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Building constructive employee relations

From stand-off with unions to collaborative consultation forum

For a major publishing company, I helped set up a new consultation forum that went on to be the catalyst for a more inclusive approach to employee relations.

Challenging employee relations context

For several years, Joint Consultative Committees (JCCs) ran successfully at the company’s five UK sites, three of which were covered by union agreements. But following several senior management changes, a much more confrontational relationship developed between management and the unions.

In 2006, the Information and Consultation Regulations gave staff of large UK companies the right to request the formation of a forum for discussion of issues affecting terms and conditions of employment. The company resisted, claiming that the JCCs performed that function by site, that the unions already had bargaining rights and that a national forum wouldn’t work as the sites were independently run. The unions, however, argued there was only one employing entity in the UK and the sites were not separate businesses. They also pointed out that JCC members were unelected and so not credible representatives. The unions won the case arbitration.

Towards an inclusive approach

On behalf of the company, I led discussions with the unions about the set up and running of a new National Information and Consultation Forum (NICF). This involved winning over sceptical union reps and company execs to achieve a mutually acceptable solution.

Key features of the NICF:

  • We created 25 seats on the NICF, including five for management representatives.
  • The Electoral Reform Society ran the elections to ensure independence and credibility.
  • We persuaded a large number of staff to stand for election by promoting the benefits of a new forum that was truly representative of their interests.
  • We agreed a written constitution for the NICF. It included an understanding that all group-wide issues relating to terms and conditions would be discussed in the NICF. This streamlined consultation by doing away with the need for parallel dialogue with the unions on these issues.

Delivering change

Thanks to the creation of the NICF, a number of important changes were discussed, agreed and put in place in a spirit of collaboration. These included:

  • changes to pension provision to take account of the substantial deficit of the final salary scheme
  • widespread changes to terms and conditions
  • relocation of two divisions to a new campus in London