Averting terminal decline at BA

After
the wildcat walkout at Heathrow, British Airways’ HR director explains HR’s
role and his plans for the future. By Jane
King

British
Airways’ director for people Neil Robertson played a key role in resolving the
firm’s damaging dispute with check-in staff over a computerised clocking on
system. In an exclusive interview with Personnel Today he explains how
BA’s fight for survival and its drive for modernisation sparked the wildcat
strike, despite the firm’s attempts to consult with staff

Q
Is there enough consultation/ communication between British Airways management
and staff and will recent events prompt a change in consultation/ communication
at BA?

A
We recognise we can always do things better and we are actively looking at what
the airline can do to restore trust between management and staff as well as how
we can improve staff communications in light of recent events.

The
airline has well-established and jointly-agreed arrangements for discussing
issues with our employees through staff representatives, which include regular
forums at all levels. These forums and other ad hoc meetings have been used to
discuss the relevant issues with the trade unions.

Employee
communication is also an important part of the way we manage our people. The
airline has been working closely with the unions for 12 months to try to reach
a resolution on this issue.

Throughout
this period we have been continually communicating with our staff about what
ATR is about and to seek to reassure them that there is nothing to worry about.
We have reassured staff that it will not mean sending them home during quiet
periods or bringing in ‘annualised hours’ by stealth.

We
have used a variety of means to communicate with our employees. We have had
face-to-face briefings, from February to July, discussing the new system and
the broader ‘Future Size and Shape’ programme, as well as using letters and
question & answer documents, articles in in-house publications, and so on.

We
now want to concentrate on the future. We are pleased that the three trade unions
have agreed to continue discussing with us other cost efficiencies in our
business recovery plan in a new separate joint working party, and we want to
continue to work closely with the unions and our people as we move forward.

Q
Do you see the dispute as a failure of good HR practices?

A
The last few years has seen the industry faced with unimaginable challenges –
this is the most testing time in aviation history. 

There
are events that we could not have foreseen such as September 11, SARS, and the
war in Iraq, and there has been continued economic weakness and competition
from the no-frills carriers. 

We
have just reported one of our worst pre-tax losses for the first quarter of the
year (£45m), and the lowest revenue for nine years. Costs efficiencies partly
offset the weak revenue. 

These
events would be seen as a challenge for any organisation. To survive, British
Airways and its employees have had to undergo an enormous amount of change.
This change is inevitable and the need for change will continue. 

Throughout
this challenging period, the company has worked closely with its employees and
unions.  Working in this way has enabled
the trade unions and the company to deliver on changes as part of the ‘Future,
Size and Shape’ programme, which is aimed at modernising our business. HR has
had a key part to play in the effective delivery of all this change.

Q
How was the HR team at BA involved in this dispute?

A  British Airways has a dedicated HR team,
which includes industrial relations specialists working alongside our line
management teams, as well as our customer service team based at Heathrow.

With
their support, we have been working closely with the unions to seek a
resolution to the issue of Automated Time Recording (ATR) throughout the past
12 months.

The
HR team has also worked very closely with their line management colleagues in
keeping employees fully informed of developments.

Q
Why was the new electronic system introduced at the busiest time of year?

A
There was never going to be a good time to do this, you need only look at what
has been happening to other airlines to see why we can’t put off this kind of
change. We have been talking to our unions about this for more than 12 months
and delayed the introduction to allow these discussions to continue.

Q
How has ATR been received in other parts of the business?

A
Some 20,000 British Airways staff currently use swipe cards each day, and more
than 2,000 of our staff at Heathrow already use ATR and have been doing so for
nearly three years – it is an integral part of the way they operate.

Like
any business employing large numbers of people, often working complex shifts,
we need to accurately record and manage who is at work.  It’s about modernising the way we work,
using modern tools to enable staff to do their jobs more easily. 

HR
factfile: How events unfolded


The planned introduction of an Automated Time Recording (ATR) system for 2,500
staff sparked an unofficial two-day walkout on 18 July, costing BA an estimated
£40m


The strike happened despite 12 months of negotiation with the unions over the
scheme, which was to be launched on 22 July with BA phasing it in alongside the
present paper-based system


Employees feared the system would be used to radically change the way they work
through the introduction of annualised hours and split shifts, meaning they
could be sent home during quiet periods and recalled at a moment’s notice


Staff also feared that the system would pave the way for more intrusive
controls by BA


After intensive negotiation between senior managers and union representatives,
staff concerns over the swipe cards were eased and ATR will replace the
previous paper-based system on 1 September

Employees
take a swipe at BA managers over ‘lack of respect’

To
the passer-by, it looked like business as usual at Heathrow airport last week.

Passenger
queues had returned to their normal ebb and flow; mountains of suitcases
morphed into molehills.

The
strike had ended, but the bitterness among check-in staff was still palpable.

A
British Airways veteran with 15 years’ service told Personnel Today: “The
strike was about changes that would affect our lives and ability to pay our
mortgage.”

Mike
(not his real name – like his colleagues, he cannot speak publicly about company
matters) said: “We have all worked closely with BA to save it thousands of
pounds post-September 11. We don’t mind change. We do mind disrespect,” he
added.

Rose,
mother of two, is married to another BA employee. They swap shifts to
accommodate their children. She said she and her husband were delighted the
strike was over, but now distrust management.

Rod
and his check-in neighbour reckoned management “have learned their lesson”.
Like Rose and Mike, they claim communication comes mostly via their direct line
manager, the regular BA newspaper, and “the odd circular”.

Like
others, they don’t have a home computer, or access to a work computer other
than to carry out daily duties, so they are hazy about whether there is a BA
intranet site. They claim they wouldn’t know an HR person “if we fell over
them”.

“Now
we just deal with managers who have a lot of autonomy. We understand that the
proposed new working processes were imposed by just one manager, who didn’t
talk to us. We understand not even the top bloke knew what he was up to.”

A
spokeswoman  for the Transport and
General Workers Union said the decrease in morale at BA had been gradual. Pay
negotiations had been stretched and staff numbers axed. She said BA simply
failed to give adequate reassurances about the implications of the new swipe
cards, swelling rumours about working culture changes.

Kevin
Curran, general secretary of the GMB, said: “It was a 20th century dispute
where low-paid, mainly female workers stood up and demanded dignity, respect
and consultation from their employer.”

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