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Re-defining employment relations

Many HR directors who I talk to, who work in unionised workplaces, struggle to recruit into employment relations roles. I have been told the same by head-hunters. I’m not surprised. Talent pipelines are thin and succession plans sparse. As union membership fell, the HR profession reduced development and focus on collective employment relations. ER and IR became the HR specialisms that time forgot.

At a cross-roads in my career, I took a year out of the corporate world. I started lecturing part time in employee relations at University of Brighton and decided to study. I enrolled on an employment law course, thinking this was most beneficial to someone working in ER but my heart wasn’t in it. At the last minute I changed my mind and chose to study the psychology of organisational development and change.

I loved learning about organisational dynamics, transformational change versus transactional change, using these models to reflect on why change had been successful or unsuccessful in my past roles. I went back to companies I had previously supported in change and interviewed unions and managers, to see what change stuck, what didn’t and why. I focused in on intergroup relationships particularly between unions and organisational leaders and tested how those relationships could have been positively changed. I asked others to assess a particularly difficult piece of work I had led on in aviation, designed to improve relationships across engineering. My personal learning – often through powerful action learning sets – felt immense.

This learning permanently changed how I saw employment and industrial relations. Working with unions is always about change. However, I deepened my understanding of change models, of group dynamics, of resistance to change, how and why relationships break down and ways to rebuild them. No longer was ER about policy, process, negotiation, the law, us and them or old academic theories. It was much more about effective change, building relationships, leadership, a range of different interventions, small steps and culture change.

Thinking differently about the role, makes you think differently about the skills needed. This is a job which requires listening more than talking, understanding more than taking positions, influencing rather than using the law, with facilitation and conflict resolution at its heart. And, that - in my opinion - makes it a much more interesting role using a wider set of skills. Find the right organisation and you will be given space to find solutions, to problem solve, to understand differences and be able to move things forward.

We need to redefine what collective employment relations specialists do and what skills they need in today's workplaces. If we change how we define ER and IR, we might attract more people and a more diverse talent pool. These people may be the key to bridging gaps between employees and leaders and resolving conflict about technological change, working patterns and inequality.  And if we don’t, we won’t bridge gaps or understand each other better and conflict will increase.  




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