Choosing how to engage your employees – with unions or without or a mixed model – is a strategic issue which requires some thought. Employee Relations strategies were the subject of the second module of the ER and Engagement development programme this week and the debate on approach, style and challenges was a fascinating one. Joseph Perry, our 20 delegates and I were joined by Emily Cox from Lloyds Banking Group who gave an inspiring view of employee relations spanning her career.
Emily brought to life during the module, how today’s employee relations strategies have to be pragmatic, flexible and agile, reactive to the external environment while complementing internal values and purpose. The strategy sets out how you give employees a voice in things that matter to them like change, pay, hours, rosters, wellbeing, safety and work-life balance. How you approach employee relations influences your organisational culture and assists the management of complex change. You manage conversations with people with different perspectives and how you act defines the trust you have with your employees.
An example on my mind during the module was a conversation I recently had with a technologically innovative global company with an established employee forum in the UK. The forum works well as far as the company is concerned but their employees are seeking union recognition. Did this mean that all their engagement with their employees has to go through a third party? Will they be prevented from speaking to their own employees directly? Recent UK news had led them to have a very negative image of what unions do – strike, complain, resist, fight….
They were unaware that many big brands and household names work effectively with unions and have done for years in the UK – in retailing, banking, manufacturing, aviation and the media, for example. Yes, private sector union membership is very low but, amongst those with unions, many companies have high union density, they can have the majority of their workforces covered by collective bargaining and, very importantly, they invest in building positive relationships with their unions.
These companies find the recognised union or unions provide a useful challenge during change, provide a constructive feedback mechanism on decisions and provide a view from employees that could otherwise go unheard by senior leaders. I’m not saying there isn’t room for improvement in terms of trust, agreements written in the previous century which need updating (but changing them is often put in the too difficult pile) or perceptions of a very slow pace of change.
These private sector organisations with unions also spend time building direct trusting relationships with their employees. Some have vibrant and active employee networks, ensuring they are listening to all their employees through different medium. These networks often have a very different perspective on workplace issues from the union representatives, often they are aligned. They use regular pulse surveys to check the impact of change and the mood of their employees. Managers are at the heart of building positive relationships with their teams.
If you are starting work with a new union, we can help you to think about what a modern relationship with a union could look like, focusing energy on building a positive relationship. We can build the capability of your teams to work with unions constructively.
If you need to modernise or update your existing approach and need support or ideas, we can use our experience and knowledge from a variety of industries to help you shape something fit for today and the future.