultures require courage
Organisations who have the courage to rewire their traditional HR policies and adopt this broader approach are in a much better position to develop the people-focused, values-driven cultures they will need for future success.
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