Establishing a new cultural norm

The EU directive on staff consultation has finally been pushed through. DTI
Minister Alan Johnson has called on HR, managers and employee representatives
to work together to change the culture on consultation. What can hr people do
to move this forward? Compiled by Sarah-Jane North

Bill Livingstone
Director of human resources at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Trust

The history of joint consultation in this country has ebbed and flowed since
the beginning of the last century and there have been many examples of it
working well, particularly in larger manufacturing organisations. During the
70’s and early 80’s there was an increase in the number of employers using
joint consultation but a major reason for this surrounded the utility of
managing job losses during a recession. By 1990 the tide had gone out again but
a recent CBI survey – Employment Trends 2000 – indicates a resurgence. The
extent to which this is influenced by Europe remains debatable but few could
deny the generally superior industrial relations records and economic
performance of many European Community countries. The empirical evidence
therefore to support the view that the UK has a poor record in relation to
consultation is in my view significant.

Establishing consultation as a cultural imperative does however require
agreement between potentially conflicting institutional interests. Most HR
professionals would support the principle but traditional management thinking
has generally not been accommodating of this and of course trade unions
officially see their members’ interests being best advanced through collective
bargaining. However, the climate is changing as the distinction between capital
and labour becomes more blurred in our "property and share-owning"

Consultation however is only part of a wider staff participation agenda or
"partnership". Giving staff a vested interest in the success of their
organisations through "share ownership" is one way of doing this.
There is no reason why staff in the public sector could not be rewarded in a
similar way for their performance. It is unrealistic to appeal to public sector
values as a reason for working from an increasingly disillusioned workforce. It
would be an innovative, albeit unlikely, move for the Government to introduce a
"Public Sector Employee Dividend". The major issue therefore is not
just about consultation but creating the right conditions for every employee to
be able to align their interests with the interests of the organisation. It is
also about creating a meritocracy where ability, hard work and opportunity are
brought together to achieve individual and organisational success.

Bruce Warman
HR director, Vauxhall Motors

I am anti the directive. It imposes a
one-size-fits-all structure where different organisations have very different
needs. The bottom line is what you are consulting about. The closure itself or
ways to alleviate it? And when do you start consulting? That’s the dilemma all
companies face. If you consult too early you can create negative expectations
that will not be realised. For fundamental changes in business, when it gets to
the point of having to make unpleasant decisions, it can be too late to do
anything about it. Consulting can get in the way of decision-making and
implementing decisions. Sometimes the quicker you get it sorted the quicker the
business can return to normal.  The
level of change that we experienced in 2000 was very rapid and sudden. Things
happened more quickly than we would have anticipated. We had to respond quickly
and we could have damaged the rest of the business by not doing so.

Drew Thomson
Managing director, Air Miles and BA Miles

We have a vibrant consultative body, called Viewpoint. We encourage
our staff to nominate the people they think are best suited to represent their
interests.  The impact on our business
has been most keenly felt during our current reorganisation, which involved
closing our call centre at Crawley. We wanted to consult openly, to see if
there was another way to achieve our business objectives. Viewpoint has been
instrumental in helping us refine the proposal and understand our staff’s
needs. Most notable was reaching agreement on maintaining an evening/ weekend
call centre shift a Crawley, thereby saving over 40 jobs. Any progressive
company will want to consult with its staff. If they are only reacting to a
legal requirement, you have to question their culture; not wanting to share
knowledge and consult is hardly a recipe for engaging your staff and achieving

Peter Reid
Director, Peter Reid Consulting

This directive won’t go into a draw
for three years while the Government scratches its head and HR ignores it. We
have to do something now. There is the very real voluntary option to design
information and consultation procedures. All you need is another Marks &
Spencer closure system and the unions will be pressurising the Government to
use the directive it has to hand. People are commenting that they’ll simply be
able to e-mail their employees but that shows a failure to understand the
purpose of the directive. We can’t be looking at how to get around this. We
need to be looking at how to improve what we’ve already got. We have put in
place a works council for a UK manufacturing, engineering company, a business
with 57 people. It took nine months. It will be more difficult for bigger
companies and they will have to balance the needs of various sites, for example
unionised and non-unionised, and different types of practice.

Assistant director, the Involvement and Participation Association

There is vast scope for improvement
in consultation. If something has to be explained to employees it may encourage
managers to think about it more and make better decisions. There is a clear
trend away from managers feeling that if they consult others about an issue
then this brings into question their leadership. Effective consultation has to
be underpinned with trust and requires a degree of openness that has not been
seen in traditional models of industrial relations, where it was all about
keeping your cards up your sleeve in smoke-filled rooms. We would wish to see
full transparency throughout the decision-making process. If you train people
you consult with there should be no concerns about confidentiality. The more
open consultation is, the more responsibility trade union and staff
representatives have to ensure the trust they are trying to achieve isn’t

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