The summer of discontent on our railways | EEF

The summer of discontent on our railways

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How can HR handle industrial relations without sparking confrontation? Here are six practical steps to consider.

By: Chris Harries, National Head of Employee Relations


Photo via Twitter


The trick for any employer considering implementing an element of business change, is taking people with you. In my experience, if people know the real situation that has prompted the change process (however unpleasant this truth may be), the majority will face up to the situation and react accordingly.

In other cases, business change is controversial, whether in terms of working practices or shift premiums and overtime rates. Here, the communication and language become critical because we have to persuade people of the need for change. This can be difficult in circumstances where the words ‘thin end of the wedge’ and ‘red lines’ appear, as this is where the most entrenched positions emerge.

However it is important to remember the following:


1.      The Influence of Procedure

Knowing the processes involved in industrial action will help your organisation understand and manage the associated risks.  Employment laws protecting employees taking industrial action, such as taking part in strikes or picketing, are contained in the Employment Rights Act 1996 and Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.  The Trade Union Act will revise these provisions later this year. Given this is a specialist area, it’s not uncommon to discover business leaders and in-house legal advisers often lack practical experience in collective employee relations. Seeking specialist support could save you time and money in the long run.


2.      The Role of Personalities

Disputes often arise when parties refuse to talk and/or take up entrenched positions. The famous ‘Take it or Leave it’ position is often seen as a no-nonsense approach to negotiations. But in practice, this can be a slap in the face of union negotiators, who may see this position as a sign of negotiations being a waste of time. So, although it is a no-nonsense approach, it is high risk if things go wrong.

Having a clearly set out procedure agreement means that new personalities are injected into the dispute at times where they are most required. The approach of local management and trade union officials may be heavily coloured by other issues not directly relevant to the dispute in hand. Other voices change the nature of the conversation especially if they are intent on problem solving.


3.      The Influence of Time

Time is a factor bound up with the importance of procedure. The dynamic of a dispute changes over time. The importance of an issue can fade, especially if there is money involved. A pay increase scheduled for September 1st can look very different in December if it has not been implemented.


4.      Keep all options open

Rule nothing in, rule nothing out. Disputes can become a trial of strength. But once that happens it should be about limiting its effect if at all possible. Careless expressions of frustration at the action do not achieve anything and it is important not to point fingers. This is because…..


5.      There is always a settlement/deal

The simple fact is that once a dispute is settled, everyone will have to work together again. That is why it is important to avoid deadlock, or if it happens, retain channels to break it.


6.      Don’t Panic

Doing as little as possible is sometimes the best option. This gives away nothing and emphasises the fact that you are prepared for the pain that is happening. Having a prepared plan of communication is essential for avoiding careless language. Words of conflict will only exacerbate things.


EEF’s specialist team offers unrivalled Employee Relations expertise providing support and guidance to a full range of employee relations challenges.


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