Who is responsible for good employee relations at work – the boss or the employee?

By | November 12, 2012

employee relationsI have spent the last year designing our new MSc in Employee Relations with the help of international corporates such as BP and RBS.  This programme is particularly aimed at helping line managers and their teams – research shows this is where relationships are most likely to go wrong.

A number of my colleagues are industrial relations researchers and it is easy to think of this as a subject relevant to bygone times.  But look at some of the horrendous union disputes in recent times – the British Airways cabin dispute, teachers on strike over all sorts and an NHS problem brewing over the ‘double whammy’ sick pay cuts at the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust.

These are the headline, high profile disputes.  Every day there are much lesser misunderstandings that never make it to the media but are costing businesses and organisations a fortune in lost productivity, absence and staff turnover.  Last year the CBI reckoned that staff absence was costing £17bn in the UK alone.

We have based the programme around what employers said were the three critical areas of risk in an organisation and which our research backs up:

1. Disconnect between managers and staff

There is often a gap between managers and their teams – lack of trust being the biggest reason why.  Too often bosses think they have explained what they want and they mean – but the communication has not explained the reasons why or what the vision is.

Employees can be quick to start the conspiracy theory – the classic is deciding that changes are all to do with redundancies and they will be in the firing line.

Stephen Martin, chief executive of Clugston Group, took part in the Channel 4 TV programme, Undercover Boss to explore how his employees were receiving company communications – and realised the huge gap in so many areas.

He gave an example of an apparently sensible idea – encouraging his workers to take a tea-break where they were working rather than coming back to a canteen.  But employees took this to mean that the break had been cut.

2. Working with employee representatives

A lot of managers really don’t know how to engage properly with employee representatives.  They feel ‘I’m in charge’ and there is tension with the representative.  This creates conflict rather than partnership, where both sides come together to find the best solution.

export-trade-2-morrisonsThis isn’t about unions – though they are included – but also employee groups, work councils and so on.  At Morrisons, the FTSE supermarket company, they have systems to ensure that employees have a meaningful voice, not just for show.

Stephen Martin from Clugston told the Chartered Management Institute:  “Worker Engagement Teams (WET) are a new initiative we’ve launched since the show.  I visited one of our plants recently and was so proud of the WET they had in place.  They’re a mixture of staff from those plants (from all levels) that meet every four weeks and they discuss things openly and provide a bullet point summary of the meetings on the site for all workers to see.

“You often see the same gripes from the same people that show up in feedback all the time but we encourage a variety of people to join these teams so we get a true understanding of things.  I’ve even had lunch with several employees recently, what I call brown bag lunches, and they talk openly about their concerns.  Staff wanted to see where I work as well as me seeing where they work so they came in to head office and we had lunch.


3. Who owns the employee relationship at work?

This may seem a strange question – the first instinct is to say the bosses?

But in organisations with good employee relations, there is shared responsibility.  This ensures the culture is integrative rather than adversarial.

logoOne of the challenges we had in creating the MSc was where the balance should be to ensure a programme that addresses the academic theory but gives students the practical skills they need in the workplace.  We have worked with the new Employee Relations Institute (ERI) to get this balance right and also with trade unions such as UNITE.

Where communications so often break down is in a line manager and employee relationship.  Then a grievance can escalate quickly into major conflict that could even lead to a tribunal.

happy-nurseGetting the best employee relationships in your organisation shows up on the ‘bottom line’ – whether it is in delivering the best services to patients in a hospital or in business management particularly in challenging times,  ensuring long term success and profitability.

It should be said that this new programme is not for HR professionals.  Good employee relations – as Stephen Martin above shows – is for all line managers.

Going Undercover is a rather extreme way to ensure good employee relations – hopefully our programme will be a more realistic solution for most!    Where do you think employee tensions are to be found in most organisations – and who is responsible for that?

About Dr David Spicer

David is Senior Lecturer in Organizational Change at Bradford University School of Management where he lectures in the areas of change management and organizational behaviour on undergraduate, postgraduate and executive programmes. He is also a visiting professor at TiasNimbas Business School in Holland and Germany and alumnus of Harvard Business School’s Global Colloquium for Participant Centred Learning. He holds degrees from the Universities of Bristol, Stirling, and Plymouth.  His research is concerned with organizational learning and change, and he is currently working on a major project looking at the dynamic capabilities of Motorola and Intel.


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4 thoughts on “Who is responsible for good employee relations at work – the boss or the employee?

  1. Andy Cook

    The issue for me is around management capability, or a lack of it, in UK workplaces. It is the behavioural elements of management that seem to go unchecked, yet cause the most damage. Many managers are simply promoted, without being told what is expected of them or how to be behave. The result is often poor relationships, high turnover and an increase in conflict. Its not necessarily the fault of the manager as in the absence of proper guidance, they will do what they feel is best. There are a few rogue managers who deliberately undermine or treat other people poorly, but fortunately, my feeling is they are a minority.

    I founded the Employee Relations Institute as a way to promote and work to a set of minimum workplace standards for managers and employee representatives. So much of the good that goes created at work is because of great relationships. By and large, they don’t happen by accident. Education for people around what works and what doesn’t and then provides the tools and techniques to bring that to life is important and should be available to all, regardless of a person’s organisational remit. I always wanted a situation where an individual, regardless of level, academic background, union, management, non-union, whatever, is able to access a professional qualification. That is what we have developed with Bradford University School of Management. It is hugely exciting, has captured a need and has the support of businesses, unions and employers bodies.
    The institute is officially launched at the House of Commons on 13th December.

  2. Richard Troy Colmenares

    Employee tensions begin with filtered information. When information is filtered, it is very unlikely for the truth to be established. The truth becomes trapped in a black hole. Even if certain issues are revealed to management to some extent, quite often it will fall as “case closed”.

    The challenge then is in establishing the truth.

    Creative managers will need a little initiative to reach out to the workforce to establish the truth. One way to do so is through management by walking around (MBWA).

    Caveat: Political factions exists.

  3. Pingback: Employee Engagement is not just for Christmas…five tips for all year round success | Bradford Management Thinking Blog

  4. Rev A Judd

    Interesting analysis,
    I am a vicar and a trade unionist and trade union tutor for Unite, and I often see examples of bad practice on both sides in the Church of England. I discussed management training with the archdeacon, and after he agree that bishops get no management training, and neither do archdeacons, as line managers, I asked if he would do a Bradford MBA if given the funding to do so. He said he wouldn’t, though I said I would. There appears to be an assumption that management is HR’s responsibility, and that the failure to follow their own procedures is not experienced by clergy as bullying, discrimination and harassment. We asked for invitations to the national training in performance management, but were excluded from it, and although initially the handouts were promised, that promise was not enacted. I see a lack of trust, a belief that trade unionism is contrary to the values of the Church of England, and a lack of desire to improve relationships between the organisation, its managers and its coalface workers. (Apologies to real miners, you can’t get further from a coal mine than the parish church). I could give some examples of bad practice from shop stewards, such as attempts to circumvent the law when planning industrial action, or breaching policies and procedures, perhaps even of acting in a bullying manner towards weaker management when representing members. So it all sounds very interesting – Jim Mowatt mentioned it in his quarterly education report to the Executive Council – and I wish you every success in it.

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