Consignia tackles work disputes

Rich outlines what Consignia is doing to transform its industrial relations in
a bid to turn the company around. Paul Nelson reports

Paul Rich was headhunted earlier this year by the Consignia board to address
the company’s chronic staff morale problems and improve the working

Rich, Consignia’s corporate development director, moved from his post as
group managing director at the Post Office in May to lead the organisation’s
attempts to turn its performance around by addressing its confrontational work

Consignia is undergoing a radical business restructure, which includes
shedding 30,000 jobs and scrapping the second post to claw back losses of £1.5m
a day. It currently costs the organisation 28p to deliver every 27p first class

Central to the changes is a drastic improvement in industrial relations.
Consignia has been crippled by frequent, regional wildcat strike action – more
than 53,000 working days were lost to strikes in the 2001-02 financial year.
This has contributed to low morale, poor productivity and performance. The
company recently admitted it loses 500,000 letters a week.

An independent review of Consignia headed by Lord Sawyer and published last
year, blamed overbearing, bullying managers lacking in people management skills
for many of the company’s problems.

Rich admits he was overwhelmed by the extent of the problem and unprepared
for the task that lay ahead.

"The bullying and harassment culture is shocking. It is something you
do not get so much of on the Post Office side," he said.

Rich said the company is going to recruit a company-wide board level HR
director who will help drive the culture change by ensuring HR is at the heart of
the firm from the top down.

"The chairman quite rightly wants a group HR director to represent the
rights and issues of our people at the very top. When you are in a
labour-intensive industry, it is important to have someone who can represent
the key people issues at board level," said Rich.

Consignia already employs a group personnel director, Bob People, who
co-ordinates HR across the organisation’s individual businesses including the
Post Office, Royal Mail and Parcel Force.

Rich said there is also individual HR representation within the business
units because there is a need for localised expertise.

Consignia has taken a number of other measures to address the issues
highlighted in Lord Sawyers’ report, including introducing a new HR-based
complaints procedure and over-hauling training. Other changes include revamping
its employee opinion surveys and improving internal communications.

The complaints procedure, to be introduced next month, will make HR central
to solving industrial relations issues.

The current system has a number of ways for staff to make a complaint, but
it is going to be streamlined to one form that will go to both the HR
department and line manager.

Next year a harassment phone line for staff will be set up so employees can
seek advice without having to involve their line manager. Independent
investigators will also be employed and any complaint not resolved in a set
time frame with be dealt with at a higher level.

"Bullying and harassment is completely unacceptable. Personnel people
will be given a greater role in dealing with harassment as it is something that
the board and management team take very seriously and will stamp out wherever
found," said Rich.

A training review – to be published at the end of October – will recommend a
complete overhaul, moving training out of the classroom and on to the
shopfloor. Bullying and harassment training will also be included in staff

The frequency of the employee opinion survey will also be dramatically

Rich admits not enough importance is placed on the existing poll, which
takes place on an ad hoc basis "once or twice a year".

The survey will now be sent out monthly to around 20,000 staff – a twelfth
of the workforce. Under the new system the questions will be updated to find
out how people feel about their working environment, line manager, operating
unit and the company.

"The problem [with the current employee survey] is our inability to
feed back fast to the local line manager where they should take action, the
restructure will allow us to do that," said Rich.

Internal communication is to be formally structured. A weekly 30-minute
session will be introduced, allowing local managers to inform staff about
company issues.

Rich stressed that in time he wants employees to be setting the agenda for
these meetings.

"We are going to get our people together to listen hard and act on what
they say."

One way the company will encourage managers to respond to the needs of their
workforce is by giving site managers extra autonomy. From next year the
company’s 3,000 site managers will share an annual budget of up to £10m to
improve local working environments.

Rich believes giving managers more power to act on their own initiative will
improve their relationship with front line staff.

How HR will improve industrial relations?

– The appointment of the first
company-wide board-level HR director

– A new HR-based complaints procedure

– A radical training overhaul

– A revamped employee survey

– Weekly staff meeting

– £10m a year to improve the work environment

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