ERTT – Employee Engagement Forums: Adding Value in Unionised and Non-Unionised Businesses

engaged workplaceThese are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest Employee Relations Think Tank (ERTT) held on Thursday 16th September 2014 hosted by Lloyds Banking Group’s, Sean Harris (Head of ER – Group Employee Relations – Commercial Banking and Consumer Finance) and Sue Dryden (Manager – Group Employee Relations) titled ‘Employee Engagement Forums: Adding Value in Unionised and Non-Unionised Businesses’.

The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior Employee Relations and Human Resources professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.

What does an engaged employee look like?

Before tackling the ‘how’, it’s important to try to define ‘what’ exactly an engaged employee is – this is no easy feat. Some key indicators are needed to be able to understand and compare levels of engagement. Below summarises some suggestions for how to spot engagement.

Engaged employees are individuals who turn up to work, do their job and then go the extra mile. They speak positively about the business when talking to others, eg friends. Engagement can also be measured by an employee’s willingness to stay with the business, especially when offered something else. Higher levels of productivity can also be seen in engaged employees But how can these all be measured? This summary goes on to look into the differing ways of understanding and improving engagement levels.

Line managers

A large part of this Think Tank’s discussion focused on whether line managers should take more responsibility for employee engagement, rather than leaving it to be an HR initiative. Line manager effectiveness can have a major impact on employee engagement but it seems that currently not all line managers are trained on how to make sure their employees are engaged, even though they are the perfect people to do so! They interact with their colleagues regularly and ultimately should know and understand the wants and needs of their teams to be an effective manager, including softer aspects such as ‘how are they doing’. However, it is often the case that a manager is promoted due to being the best at what they do. But does this mean they are a good manager of people? Not necessarily.

In order to create effective management for employees it may be better to have technical managers who focus on the technical aspects of the job and people managers who focus on employee engagement and satisfaction. This would mean that if you are extremely skilled in your area there is still a possibility for promotion, even if people management is not a forté. The reason just having a people manager would not be suitable is that teams can often have lower levels of trust and respect for managers who do not have the technical skills needed in the role and therefore cannot relate to the actual job itself.

If it is not possible to put the combined people and technical manager system in place there are ways of improving or measuring current line manager effectiveness on engagement:

  • Exit interviews from leaving employees – what was the reason for them leaving? Was it the line manager?
  • Open communication policy – managers may know that they are not performing at their best but may be concerned at the prospect of flagging the issue with HR and the associated implications. Create an environment where they are encouraged to share their challenges and where they’ll be offered support such as training to improve the situation. Line managers may not always know all the answers and they should feel like they can come to senior managers for support without being reprimanded.
  • Don’t over-promise – ensure that line managers set realistic expectations with their teams to prevent under-delivering.
  • Constant discussion with managers to capture what’s going on, helping HR understand each team but also showing to line managers how important their team’s engagement is.
  • Regular visits from HR to see the ‘front line’ and therefore relate to and understand line managers more. Whilst visiting drop in sessions could be set up to allow all employees to directly engage with an HR representative to voice any concerns; giving HR a better idea of if the line manager is effective and the exact goings on in the team. Working on a micro level, meeting and communicating with individuals, can really make a difference! Some companies only do this when there is bad news, leaving a feeling of dread when HR turn up.
  • Encourage line managers to take part in 360 feedback with their team looking at what the manager is doing well and not so well and how this could be improved. This can be facilitated by HR to make it less scary to voice opinions and it should be made clear that employees voicing issues will not lead to a disciplinary. The process makes employees feel valued and gives managers an understanding of how they are doing.

Trust in Line Managers:

Letting your workforce know the state of the company, whether bad or good, can encourage engagement, increase trust and often get rid of complacency. It is important line managers are informed of this state and are trusted to deliver the news to their teams, whether bad or good in a way that will not disengage them. Often managers put off sharing bad news and instead leave it to the senior management as it can be hard work but it is essential they create a feeling of trust from their team by sharing all that they know – for this line managers need to be ‘in the know’.

It was suggested that if line managers are effective enough that other engagement tools, such as employee forums, are no longer needed. However, this could put too much onus on a single manager to ensure the workforce are engaged.

Employee Forums

There are currently no set rules of right and wrong for the format of engagement forums. In this previous executive summary the design of forums was discussed in further detail.

When designing the engagement forum process clear objectives of what is aiming to be achieved need to be defined. Some questions to consider are; Should a forum be designed by the staff for the staff? Should it allow staff to contribute to the overall vision of the business? The answer to these is dependent on the size and type of business as well as company culture, however the more involved employees are in the process or the better the process and the impact it can have is communicated the more likely they are to take the forums seriously, show up and add value.

