The Forgotten Discipline of Collective Employee Relations

It often seems that Employee Relations is the poor relation of the HR profession which is odd given the number of days lost to collective disputes on the UK’s railways, in our hospitals and indeed in the private sector in recent years. Here’s a few reflections on lessons learned in building and maintaining a positive collective employee relations environment. Let’s start with shared aims.

There have to be some shared aims for the management-union relationship to produce constructive outcomes and move beyond just positional bargaining. This could be as simple as a joint interest in maintaining well paid jobs and investing in workforce development. Finding this shared ground can take time and may need third party help but it’s a critical area to work on. Shared aims that go beyond this years’ negotiation can bring a realism to the negotiating table. Then it’s about having agreed rules of the game that both parties will respect. It’s inevitable that over time there will be disagreements and unexpected issues that threaten to unsettle relationships.

Having a robust agreed process and behaviours to manage these issues is necessary to take the heat of the immediate situation and enable a considered approach to resolving the problem. Building personal relationships based on mutual respect obviously always help massively but again takes time. Sometimes personalities don’t gel and it’s just not possible to get the point where helpful off-the-record conversations prevent misunderstandings from building. However, there are some building blocks that will help, including respect for each other’s roles and mentally stepping into the full-time officer or shop steward’s shoes to understand where they are coming from. We all have stakeholders to satisfy.

My final learning is the importance of stepping out of the role play that collective bargaining often becomes and finding a space for open and honest conversation and listening. All of the most difficult agreements I have been part of achieving have come when the parties have met on neutral ground – often just a bar somewhere – seeing each other as people rather than roles, often for the first time, and talking honestly about really matters to them. It’s amazing how quickly those conversations can open up a path to an agreement. Despite the apparent intractability of some the disputes we are currently seeing, there are strategies for building positive collective employee relations.

Scroll to Top