Monday, 8 November 2010

Employee Relations: the Ugly Sister of HR

Research just undertaken 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.

HR Sector in Danger of Strikeout by Trade Union Action

And is that lack of capability in HR departments likely to pose a threat to those organisations? You bet! The research also reveals one in five senior HR professionals believe that trade union action is likely to affect their organisation in the next six months.

Of these, 20% say that this activity is likely to have a "huge impact" on the organisation.

Recent industrial action within Transport for London, the BBC and the Fire Service would add weight to this concern. There is also an increasing fear that government spending cuts could be the signal for mass strikes in the UK.

The terrifying fact is that almost two-thirds (63%) of the survey respondents say they know little or nothing about the current laws on trade unions, and 40% say they do not feel confident about dealing with union action.

So what are UK HR professionals doing to ensure that this situation is remedied? Precious little it seems, if the content of the seminars at the CIPD annual conference which starts today is anything to go by! With the exception of the Service Delivery and Information seminar stream, Employee Relations is the category of seminars and workshops at the annual conference with the fewest number of activities within it.

If you wish to be seduced by Strategy Insights and Solutions (“Overcoming the Paradoxes of Global Leadership”, “The Next Stage of HR Evolution: insight-driven HR” or “Do Leaders Really Need to be Tired? A study of resourcefulness, leadership and the power of true human vitality” for example) you’ve a choice of 14 seminars to tempt you. Employee Engagement- the HR fad of the moment –has 12 seminars with slinky titles such as “Creating your own Happiness: the science of luck” or “Why Happiness Makes Business Sense” to lead you astray.

But Employee Relations - today’s Ugly Sister of the HR world - has a mere four seminars aimed at increasing the knowledge and skills of the profession’s self-confessed dunces, and of those four seminars, only one is specifically focused on managing the relationship with Trade Unions.

As the publicity material for the one directly relevant seminar states:
Industrial relations are very much back on the HR agenda. How can you work with trade unions to deliver a more productive workforce and even become a beneficial ally during periods of change? What does a good employer– union relationship look like?
By no means is this an easy question to answer, but at some point HR will need to block its ears to the siren calls of strategy, organisational design and talent management, and realise that there’s a difficult job to be done. The job that used to be called Industrial Relations. The name might have changed, but the activity is still there to be done.


  1. The organisation I work for has a dedicated ER team and, quite frankly, to push through the change we are currently going through without their existence would be a nightmare. Not that dealing with the unions is full of mystic and mystery but to do it as an add-on to BAU just wouldn’t work. Relationships take time and effort (we all know that) and, just as outside of work, relationships with the unions need to be build on solid foundations. No fair weather friend, partners for life.


  2. This is one of the problems with the CIPD. They won't engage in a debate (with me at least) on ER - and I have tried. A few years ago they said collective ER is dead, but now look! They embraced the Ulrich model, which compartmentalises HR skill sets so 'Business Partners' do not get exposure to ER in the main. Now it has become a serious issue as there is a lack of skills from within HR in the ER arena. All this is from the institution responsible for developing HR as a relevant, professional career. Come on, smell the coffee.

  3. I've been involved in major downsizing for years within organisations that have an active trade union presence.

    However, in the current political and economic climate I'm finding that organisations are having to adapt how their approach major change initiatives as the response and the associated actions from the unions has changed.

    It is important that HR professionals are skilled and able to manage industrial relations, but I think that many of us haven't had exposure or the opportunity to do so over the last 10 years.

  4. 30 years of employee relations has taught me that people don't change, reactions to change don't change much and that anger and hostility are sometimes a part of the process. Long term relationships have good and bad times.

    When the economy or world in general seem frightening - in a recession, times of major cuts, etc, people tend to react more angrily since they are more fearful. This triggers more militant responses regardless of their effectiveness.

    It can be extremely hard for HR to be 'piggy in the middle' during this process. HR practitioners who have not experienced this before can literally make themselves ill if they don't have the skills and experience to cope.

  5. All:

    Thanks for the insightful comments.The common theme in all of them seems to be that within a difficult economic climate it's hardly surprising that tensions rise, tempers are lost and employee unrest is generated.

    Although it's also true that a large percentage of private sector organisations have no TU recognition agreement in place, in those organisations that do, the impact that can be caused by a negative ER situation is immense.

    It would certainly seem appropriate that any professional development of HR advisors and managers should extend beyond the merely intellectual understanding of the niceties of employment legislation, and should encompass some of the basic skills required to successfully manage consultations, negotiations and conflict.