It does need to be clear where employee input will stop. Should some decisions be made solely by the business leadership team with no input from employees? If so don’t give the workforce a ‘false hope’ that they can input on all decisions – define exactly what type of solutions will come from engagement forums so everyone‘s expectations are set correctly. It is essential to gain trust from employees in order for them to take forums seriously. They are sacrificing their time and therefore will only be willing to do so if they can see an impact from forums. Rapid communication, following forums, of how issues will be dealt with is key. If solutions cannot be provided a clear valid reason needs to be given that the workforce will be happy with.

How to select employee reps: 

There are a certain amount of employees who will never get engaged. They go to work purely to do their job and are not interested in interactions with colleagues or the overall vision of the company. However, there is a large group of employees who are interested in this and these should be the ones who represent the employee base via forums. Reps that volunteer themselves can sometimes have their own agenda and not be representative of all the workforce. The suggested methods for selecting reps is to either let employees vote for their reps themselves or by being proactive and talking to line managers and selecting together the most aware, networked employees.

If the company is struggling to find people willing to give up their time to be an employee rep a week trip could be offered to look over all issues and really get to the bottom of how to solve them. This shows the business is willing to commit a good amount of time to forums. Managers also need to be responsible for encouraging reps to go to forums and take them seriously. The idea of engagement forums also needs to be backed by the top of the organisation to show clear pertinence of the process.

When starting an initiative such as employee engagement forums it is essential a proper process is in place and that members of the HR team have dedicated time to deal with the running of the forums and processes after. If not done properly and processes fall apart it could lead to employees feeling even less engaged, abandoned and that they have had their time wasted. Avoid complacency with engagement forums by constantly adapting the format for what works best. This shows employees the process is being taken seriously and improves effectiveness.

Engagement Surveys

Engagement surveys capture data from a large number of people in a less time consuming manner than other mediums. However, they should not be the only engagement tool a business uses. They provide an idea of what is going well and what isn’t, through the employee’s eyes, but then further discussions need to be had to find out the exact reasons for issues. Surveys have a much higher response rate if employees believe they will actually be listened to and findings could have a direct impact on the business.

In terms of the design of surveys they should have a consistent format so they can be comparable to previous ones. Evaluating responses can be a lengthy process and therefore, if a survey is going to have an impact, they cannot be too regular. There needs to be enough time after one survey to really analyse responses and communicate answers to these, across the business, before another survey is run. Therefore, most companies use a yearly engagement survey alongside other engagement tools.

One of the questions that is popular to assess employee engagement levels is ‘Do I understand how my role affects the overall business?’. People often want to feel part of something and believe that what they are doing has an impact on the wider picture. This question can really establish if the part someone plays is being clearly communicated or if employees feel insignificant. Another question to understand teams and  line manager effectiveness, is ‘Has there been anything that has stopped you from doing your job?’.

Not letting Trade Unions be the only ‘voice’

When Trade unions have been recognised by a company they should be used in a positive partnership to understand employees and help the business make informed decisions. In some companies Trade Unions tend to communicate news to employees leaving the HR and management team with no voice. This can be down to managers feeling it is easier to leave it to them or not having quick enough response processes in place.  This needs to change and the company need to be representing and communicating their messages and not relying on Unions to do so in order to increase trust from employees. Unions can relay some very constructive feedback both to the management team and employees but relying on Unions can mean they can often set a different agenda to the one the company wants to focus on and when this agenda is not dealt with it can give a negative view of the company to employees.


Ultimately businesses realise the value of listening to the views and opinions of employees, especially in order to have an engaged workforce. In order to have maximum engagement from employees, issues need to be recognised and answered.

Onus for achieving high levels of engagement is put on HR and sometimes (and maybe more often!) line managers but in order for engagement tools to have the most impact and be taken seriously by the employee unit the top of the business must back and encourage engagement process as well. When looking at engagement companies should consider who has the people? The company? Trade Unions? Or no one? – if not the company why not and how can this be fixed?


Oasis HR

Written by , Network Driven HR Recruitment

Oasis HR is a multi-award winning HR Recruitment Agency based in London that delivers Contingency and Search services within the Human Resource and Business Change Markets. Our client base encompasses all industry sectors and we have a proven track record of delivering permanent, interim and temporary professionals at all levels across all HR disciplines. From a £20k HR Administrator to a £200k HR Director, Oasis HR is well placed to identify, approach and secure the best available talent in the market

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