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Q&A: HR Zone talks to Gate Gourmet’s former HR Director

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Andy Cook exclusively reveals to HR Zone the real story surrounding the much-publicised dispute at BA’s in-flight caterer Gate Gourmet, including more on his role as a key architect in bringing the unrest to an end, the learning points, plus what he did next.



Andy Cook has over 10 years experience in senior Human Resources positions, working in both the private and public sectors. He has worked at board level in large, complex organisations and has led major change and restructuring programmes.

He is in the unique position of having worked as a union officer prior to his career in HR, which gave a great grounding for his work in the field of employee and industrial relations. His HR career has included roles as HR Director at the British Library, Head of Human Resources and Employee Relations with Transport for London and as HR Director, UK and Ireland, with Gate Gourmet.

Andy is now Managing Director of Marshall-James, a Human Resources Consultancy business based in the UK. Marshall-James specialises in all aspects of HR strategy design and delivery, as well as working on specific change projects.

1. What did your experiences as HR Director of Gate Gourmet teach you?
I learned a lot from Gate Gourmet (GG). Two of the main things would be: never take it for granted what a union official says! Specifically, I was surprised and amazed at the lack of cohesion between what the official said and then what the membership felt, they were very different and meant that agreements were difficult to follow through.

Secondly: the power of the media and how, particularly the press, can turn facts and make them into fiction. I was involved in talking to the media a lot and the amount of things that got taken out of context was amazing. It was not even naivety on my part, it’s just that some journalists will always try and write in a particular way and so they will take what is said to mould it to their story. The lesson there is never expect to see the facts written or reported. It’s a nice surprise when it does happen though!

2. Did the dispute trigger your decision to set up your own consultancy?
The dispute had a bearing on the decision. I learned a lot and feel I have a lot to offer organisations who need support and advice. However, industrial relations is a small part of the business.

3. What is the aim of your company?
The aim of Marshall-James is to transform organisations through their people. Specifically, working with management on developing and refining their HR strategy, which will inevitably include employee relations amongst other things. I think an HR strategy is absolutely vital to an organisations success and must be aligned to the objectives and goals of the business. The strategy will then be specific about how it will be achieved through the people. This provokes a lot of very interesting debate amongst senior teams!

4. Which lessons have you learnt from your HR experiences to date that will help you forge ahead in the employee relations market?
In my early career I was lucky enough to work at Legal & General where I spent three years as the union official, looking after all the union members inside the company on behalf of the union MSF (now Amicus). This was a “seconded” position, so I was given leave from the business to do this job. I got a great understanding about how the union worked and experience of negotiating with management on a wide range of issues.

Even though I was technically still an employee of Legal & General, there was no expectation from them about doing anything else but representing the interests of the union and the members. L&G management then enabled me to transition into an HR role within the company at the end of the secondment in 1996 and that is where my career in HR really began. The lessons I have learned from working with the HR Director at L&G both whilst I was the union official and working in HR at the company gave me a great grounding and I often refer back to those experiences and lessons today.

5. What reaction have you had so far?
Reaction so far has been encouraging. I am very positive about the prospects for Marshall-James and I am looking forward to working with a broad range of organisations.

6. What key factors influence employee relations?
Good communication, common sense, the ability to listen and manage fairly but firmly. In an industrial relations situation, unions have to respect management’s right to manage and management has to respect the union’s right to represent its members. I don’t think compulsory union recognition is a good thing as you really should not force a reluctant party into a relationship. It starts off on the wrong foot and will probably continue that way!

7. What’s the new skill set of HR?
This is an interesting one. The HR buzz word nowadays is “business partners”. This term means so many different things, but in its truest form, it makes absolute sense. HR people nowadays have to be much more commercially aware, strategic, agents for change and be able to contribute to discussions and decisions on non-HR related issues. The personnel type approach is definitely outdated. In my view, good organisations have moved line management to be much more accountable for decisions about day to day people management with support from their HR departments, leaving HR free to concentrate on the strategic work.

8. What’s the worst thing about working in HR/employee relations and the best?
The worst thing is when meetings don’t go the way I had hoped or take a long time. I have never entered a set of negotiations thinking that I am going to “win”, but it can be frustrating when simple things are made complicated. The best thing is jointly working through a big issue and solving it, knowing that it’s the best outcome for all.

9. Why do businesses get employee relations so wrong?
In some instances, I think it’s because they don’t understand it, don’t use common sense or don’t give it the attention it deserves.

10. If you have a mantra/motto what is it?
You can only do your best!

11. What are you currently reading?
The monk who sold his Ferrari by Robin S Sharma.

12. What would be your desert island disc?
I heard it through the grapevine.

13. If you could have lunch with three famous people, dead or alive who would they be and why?

  • Elvis Presley – I’m a big fan and would have loved to have met him.

  • George Bush – I’m not a big fan and I would like to know what goes on in ‘there’.

  • Donald Trump – to review my business plan!

14. If you’d like to be remembered for one thing what is it?
For supporting Queens Park Rangers through thick and thin! It proves that I am loyal if nothing else!

For more information, please visit www.marshall-james.net or email [email protected]

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