The arrival of the Information and Consultation Regulations last year meant that UK employers could no longer leave their employees out of decision-making for the organisation. Now, if 10% of the workforce requests consultation in any six-month period, this triggers an obligation for employers to open negotiations about setting up information and consultation procedures.
If no agreement is reached, the minimum standards will apply, dictating how employee representatives will be appointed, what issues they must be informed and consulted about, and when information must be given. However, pre-existing arrangements take precedence over the standard provisions. This gives employers an opportunity to develop their own information and consultation procedures and ensure that they are tailored to fit the organisation.
Employers can also improve on the minimum standards, increasing employees’ involvement to enhance their contribution and the organisation’s overall performance. The Institute for Employment Studies has investigated five UK private sector organisations that already exhibit good practice in employee involvement. Its findings highlight both successful strategies and techniques, and challenges in employee involvement.
The findings are based on qualitative interviews held at five UK organisations: a food manufacturing plant, a leading pharmaceutical firm, a multinational bank, a supplier to the hospitality and leisure market and a financial services company. Qualitative interviews were conducted with union representatives, senior management and non-union employee representatives. Because of the sensitive nature of some of the research data, the organisations have not been named.
One important finding is that high-level communication can be more effective than using a trickle-down process. For one thing, the status of the person talking affects how information is received. Being called to a meeting with the director gets a different response from listening to a line manager working from a script. Also, cascading information can introduce inaccuracies.
For important issues, he says, senior management must do the talking themselves. “Far too often I’ve heard it at the top level and then I get it at the low level, and the message can be quantitatively and qualitatively different,” said one respondent, an employee representative at a leading pharmaceutical company.
Another approach is to deal with poor delivery in briefings by training junior and middle managers. This can address the challenge of engaging employees – both the recipients of information and the managers who provide it – in cascaded information.
Building a culture of ‘no surprises’, in which employers and employee representatives warn one another of potential problems, is also beneficial. A multinational bank has radically changed its practices in this respect. Previously, the trade union was kept at arm’s length and given the bare minimum of information at the latest possible time. But following a period of serious unrest and industrial action, the bank revolutionised its relationship with the union by negotiating a partnership agreement that centred on building trust. Now the union is informed and consulted much earlier.
As well as keeping staff up to date, information processes should aim to build employees’ understanding of business issues. This is especially useful for difficult change programmes, as it helps employees to see why the change is needed and what they can and cannot influence.
“Some things are up for grabs, some things can’t be. It’s [wrong] to involve people cosmetically and make them think they can change something that’s going to happen, when in all honesty they can’t. So sometimes you have to say: ‘Sorry, chaps, we want to talk to you about it, we want to talk about how we might be able to tinker bits of it, but fundamentally, what’s going to happen is going to happen,'” the manager of a food manufacturing firm told researchers.
A key element of success in consultation lies in the level of issues discussed. Although consultation should be done at a level where people can see the results, moving the agenda away from ‘tea, toilets and trivia’ and towards more fundamental and long-term business issues can lead to greater engagement in the process and a higher quality of debate.
An employee representative from a leading pharmaceutical firm who had previously shunned consultation explains: “One of the reasons I walked away from joint consultation was the arguments over how many chips make a portion of chips. I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in whether we have soft loo paper or hard loo paper. What I’m interested in is making sure of the long-term viability of this site.”
Flexibility in the consultation process is also crucial. The degree to which information and consultation meetings are used for downward communication or for actual consultation varies according to the subject matter. Officially recognising this helps employees to have realistic expectations. Second, a flexible approach is necessary to consult with different groups of employees. For example, an organisation that incorporates a highly-unionised blue-collar workforce and white-collar employees with a different union or none can have consultation committees that reflect this, recruiting employee representatives through the union or directly from staff as appropriate.
Besides consultation committees, working groups looking at specific issues are used for joint decision-making. These have a wide range of uses, such as to develop equitable methods for determining pay and conditions, to improve general efficiency and reduce costs, and to find ways of mitigating the painful aspects of necessary change. They often draw on employee opinion surveys and can send their proposals to ballot.
Once established, getting the working group itself to set its procedures is invaluable. Although this makes working groups slow to develop, it helps to ensure a practicable and effective model that has the approval of employee representatives. This leads to greater legitimacy of, and thus support for, the decisions made.
The case studies also highlight that working groups should have a substantial degree of decision-making power, so that they are seen to be valid and effective mechanisms of employee involvement. It is imperative to make the remit of working groups clear at the outset. The group’s decision making can be kept in check by close liaison with senior management. Together, these can avoid the embarrassing and potentially damaging situation of inappropriate decisions having to be vetoed.
Although not covered by the Information and Consultation Regulations, giving employees a high level of discretion – or empowerment – within their job increases their involvement. It encourages flexible decision-making and greater engagement with the work of the organisation.
However, increased empowerment may not cover all employees and not every organisation practises it. It is part of employee involvement strategy in only three of the five organisations we studied, and even in those organisations it is usually targeted at certain job roles.
The key to understanding this is that discretion should be relevant to the job at hand. For example, one UK bank is trying to empower its front-line employees who are local branch managers. The employee relations director describes returning to a version of the Arthur Lowe figure from Dad’s Army: the community expert who knows the local businesses and has the authority to make decisions about the customer base. But such empowerment is not possible across the board. In job areas such as back-room processing, regularised and scientific procedures, there is little room for employee discretion.
As well as issues specific to information, consultation and discretion, a number of general points emerged from the case studies. One of the most important is that employee involvement initiatives work best when they are integrated into the normal work routine, unlike quality circles or reward-based suggestion schemes, which exist in parallel to daily work. Having an involving style of line management or an ‘open door policy’, for example, can be a good way of harnessing employees’ ideas.
Our participants often viewed successful initiatives as an overall strategy with common or complementary aims. Ultimately, employee involvement initiatives should form part of a consistent approach to dealing with the workforce.
Jonny Gifford is a research officer at the Institute for Employment Studies.
New and improved consultation techniques
The Institute for Employment Studies case studies found some new and useful techniques in consultation, such as:
- operating steering groups for consultation committees to decide their agendas, making more efficient use of senior management’s time
- bolstering the representation of employees who are particularly affected by large pieces of business change
- using area managers to inject expert knowledge into consultation committee meetings
- using trade union research departments to help shape policy
- holding workshops to strengthen the rationale of consultation and develop partnership-working skills.
A printed edition of the Institute for Employment Studies report is available from Gardners Books. Tel: 01323 521555
A pdf copy can be obtained online, go to www.employment-studies.co.uk/pubs