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Ensuring disputes don’t become a way of life

Progress seems to have been made in some of the industrial disputes in the UK, although we still don’t know if offers put to employees will be accepted. Even if they are accepted, I am still of the view that it didn’t need to get to the point of strikes amongst large swathes of the public sector. Damage has been done to relationships and services. Views and perceptions of each other have been reinforced. Also, what about the other issues which workers said they wanted to be resolved? These disputes were not just about pay.

There will always need to be a period of rebuilding trust and relationships after a dispute. If there isn’t, this is an organisation or a union that is accepting that ongoing disputes are their approach to employment relations. That is disastrous for employees and for service users and customers.

Disputes and how to rebuild is one of the areas we will be discussing this week with our ER and Engagement development programme. We are realistic enough to know that sometimes disputes happen, but our emphasis is always on building constructive relationships, listening to employee concerns and solving problems together before they escalate to formal disputes.

This is not a conflict avoidance strategy or easy-option IR. In my experience, this approach is harder, takes more time, requiring better listening, more understanding of diverging views and more creativity than the win-lose, escalate, threaten, final offer, walk out, walk back in approach to IR that makes the headlines.

For this module we take a dispute, break it down, analyse the communication, look at key points of escalation and ask what could have been different. We are asking our delegates to think about what might have happened with a different style or approach.

In preparation for this week’s module, I summarised a set of steps that I have taken organisations and unions through when they have begun the process of rebuilding relationships after a dispute. This requires effort, planning, honesty, listening and a genuine desire to change. The organisations and unions I worked with wanted to learn from what had happened and wanted to do things differently. They wanted to understand the root causes of the dispute and work on them. They knew if they didn’t, they would be back in the same place again very soon. If the last hundred or so years of employment relations have told us anything, it is that unresolved issues will come back and bite you on the backside.

The steps to take in rebuilding after disputes:

  • Joint commitment to rebuild, establishing common ground for moving forward

  • Airing of views on the current state of ER and the causes of the recent dispute

  • Listen to each other about what needs to change - perceptions are important

  • Set out a jointly agreed approach to employee relations

  • Mediation to re-set key relationships

  • Identify areas for joint problem solving which can include re-design of ER structures, changes to working practices or policies

  • Agree a programme of capability building in basic ER skills for all managers and reps

  • Introduce an annual ER audit to see the signs and change course if necessary

  • Allocate risks to key leaders/managers to increase ownership and empowerment

  • Review progress, evaluate impact, plan next areas of improvement



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