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Interview: Sarah Perman, Director of the Partnership Institute

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The TUC last month launched the Partnership Institute, a consultancy helping to develop a partnership approach to problem solving which is more inclusive and less divisive than the confrontational industrial relations style of old.

Heading the new Partnership Institute is Director, Sarah Perman who was interviewed by HR Zone.


HR Zone
Sarah, congratulations on the opening for business of the Partnership Institute. Can you tell me, why now is the right time for the Partnership Institute?

Sarah Perman
There has been growing support for the TUC’s partnership agenda over the past few years. Many business leaders recognise that partnership with unions and staff is the best way to gain support and commitment for changes to business and services. Unions recognise that they can serve their members better by seeking more involvement and influence in decisions which affect the business. For our part, we felt the time was right to build on this consensus and provide a practical service for organisations wishing to improve relationships at work. That’s why we’ve decided to launch the TUC Partnership Institute as a centre for excellence in workplace partnership, providing consultancy and training to employers and unions.

HR Zone
Many of today’s business managers, and union members, will remember the highly publicised union-management confrontations of the 1970s. Let’s face it, many of them were cutting their teeth at the time! But how much has that period left a legacy that has to be worked through today?

Sarah Perman
There’s no doubt that a “them and us” attitude still characterises industrial relations in some sectors. That attitude is the result of years of animosity and poor relationships between shop stewards and managers. It’s not going to be overturned overnight. But there has been a fundamental shift over the last two decades in relations between unions and employers in many parts of the private and public sectors. There’s much more cooperation and joint problem solving which are the foundations for successful partnerships.

HR Zone
Does the fact that the Partnership Institute is a TUC-backed initiative present difficulties? Is it possible that the work of the Partnership Institute could be seen as being backed from a biased viewpoint?

Sarah Perman
I’m confident this won’t be a problem. The Partnership Institute operates at arms length from the TUC. We have an Advisory Board made up of employers, independent experts and trade unions. Our services to companies are delivered by independent consultants who are respected for their impartiality and their ability to deliver practical results. What’s important is that we have a concept of partnership that we know already has the support of both sides of industry. We also have the unique selling point of being able to bring trade unions to the table in many sectors where a discussion about partnership would not otherwise be possible.

HR Zone
There will still be business managers operating in the UK today who will be wary of considering partnership working with unions, or closer working with employee groups. Are there strong business reasons for taking a partnership approach? And if so, could you tell us some of these?

Sarah Perman
There’s strong academic and practical evidence for the value of partnership. A recent Government survey showed that partnership organisations are much more likely to enjoy high productivity growth and better than average profitability than organisations without partnership. We published a report for the launch of the Partnership Institute called Winning at Work which showed how partnership was delivering real business improvements for employers in six different organisations – as well as improving the quality of working life for employees.

HR Zone
What sort of “philosophy” or “value system” underlies the new Partnership Institute?

Sarah Perman
Our view is that genuine partnership involves an effective and independent “employee voice” for the workforce. It’s about the active involvement, participation and representation of employees at work.

HR Zone
How will the success of the Partnership Institute be monitored?

Sarah Perman
We will ask our clients – unions and managers – to evaluate their satisfaction with our work. There will also be an independent evaluation of the Partnership Institute conducted by academics. Our success will ultimately be judged by whether we are able to help organisations achieve real practical results from partnership working.

HR Zone
Doesn’t a partnership approach lead to a “consensus” management style – which is both lengthy and weaker on leadership – making business less competitive?

Sarah Perman
Partnership doesn’t say that managers give up their right to manage. Nor does it say that all decisions have to be taken in consensus. But where key business or employment decisions are based on the support and involvement of the workforce, those decisions are much more likely to lead to successful implementation than a high handed and hierarchical management style.

HR Zone
Do managers and trade unionists have different or similar agendas? How do you start the ball rolling on building common ground?

Sarah Perman
The best way to describe partnership is to represent the interests of managers and trade unionists as two circles which overlap. It’s at the intersection that you find similar agendas. To get a good partnership going, there needs to be high level commitment on both sides, a shared understanding of the partnership concept and the objectives for that organisation. You can achieve that through the consultancy and training programme that we offer. The emphasis then needs to be on ensuring that the partnership is rolled out throughout the organisation, with immediate action to tackle “hot” issues in order to create confidence in the partnership from everyone in that organisation.

HR Zone
Where do elements such as training, skills development and empowerment come into partnership building?

Sarah Perman
You can’t expect partnership to happen overnight. New roles require new skills, attitudes and behaviours. Union reps may be asked for the first time to have an input into business discussions and many will need training in business strategy and planning so that they can make an informed contribution to those discussions. Unions and managers need joint training in areas like consensus building and joint problem solving so that they have the skills to tackle challenges in a positive, cooperative light.

HR Zone
One HR manager told me the other day that partnership is not so much about building trust, but rather managing relation risks better. Would you agree with her?

Sarah Perman
It’s both. Partnership is about trust and good relationships. Partnership also needs competent and committed middle managers to take the partnership forward. Many partnerships come unstuck at that middle management level because managers – and shop stewards – lack the commitment or skills to take the partnership forward.

HR Zone
Is it possible for some issues between management and unions to remain contentious, whilst co-operation proceeds on other matters?

Sarah Perman
Of course. Management and unions will always have differences in views. That doesn’t cease in partnership organisations. Partnership tries to provide a framework for airing those differences positively and a process for reaching a good resolution.

HR Zone
Sarah, we at HR Zone wish you and the Partnership Institute success in the future. Thank you for your time and we hope that we can look forward to you talking to HR Zone members in the future.

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