Until yesterday, my only visit to the CIPD Conference and Exhibition was back in the Thatcherite era of the late 1980s.
Clearly a lot has changed since then.
But there are two groups of people who very much in evidence at my last Conference in 1988, that are noticeable by their absence this year:
Tall, long-legged blonde girls and fat, ugly blokes.
Let’s take the girls first. Back in 1988 it was practically impossible to navigate your way from one end of the exhibition accompanying the conference itself without being accosted by a succession of impossibly attractive and amply-bosomed, flaxen haired beauties. Generally they would offer you the chance to win a bottle of single malt whisky or a bottle of champagne in exchange for your business card and their sales pitch about time and attendance systems or employee loyalty schemes.
Somewhere over the years the girls have disappeared, as have most of the alcoholic incentives to chat with the representatives on the stand. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that in Manchester this year, it’s easier to talk to Alcoholics Anonymous (they are next to the ACAS stand) than it is to get a drink in the exhibition centre.
The other group that are missing are the fat, ugly blokes.
Their absence is actually more of a concern. These are the Trade Union representatives who in the 1980s were a regular sight on the presentation stage at almost every annual HR (sorry, Personnel Management) conference. People like John Edmonds of the EETPU, who would regularly share the platform with Peter Wickens of Nissan to talk about how a deal for single union recognition had been struck at the car manufacturer’s Washington plant.
Generally, the focus of their speech would be on how UK companies needed to move away from a confrontational industrial relations style to one that was more collaborative and inclusive.
Back in 1988, the annual CIPD conference in Harrogate (so perhaps they just do things differently across the Pennines) was rich in opportunities to explore employee relations issues. This year there’s not one seminar, masterclass or workshop that covers this particular issue.
Is this because employee relations conflict is a thing of the past? The strikes planned for the end of this month by public sector workers clearly indicates that this is not the case.
Research undertaken recently reveals that more than half (54%) of UK senior HR professionals are working in teams in which no one has experience of dealing with trade union action.
If the impact of the current austerity measures in the UK leads (as it surely must) to further disruption in the workplace, I wonder how many of the attendees at this year’s conference might wish that they could have learned a bit more about dealing with a difficult employee relations situation, rather than discover yet more about talent pipelines and future-proofing your organisation.
One final thought: if HR isn’t capable of managing employee relations issues in future, who’s going to pick it up instead of us?