Advice on how HR can better tackle industrial unrest
The past few months have seen acres of media coverage devoted to the growing industrial unrest we are seeing across the UK, Europe and the US. In an increasing list of sectors, from health and transport to legal, communications and logistics, union leaders and employers have locked horns over pay, conditions and changes to working practices. The situation appears to be intractable – and with unions already working together to co-ordinate strike action, it is looking as if a general strike in 2023 is inevitable.
One voice, however, that has been missing from much of the discussion and debate, is that of HR. Why does the profession appear to have retreated (or been pushed) into the background? And what could HR practitioners be doing to help their organisations navigate these troubled times?
A complex picture
The fractured industrial relations landscape we are seeing right now is the result of a complex mix of factors. Political and economic instability, the cost-of-living crisis, the ongoing ramifications of Brexit and the war in Ukraine have all combined to create a ticking employee relations timebomb.
But this breakdown in employer-employee relations is not just about the external factors, which are of course outside of organisations’ control. There are internal factors contributing to the problem too. First and foremost is that many organisations lack an effective infrastructure for solving labour disputes.
Over the past 20 years union membership has declined and industrial relations have been relatively stable. As a result, leaders have taken their eye off the ball, and in many cases have failed to renew (or develop) the partnership agreements that give opposing parties a steer on how to effectively resolve disputes.
Without these agreements communication between management, unions and HR breaks down. Situations escalate, discussions become bitter and vitriolic, parties on both sides dig their heels in. Before too long unions are balloting their members on strike action, because they can’t see any other way forward.
Dig beneath the surface and you will find that this inability to solve industrial relations issues through collaborative, compassionate dialogue is reflected in the way organisations approach any type of workplace conflict – whether that’s employees falling out with their manager, personality clashes between colleagues or disputes among teams.
Instead, organisations are continuing to rely on damaging and divisive, formal grievance policies and punishing performance management processes which are not fit for purpose in the agile, hybrid working environments that are now emerging.
Despite ongoing rhetoric around the need for more human-centric workplaces, with inclusivity, fairness and employee wellbeing at their heart, we are in fact seeing working cultures becoming increasingly toxic and the all important social contract between employers and their people breaking down.
HR can be the enabler of a healthy, happy
HR has a pivotal role in helping organisations restore harmony, re-establish good working relationships and reduce the costly disruption being caused to their operations. The profession is a critical part of the modern triumvirate (employers, unions and HR) – three parties who can and should be working together to create the fair, just, people-centred, values-driven cultures organisations need to survive and thrive in these difficult times.
Why, then, does HR appear in some organisations to be taking a back seat? Part of the issue is the traditional perception of HR as a tactical, rather than strategic function – a problem many in the profession have been struggling to overcome for years. HR has the potential to become one of the most strategically important functions within the business and is capable of making transformational changes to employee engagement and performance levels. In many organisations, however, it just isn’t allowed to and it is boxed in by complex and adversarial rules and processes.
But HR’s confidence levels when it comes to difficult industrial relations situations could also be a factor. In a recent, small, informal TCM poll, just over a quarter of those questioned said they felt well equipped to manage industrial relations in the current environment. Many of those in HR positions simply may not have seen employee and union unrest on this scale and level of ferocity before.
My own experience of working with hundreds of organisations across public and private sectors also suggests that there is a skills gap around managing complex industrial relations issues. Many in HR tell me that they lack the courage, confidence and competence to facilitate challenging and often deeply adversarial conversations – sometimes within HR itself, with union partners and commonly within the wider leadership and management population.
A good starting point for HR professionals who want to develop their skills (and the skills of others) in these important areas would perhaps be to develop a greater understanding of the power of restorative processes such as mediation.
Mediation is one of the most effective – and perhaps one of the most poorly understood – approaches to solving disputes, whether strike-related or otherwise. Introduced early, rather than as a last resort, it can help to restore relationships and stop situations escalating
Individuals and unions do, of course, have the right to take action if they feel they are being treated unfairly. But strikes in themselves don’t resolve anything. Ultimately, the only way any dispute gets resolved is for the parties to get round the table, try to understand each other’s needs and fears, and engage in constructive dialogue until they can agree a way forward. This isn’t an easy or comfortable process, particularly if the talks are taking place amidst a media circus.
But it is exactly when situations appear to have reached an impasse that dialogue becomes even more important. Mediation by skilled, independent third parties can help to break the deadlock and get people talking to each other again.
These objective and neutral facilitators can help both sides step away from diatribe and one-upmanship and emerge with their pride intact, and a solution that goes some way towards meeting the needs of both parties. Mediation helps parties see that they do have a choice. They can choose to depersonalise the problem, walk towards rather than away from each other, and listen to understand, rather than listening to defend.
It's never too late to embrace this approach and resolve issues through dialogue, because dialogue is the only way an issue will ever be resolved.