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A continuous improvement approach to employment relations

Over the years (decades even….) I have undertaken numerous collective employment relations audits or reviews. One was requested by an HRD increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of change and acrimonious pay negotiations. She wanted a better way of working with recognised unions. Another was initiated by a union, who after a dispute, requested a joint review so both parties could reset the relationship for the future. A merger and an acquisition brought together companies with different styles and approaches to employment relations. The risk and audit committees wanted a review to understand the current baseline and gain reassurance that the current style of employment relations was fit for the new company.

Whatever the trigger, the purpose of any review I have undertaken is always the same - to ensure that the mechanisms for employee voice work effectively internally so that individuals and trade unions feel heard, actions are taken, conflict is managed and changes are made as a result.

In these examples, the audit or review have been quite formal with structured interviews, analysis of data and a report to a senior leader or leaders in operations, HR or risk. They have involved analysis of both qualitative data – is the strategy understood, do leaders have the skills, do structures resolve issues - and quantitative data – number of grievances, disciplinaries, disputes. The outcome may be recommendations on changes to governance structures, better alignment across HR, a focus on building capability of leaders and employee/union representatives, improvements to structures (often set up in the last century) or improving the analysis and understanding of risk. It may recommend trying new methods of employee voice to supplement existing methods to ensure all employee groups are engaged.

There were distinct triggers for these audits, however, there are huge business benefits of undertaking more regular reviews and not waiting until something goes wrong, there’s a close-call or an external event which undermines confidence or increases risk. The benefits include a more engaged workforce, reduced conflict, less damage to brand and reputation and less resistance to change.

The most effective method of undertaking a collective employment relations review in my experience is one that is based on the principle of continuous improvement. More regular feedback, small changes and a desire to improve, are more likely to lead to a positive culture and effective employee voice. It requires everyone working in employment relations to confidently, safely and regularly ask “how was that meeting” “did we make progress”, “how can we improve how we work with each other”.  Even better, recognise that good collective employment relations is all about behaviours and define the behaviours that will lead to great collective voice. These can be simple - "we listen to each other's contributions", "we jointly solve problems", "we share information". Jointly agreed behaviours are an effective way of holding each other to account in daily interactions. A formal audit may still be required and the results are likely to show a more mature approach to collective employment relations.





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