Top tips on managing the relationship between employer and with employee representatives
In the current climate, many of HR professionals are dealing with employee representatives as part of redundancy consultation exercises. Typically this will be where the business is proposing to make 20 or more employees redundant in a 90 day period and is required by law to invite employees to elect representatives to represent their interests in the consultation process.
In the UK, particularly in white-collar/office environments, the whole idea of having employee representatives is often rather alien and contrary to the culture of many organisations. As a result, HR professionals often ask us for advice on how to manage relationships with employee representatives effectively. So, here are some of the practical tips we have given recently. We hope you find them useful.
1. Explain to reps what their role entails at the beginning of the process. Often reps will be unsure about what they are expected to do. Talk them through their role and the parameters of the consultation. It will help to limit confusion and should also help you to manage their expectations.
2. Give them the means to carry out the role. Provide them with meeting rooms, contact details of those they need to consult with who are not in the office and conference call facilities if necessary. Helping them with such practical measures can help reduce any hostility.
3. Anticipate their questions and concerns, and address them at the first meeting. For example, they may want to know if they can take time off from their normal duties to carry out their role, what they should do if they are feeling bullied by someone more senior to represent their personal views, or what to do if staff are absent during the consultation.
4. Give the reps the chance to air their views. It sounds obvious, but often management and HR instinctively seek to control the agenda and limit what is said. This is understandable and having an agenda for a meeting can certainly be helpful. However, as it is often the more “militant” types who end up being reps, it can be beneficial to allow them to take the floor and let them get their points off their chests to take some of the heat out of the situation.
5. Try not to get drawn into discussing a rep’s own personal issues. The idea is for them to represent their group as a whole; not just specific issues which are relevant to them alone. Likewise, try to avoid discussions or negotiations with individuals who seek to bypass the reps to discuss with you issues which are unique to them. This will make reps feel undermined. Personal issues can be discussed in individual consultation meetings which usually take place as the collective consultation process is drawing to a close.
6. Don’t allow line-managers to pass the buck. Time-pressures on line-managers often mean that they seek to delegate all meetings with reps to HR. However, the avoidance of such meetings by line-managers can be counter-productive. Reps often respond negatively where they feel line-managers are dismissing the situation as not being worthy of their time. In contrast, if they are seen to give the reps the courtesy of proper “face-time”, this can be worthwhile as the reps feel that they (and their suggestions) are being taken seriously, even if they are not adopted.
7. Keep reps informed and keep the dialogue going. Explain the next steps at each stage, so everyone is clear as to what is happening and when. For example, if they have suggested a particular option for avoiding redundancies, let them know that it will be considered and when you expect to be able to respond. Keep them posted regarding any progress or delays. Where possible, be flexible about having additional meetings; the dialogue between you and the reps does not have to be limited to what takes place in the main, scheduled meetings.
8. Don’t allow reps to bully you. Sometimes reps are very strong-willed and make unreasonable demands. Don’t feel you have to say yes to every request for information or demand from them that the process follow a certain course. If you need time to reflect on whether to grant a request or agree to a demand, take that time. Keep control of the process and do not allow yourself to be intimidated. Where disputes arise, consider taking legal advice on the precise extent of your obligations and the best strategy to adopt.
9. Avoid side-shows about notes of meetings. HR sometimes provide copies of their notes of consultation meetings to the reps and ask reps to agree that they are correct. There are times when this can be worthwhile. However, in our experience it often leads to an unnecessary side-show about the content and accuracy of the minutes. Consider instead agreeing action points at the end of each meeting and circulating these afterwards.
10. Don’t be too hard on yourself! It is rare for meetings with reps to take place without at least a degree of confrontation, even when everyone tries hard to be constructive. From time to time mistakes will happen and problems will arise. The key is to deal with them promptly, effectively and to take advice before a situation escalates out of control. Network with other HR professionals and advisers to share ideas, learn from each others mistakes and take comfort in the fact that you are not alone!
David Murphy is an employment and HR lawyer and associate at Fox Williams LLP. He can be contacted on 0207 614 2633 or firstname.lastname@example.org.