Employee Relations – Whatever happened to the heroes?

No more heroes any more… No more heroes any more… (the Stranglers, 1977)

As a mere pup back in the nineties, as I traversed through the normal big Co HR career ladder there was only one destination that fixated me and that was Employee Relations. For those who let it pass them by (and too many HR practitioners did) let me paint the picture of ER in a unionised environment amongst a highly exciting era of transformation.

Whilst our function recently signalled an 83% female quota, I have to add for those with a sense of HR history this was an arena of wall-to-wall macho men back then.  Scottish men to be precise. Big red-headed Scots, they smelt of last night’s stale beer, wore string vests and gut bursting shirts, had booming voices that made Brian Blessed sound like Justin Bieber but an encyclopedic knowledge of agreements that spanned lifetimes. In unionised environments (as was the way back then) they faced off to equally dysfunctional and typically Scottish Trade Union lifers of the same mould but in a battle of wits but they got things done and they helped deliver change. It was checks and balances, give and take and amongst the bravado it was consensual decision-making. ER bellowed its way through change agendas and we had our heroes!

Even when the dotcom boom brought us smaller, more nimble upstarts that required ER gurus to help proactively define international cultures and working relationships that were new and sexy – (all american chinos, long-term stock, globalisation and a frothy Frappuccino) it was ER that was at the fulcrum of change. We meant something back then.

Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky… He got an ice pick that made his ears burn.

Sadly, as I survey today’s world of BigCo ER I see a neutered function that limits itself to a highly reactive agenda that is a world away from the change agents of yesteryear.

But why ? 

Talent shortage – Too often ER are seen as perennial blockers and tacklers and are drawn from legal beagles who’ve made a sideways shift into HR. This is a direct result of not growing our own and not identifying the skills shortage needed to fulfill one of the most fundamental change oriented roles we have. We’re now populated by those who take risk aversion to a whole new level and who are actively taught at law school that ideas and innovation are big, bad sweary words.

No use placing all the blame with the legal profession. The mojo has well and truly been sucked from this important function equally by the environment we live within and a failure in too many organisation to tackle an ever-changing agenda, namely:

The Employers’ agenda

Firmly in the ‘whinge and moan’ category today, complaining often about the burden of red tape and bureaucracy. They want it made easier and delivered in quicker business cycles. As society kicks lumps out of the banking industry in particular to add more regulation, the ER teams in there are resigned to being entirely reactive, complete with a phony ‘collective’ relationship of works councils or employee representatives. If you haven’t had the pleasure then the ER dance in these domains consist of ill-equipped ‘reps’ who are consulted typically on redundancy (or sometimes the introduction of flat shoes in the dress code to mix it up a bit and make it feel a bit more meaningful). In short, these bodies are utterly impotent, oppose nothing and are there purely to allow large organisations to tick the box if a collective case comes their way. ER plays them like a proverbial fiddle each and every time without fail.

The Collective agenda

As well as the Armani clad representatives of modern collective representation above we are also left with a dwindling trade union movement that gets smaller and more irrelevant, yet more defiant and more entrenched as a consequence.  And for those organisations without trade unions, the modern ER team will be asked to block and tackle any sign of entryism for fear of not being able to deliver organisational change (i.e one sided, uncontested and lazy change).

The individual agenda

This is where it gets interesting. For those lucky enough to be employed then it’s fifty shades of disengagement. The art of annual employee surveys are eradicated in some organisations for fear of the consequence of opening up any dialogue with their people and of course camaraderie erodes as their colleagues disappear into a room with HR only to be bagged, gagged and binned out the back, with a compromise agreement and brown envelope tucked into their inside pocket.

And so the circle is complete; ER triumphantly reports back to the business that numbers have been met, no opposition has been received and no surviving employees are obviously protesting. Job done.

Come on ER. We need to rethink our game here.

Nobody wants to tackle the elephant in the room – what in the name of Zeus this reactive stance is doing to the sustainability of our organisations in the long run to compete effectively ? And boy what a complex set of game changers there is round the corner not being tackled. These include building solutions and systems to meet the changing demographics of the workplace (older, more female and more ethnic), the fragmented nature of our employment relationship (outsourcing, M&A, contractors, etc) and the individualization of employment. How we manage both individual and collective ER in these times require a rethink, but who is thinking about them ? It won’t happen whilst the legal beagles take charge and the short-term business cycles that shareholder value cherishes takes precedent.

As a call to action to the ER community here are just three suggestions for ‘upping your game’:

  1. Get off the back foot and start thinking about longer term sustainability. Blocking and tackling, when legislation has dictated policy especially, is baseline ER. Develop a credo for instigating far-reaching dialogue, debate and decisions about the nature of work ahead of us and what it means in redefining our relationship with our people.
  2. Reduce your own myth of reliance – Take a leaf out of the book of the self-sufficient SME sector and don’t believe that all unpalatable individual casework that emerges has to be hoovered up by the ER team as everyone else doing it is too risky and can’t be trusted. Let’s agree that the law is an ass on conflict resolution in this country but not empowering managers to make judgements is just lazy and self-serving.
  3. Bring back consensus. Keep the ER team on its toes and deal with positive, disruptive and dynamic conflict in the workplace at the collective level. If you are going to have employee bodies then be authentic and give them teeth. Provide for well-trained employee representatives who are capable of bringing a voice / idea to the table and condition the leadership on the business case for effective and constructive dialogue in the workplace.

Bizarrely as HR professionals ran off to the bright lights of business partnering they missed completely what a wonderful experience a stint in ER could bring, and more importantly how utterly integral the expertise is in preparing us for tomorrow’s world.

Time to create new heroes.

Barry Flack

Written by , Highly experienced HR, Change and Talent Acquisition professional

Barry is a highly regarded senior HR change agent with 20 years post-graduate experience. During that time Barry has worked in a variety of industries and partnered organisations such as BT, O2, Barclays, UBS, Thomson Reuters and Lebara Mobile through varying business cycles as a Group HRD, Head of Talent Acquisition, Industrial and Employee Relations Lead and Global HR Programme Lead. A Fellow of the CIPD, Barry is also a strong advocate of change within the HR industry and has recently launched a blog to channel debate on the important issues.

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