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Cath Everett

Sift Media

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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News: CIPD 2012 – Four ways to ensure positive industrial relations

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Even with just a threat of industrial action, the stakes are high because people are forced to take sides, which is damaging for employee engagement and the credibility of the organisation and its managers.

This was just one of the insights provided by Darren Hockaday, HR director for London Overground, at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s annual conference in Manchester this week.
 
He works in an environment in which frontline staff are almost 100% unionised and so spends more than 50% of his time simply on handling industrial relations.
 
“Having a public battle is a win-lose situation, with the loser being the employer. No matter how good your messaging over a certain proposition is, it will be eroded if you fall out and you can end up losing engagement by trying to make a point,” Hockaday advises.
 
To prevent the situation getting to this point, however, he advises taking four key approaches:
 
1. Treat union reps as individuals
 
Rather than see union reps as stereotypes or the persona that they adopt, ignore all of the noise and rhetoric and treat them as individuals.
 
Taking this approach is one of the key challenges that managers face because all too many simply hear the rhetoric, assume that they need to prepare themselves for battle and keep reps at arms’ length.
 
But you get the unions that you deserve. Reps are just people with a job to do too and, even at an individual level, it’s all about negotiating. This means ensuring that you meet people face-to-face and build a relationship based on trust and respect is key.
 
2. Practice the art of negotiation
 
The idea of taking part in negotiations is to come to some form of agreement. This involves establishing where your and their middle ground is, where the lines in the sand are and what constitute no-go areas on both sides. But it’s also about being open and honest based on a credit system – otherwise known as horse-trading.
 
3. Work within people’s limitations
 
The professional code that exists between managers and directors won’t work with a union rep. As a result, you will need to actively progress the agenda, request follow-up meetings and generally organise them.
 
Another vital consideration is messaging and how you present your proposals. This means that, prior to and during discussions, it is important to put yourself in the rep’s shoes and understand what message they are likely to give their members.
 
Therefore, if you’re restructuring roles, point out that the move will, for instance, help to increase job variety and lead to more training and accreditation opportunities. If you show the positives, you’ve got a better hope that everyone will agree to the change.
 
4. Heed the early warning signs
 
Get on top of issues early to ensure that they don’t escalate. To this end, it helps to put an early warning system in place, which involves employee relations-focused HR business partners forming constructive relationships with union reps in their field.
 
It’s much more difficult for HR directors to undertake this role themselves as the average rep won’t want to be seen to have a close relationship with someone at that level.
 
But it’s good housekeeping to ensure that employee relations personnel are able to anticipate situations and deal with them promptly before they turn nasty and require much more work to resolve.
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Cath Everett

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

Read more from Cath Everett
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