An employee relations and engagement strategy is a part of an organisation’s environmental, social and governance strategy. It can cover areas such as diversity, safety as well as relations with unions and employee groups. Increasingly, investors are including these non-financial factors as part of their risk analysis – risk to reputation, investment or share value. Employees evaluate them – among other sources of data - to see if they want to work for you and try and figure out what sort of workplace culture you have. Trade unions look at them to see if your values and your behaviours align or where to find your weak points.
I know that many organisations find it easier to write their employee relations strategy than implement it. That’s pretty pointless. Focus on good implementation and you can change the culture of the organisation. It will be worth it, so don’t skimp on the time and effort or push it down the to-do list.
In this blog, I set out the key steps to implement an employee relations and engagement strategy in unionised workplaces.
Ensure the ER strategy supports the business strategy
The ER and engagement strategy should align with the business strategy and help the organisation to achieve its goals. So, if there is a lot of change coming, it will be critical that the relationships and structures will facilitate change and enable it to happen with the valid input from employee voice. It’s important to understand the business strategy and the challenges/changes which will be faced by the organisation in the coming years.
Get some detail in the strategy
Most ER strategies that I have seen set out a set of principles or intentions. What is often missing is the plan to deliver these principles. I encourage organisations to work through questions such as:
What’s the general climate like?
Has there been a recent dispute or breakdown in relationship? How effectively is change managed? Is everything taking too long to resolve? Are there a lot of new reps or managers who are unclear of the rules or how to behave? Have relationships started to feel tense or are engagement scores down?
What and where are the key relationships?
There are some key relationships which need to be robust to set the tone in the rest of the organisation and these need to be identified. If they need rebuilding run a series of team mediation sessions with these parties to enable them to talk about out what employee relations looks like from their perspective. This can be eye-opening for all involved as they remember their common ground and what they need to do to help the other be an effective partner. I find this often leads to changes being agreed to behaviours, escalation, structures and training.
What’s it like when employee reps and managers meet?
Meetings between managers and union reps often have a different style to any other meeting in that organisation. They often lack the structure or discipline of “business” meetings, and behaviours are tolerated which would be called out in other settings. Often, actions aren’t completed in a timely way, which is frustrating for all parties and there is little evidence of joint problem solving. Issues get escalated as they lose faith in each other and conflict is unresolved. There is little respect shown to each other. When it’s like this, no one can see the value of good ER. Stereotypes emerge and are reinforced. What changes need to be made to these meetings to help the organisation deliver the strategy?
What behaviours from leaders, managers and employee representatives need to be demonstrated to help you deliver the strategy?
It’s really impactful to define what these behaviours are and consider how you will develop them in both leaders and representatives. It can be things like:
o We share information to enable genuine and timely consultation to take place
o We value and listen to each other’s contribution
o We have a shared responsibility for resolving issues in a timely way
o We communicate jointly where appropriate
How capable are your leaders and employee representatives?
As well as looking at how things get done (behaviours), are you clear on what you actually need them to do to deliver the strategy? What does “good ER” capability consist of? How are you going to fill any gaps in capability? Are you prepared to invest in ER capability building?
Focus on your key leaders.
How do you recruit and select leaders in key unionised areas? What is the leadership development programme for employee relations leaders? Do you consider ER competency a key factor in talent management decisions?
How do you deal with conflict and what happens when conflict arises?
How competent are key players in conflict resolution and problem solving?
Build a realistic tactical plan
The output of this is a tactical plan of change, designed to help the organisation to deliver the strategy it has articulated. I have held these discussions with leaders and union representatives jointly and at different levels of the organisation. It can be worked on jointly with joint action owners – leaders and employee representatives - which is an effective way of building relationships, trust and ownership.
Measure the impact and commit to continuous improvement
To demonstrate improvement and identify further areas for improvement, design and run a bespoke employee relations annual survey amongst key managers and employee representatives. It doesn't have to be overly complicated and can identify improvement on the previous year, show up areas of the business that need extra focus and define the next areas for improvement. It sets in play a culture of continuous improvement in ER.