Industrial relations were once so central to the practice of HR that you
could not cut a credible figure in the profession unless you had done several
rounds with Red Robbo (or equivalent) and emerged victorious.
Things reached a peak during the 1979 "Winter of Discontent" when
IR managers were churned out by the barrowful to counter tension and head off
And thenÉ a period in the wilderness. With conflict resolved in many
sectors, industrial relations slid to the bottom of the agenda. "It wasn’t
given as much of a high priority as some other elements of the HR
portfolio," says Acas council member, Willie Coupar, who is also director
of the Involvement and Participation Association.
But industrial relations managers, and their contemporary equivalents in
employee relations, are back. Bruce Warman, director of personnel at Vauxhall
Motors, claims this is an area enjoying a resurgence. This is not just because
we have hit a downturn in the economic cycle so much as the recognition that
the employer-employee relationship is in the throes of a major transition that
must be handled properly.
"Changes in the role and remit of trades unions, new rules on employee
consultation and the wider impact of employee partnership programmes have put
the discipline back on the map. But it’s not about conflict anymore, it’s about
relationships," explains Warman.
And the upshot, according to Coupar, is that employee relations experts are
in such demand that there is now a shortage. He is regularly approached for
recommendations by firms desperate to sign up seasoned hands.
He also agrees that the role has evolved. "The agenda used to be quite
narrow. When people weren’t firefighting, they were focused on issues like pay
and conditions," he says. "Now the role is more holistic – people are
asked to develop quite sophisticated ways of working and analysing their effect
on employee relations. A typical dialogue will include issues like change
management, continuous improvement, training and health and safety."
There are two categories of people who converge on employee relations.
Firstly, there are HR generalists looking to round out their skills portfolios.
Secondly, there are the poachers-turned-gamekeepers – often former line
managers or union reps – prized for the trust they inspire and their knowledge
of what makes the workforce tick.
"You’ve got to be able to convince management that the union’s got an
argument and there’s some merit to it, then you’ve got to do the same process
in reverse," says one former industrial relations manager. "You also
have to be focused on what’s going on outside the company. You need a two- to
three-year vision of what’s going on. And you must be resilient."
The old skill of fixing a deal between two warring groups has evolved into
that of a more transparent partnership "facilitator".
The good news is that the laws of supply and demand suggest that
specialists’ salaries will go up. Indicators suggest that starting salary is
around £35,000, but in highly politicised, sensitive environments they can
command a lot more – upwards of £50,000. And there is considerable room for
manoeuvre when it comes to promotion. Those in an industrial setting could find
themselves heirs apparent to the HR director.
By common consent, the worst aspect of the job is being caught in the middle
of conflict. But the satisfaction to be had from striking the right partnership
balance or predicting an outcome is strong.
All in all, says Coupar, employee relations is ideal for someone with five
to 10 years’ experience in HR. "It brings better networking opportunities
than many other HR roles. You’re likely to interact with people at senior
levels – inside and outside the organisation. It’s a great way to raise your
Case study: Joe McDavid, head of employee relations at BT
When times are tough, you need a steady hand to administer the medicine. No
wonder that last year BT recalled Joe McDavid from a sojourn as head of HR for
global sales and services (a classic generalist role), to his old stamping
ground in employee relations.
After 18 years with the company, few can equal McDavid’s understanding of
what makes the people equation at BT work.
The job ahead is likely to be challenging. To offset a debt that stood at
£30bn in April, BT is undergoing a massive restructuring programme that has
already seen the sale of its Yell directory enquiries business.
By the end of the year, it will also have demerged BT Wireless. In all, some
18,000 employees may be affected by the moves.
McDavid’s remit is, "To carry the unions and people along with the
restructuring". What this means in practice is a lot of work on terms and
conditions and a big push into training and reskilling.
But the most vital skill is communication. "We need to make sure the
unions and works councils understand the climate we’re operating in. We also
have to help them understand what it will mean for individuals," says
This has been made easier by the strength of BT’s partnership with worker
representatives. "We’re very close to the union [in outlook] the vast
majority of time," McDavid said.
Stability was boosted recently when both sides agreed to fix bread and
butter issues over a two-year period, "To free our hands to concentrate on
With a degree in social sciences, a post-graduate diploma in industrial
administration and a clutch of CIPD qualifications, McDavid is well equipped
for the role. But of far greater value is his talent for building bridges and
"You need to be able to listen, understand the business and not get too
excited. You have to realise that sometimes people need to shout and thump the
table. Above all, you need to find a common ground," he says.