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“Collective” responsibility

Government consultation last year, fuelled a lot of debate surrounding; when should consultation start, when should it end and when does dismissal take effect? Less attention has been given to the people involved in the process, not least, the vital role often played by trade unions. Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Advisor at Acas, explores.

The very term ‘collective redundancy’ is heavy, weighted with all kinds of associations to do with long and fraught negotiations, rules and procedures and, not least, the heartache and turmoil that comes from the loss of so many livelihoods. The Government consultation last year, on how best to manage collective redundancies, gave many people the chance to try and clarify some of the perceived grey areas resulting from complex, and sometimes conflicting, case law. But while a lot of column inches were devoted to the issues of ‘when do you start consultation?’, ‘when does consultation end?’ and ‘when does dismissal take effect?’, much less attention has been given to the people involved in the process – not least, the vital role often played by trade unions. Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Adviser at Acas.

Consultation, the process by which management and employees or their representatives jointly examine and discuss issues of mutual concern, involves seeking acceptable solutions to problems through a genuine exchange of views and information. One of the questions the recent WERS 2011 survey asked HR managers was, ‘how do you spend your time”? Perhaps surprisingly, given the recent economic backdrop, HR managers were as likely to spend time on recruitment and selection as in 2004, when WERS last asked the question. But there were noticeable increases in the number of HR managers spending time on employee consultation. When it comes to consulting with unions in redundancy situations, how confident are HR managers and employers and what issues cause most problems?

Clearly, a proposal by an employer to make 20 or more employees redundant within 90 days has to be taken very seriously. Legally, it triggers special rules about consultation but, more significantly perhaps, it is this consultation process on which relationships between employers and unions are often seen to flourish or flounder.

All redundancies are significant and need to be handled with care and sensitivity. Acas works with companies from all sectors and all sizes and many of the good practice principles apply just as well to companies planning to make redundant four, six, eight or 28 employees. The success of any collective redundancy process, starting from the point at which a proposal is made, and ending with the date dismissals take effect, will often be a reflection of the state of ongoing, and sometime historical, relationships between employers, unions and/or employee representatives. Consultation is an often misunderstood concept and can be confused with negotiation or even communication! It is certainly worth revisiting everyone’s understanding of what it should look and feel like in practice.

Relationships between managers and union representatives work best when they are based on an acknowledgement of shared interests. If unions feel they have to spend too much time asserting their rights, for example, around when and how they are consulted, or the time off and facilities their representatives are entitled to, they are unlikely to have a very positive take on employer-employee relations. Equally, if employers feel they are always having to defend how they are meeting their responsibilities, for example in helping those faced with redundancy to find other work, then this may be indicative of a lack of trust or transparency in working relationships with staff and unions.

Some managers and unions recognise the importance of these rights and responsibilities, particularly around the legal requirements for employers to consult with representatives of any recognised trade union during a collective redundancy, and to provide specific information about the planned redundancies, for example, about the selection criteria to be used, but what impact can certain kinds of behaviour have on the consultation process? Meetings often represent the critical moments in any dialogue between employers and unions, in terms of outcomes and public perception, but meetings are only made up of collections of individuals and these individuals can, naturally, bring both negative and positive behavioural characteristics to the table. The timings of meetings and when to involve unions can be problematic. Some employers work with unions months, even years, in advance of planned redundancies, but in these situations both employers and unions may need to work hard at maintaining employee engagement.

Any sustainable system for promoting engagement at work is usually based on a system of give and take. This typically involves employers providing fair pay and the chance for development, for example, and employees, in return, providing loyalty and hard work. For managers and unions to successfully engage with each other: union representatives need to understand management’s proposals and the vision they have for the business; management need to involve unions in discussions at the earliest possible stage and give them the chance to take a full and constructive part in consultation. One of the key rules of maintaining good relationships at work – and this applies as much to line managers’ relationships with their staff as to management relationships with unions, is that of ‘no surprises’. Of course, economic pressures can force managers to make difficult, and sometimes, sudden decisions, but even in the most dramatic situations there are warning signs. Unions are not only good sounding boards for the way employees will react to changes, they often have years of experience in handling change and dealing with people’s expectations about what the future might hold.

During the economic downturn, employees and employers have been working together to come up with often creative and flexible alternatives to redundancies. In terms of pay, many organisations have frozen or even cut pay in order to try and save jobs and keep skilled workers. Trade unions have often been central to the success of this ‘concession bargaining’ whereby employees accept a change in their terms and conditions in exchange for saving jobs. This sort of bargaining is often based on trust. The initial meetings between management and unions, when proposals are being formulated, are often the most critical. It is so easy to fall into an adversarial relationship based on secrecy and power and control. Managers may feel that they are the ones who make the decisions, and this is true, but an open and honest dialogue with unions can produce a better way forward.    

The WERS survey reports that three-quarters of all workplaces took some action in response to the recession that directly impacted on their workforce. The most common response was to cut or freeze wages (42 percent), followed by the introduction of a freeze on filling vacant posts (28 percent) and changing the way work is organised (24 percent). Although one of the themes in the report is ‘more work for less pay’, many of the measures of employee engagement remain pretty robust. In fact, the scores for the emotional attachment an employee has to their work, such as loyalty, pride and shared values, have risen. Accepting change is partly about acknowledging the impact it is likely to have on staff, both economically and emotionally, and this is something management and unions can work on together in the way they communicate with staff and each other and the priorities they agree for any redundancy process.

There is bound to be a fair amount of uncertainty following a period of major organisational change, particularly when it involves downsizing and significant reorganisation. Employees are likely to feel anxious about what the future holds. The last thing they will want to see is managers and unions reverting to any kind of ‘us and them’ mentality. Employers and unions are clearly getting a lot right. WERS tells us that scores for specific methods of communicating with employees – for example, through meetings and briefings – have risen between 2004 and 2011. But there is still work to be done. The real areas for improvement are around listening and actively involving employees in decision making. Unions have a key role to play in these areas in many workplaces, as long as the relationship is managed in the right way. The secret, as ever, is to be found in embracing a wider concept of joint working – with particular emphasis on effective communication and genuine consultation.

Adrian Wakeling
Senior Policy Adviser

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