Manage or be managed

Our industrial relations framework is set to change and at stake is one of the key components of successful organisation – the relationship between employer and employee.
Whatever the final shape and detail of the new legislation, the one thing we can be sure of is that it will create the potential for significant changes in your workplace relationships.
The key issue for employers is how to manage these changes so as to add value to your relationships, rather than place them at risk.
The Government has confirmed its intention to table the Bill by the end of March and we can expect to see considerable input from employers and unions during the Select Committee process. It may be June before we know the fine detail of the rules that will govern the respective rights of employers, employees and their representatives, and how they engage in bargaining.
Right now most discussions about the proposed legislation are shopping list of questions. How will good faith bargaining be defined? Just how deep can disclosure reach? What are the rules of engagement for multi-employer contracts?
As we ponder what we don’t know, we risk losing sight of what we do know – the key concepts and philosophies that drive the thinking of the coalition partners. From that, we can predict much of the content and it is clear that it will have enormous implications on the relationship between employers and employees.
We know for instance that:
* There will be an increase in union activity and influence;
* Collective contracts will be promoted;
* Multi employer agreements facilitated;
* We will be required to bargain in good faith.
The detail of any response will depend on the detail of the legislation, but strategic view can be developed on the basis of current knowledge.
The objective should be positive and constructive – improved work-place relationships. There will be significant risk of employers simply reacting against the changing environment (actively or passively) rather than seeking within it the opportunities to improve the relationship with their people and in turn the overall performance of the organisation.
ER strategies do not appear and start working overnight. People need to be conditioned and pre-pared for change – if you don’t take them with you it will be lonely and fruitless trip.
The corollary of that is you can’t plan where you’re going unless you know your present position. Plan-ning for the new environment is three-step process:
1. Gather information.
2. Assess the implications.
3. Determine options.
The key to the first step is real (not assumed) understanding of the quality of your relationship with employees : –
* Do they support the organisation’s values and objectives? Do they understand the strategies and their role within them?
* What are staff attitudes and are there any issues or pressure points putting strain on the relationship? (When was the last time you carried out staff attitude survey?)
* Do your employees belong to union and why not?
* Are there competing unions at your workplace? If so, why?
* Do your people feel they are listened to? What communication processes ensure this happens?
* Do your front line leaders understand the importance of their role as influencers and do they have the skills and knowledge to be effective?
Where you have an existing relationship with unions, the quality of that relationship should also be examined. Do the union(s) under-stand your organisation’s objectives and strategies? Do they appreciate the environment in which you operate?
Employers should not assume that every union is automatically intent on using their new power and influence to drag them back to the 1970s. Unions have moved on and understand the dynamics of today’s economy and the fact that organisational and individual success and security are inextricably linked.
However unions are generally national organisations which span different industries and different em-ployers. Anyone failing to understand the thinking and needs of their people could see their relationship supplanted by union with increased influence and power conferred by the new law and with an agenda which is inevitably broader than that of any particular organisation.
The new legislation will create the potential for significant change in workplace relationships. There are opportunities to influence the out-comes and enhance these relation-ships by planning and developing appropriate strategies.
Every organisation has choice – be proactive and manage the change or be reactive and hope the change doesn’t manage you.
Patrick Greene is director of HR consultancy Greene Hanson.

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