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The role of the line manager in industrial relations




A quarter of the delegates on our current ER and Engagement development programme are line managers. With hefty responsibilities in highly unionised workplaces and teams, these managers play a critical role in building positive employee relations in their organisation.


A mentoring conversation with one of these line managers led me to dig out some work I did nearly twenty years ago in a global airline. It was a wide reaching change programme reviewing industrial relations from strategy to structures, to relationships and skills. Managers were at the heart of the programme. The company and the unions agreed, that without their development, nothing fundamental would change.


We made use of joint “action teams” of managers and reps to look at this topic in more detail. The team designed a survey which was completed by 60 managers. They looked at job descriptions, KPIs and person specifications plus training provided to managers in IR. The introduction to their report says:


Building the industrial relations competence, understanding and awareness of managers is a key challenge facing the company. The aim is not to turn line managers into lawyers or IR specialists. It is to enable line managers to solve problems and work collaboratively with union representatives in their work area.

We need to ensure that the day-to-day management of the department lies with the line manager. Managers need to feel empowered to make local agreements and resolve local problems. To enable this to happen, managers need skills and confidence. However, they also need to be given the accountability for local IR and given responsibility for decision-making.


The recommendations from the group, which were implemented in the company, focussed on four key areas:


- Knowledge and awareness

- Recruitment and selection

- Management capabilities

- Training and development


The following are excerpts from the report of the action team.


Knowledge and Awareness


A corporate IR strategy needs to be developed and communicated so that managers are aware of the direction of the company. This will enable managers to develop their own departmental strategy setting out how their department will deliver its part of the corporate strategy.


Recruitment and Selection


Working with trade unions is an integral part of most managers’ jobs. However, it appears that IR capability, understanding or willingness to learn is not being considered sufficiently enough when managers are being recruited and selected for posts with people responsibility.


There should be a clear reference to IR skills and competencies in relevant job descriptions. This should detail the key requirements of the role in IR terms.


In the selection process there should be questions in the interview which test the skills and experience or “willingness to learn” in the IR field.


IR capability should be included where appropriate in the Management Capability Framework.


There should also be an IR handover during the induction process for all new managers and supervisors.


Management Capabilities


All key departments should have a well communicated and clear IR plan that describes how the business plan will be delivered by working with the trade unions in a consultative and collaborative way. It should be linked to the corporate IR plan. It should also influence the establishment of KPIs for managers.


All people managers should have industrial relations as a measurable key performance indicator and should be recognised for maintaining good industrial relations. However, for managers to be able to achieve these KPIs the senior management team needs to provide supervisors and managers with the tools and resources to deliver. There needs to be a company-wide recognition that relationship building with the unions is essential to the resolution of issues at the lowest possible level.


Training and Development


Although industrial relations training for managers is provided, a review should be undertaken to work out if this is the most appropriate, relevant and accessible training possible. Offering a variety of learning methods - such as computer-based packages, the Intranet, shadowing, coaching and more traditional classroom based learning should encourage a greater take up and suit different learning styles.


There should be a generic learning pathway identified for all managers with IR responsibility (as there are in other areas of the business such as finance).


At induction, learning gaps should be identified and appropriate learning opportunities or training courses planned.


On line learning is available to all employees, accessed via the Intranet. The IR team should identify appropriate information that can be accessed via the Intranet. New managers should be encouraged to find out about the IR structure, strategy, and role of the IR department as part of their initial induction.


There is a desire from our respondents for joint trade union and management courses. These should be departmentally based to maximise the productivity and relevance of the course.


I can’t help but feel that, in some organisations, not enough resources or effort goes in to helping line managers to excel in industrial relations and that fundamental change is unlikely without their engagement, upskilling and confidence in building relationships with unions.





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