I 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.
This 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.
One 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.
Getting 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?