Consultation without following Euro script

EU legislators and Britain’s personnel profession have a relationship that makes Gore and Bush look close. Little of the legislation conceived in Brussels – from working time to parental leave regulations – has found favour with HR practitioners.

So it’s surprising that a directive in the European pipeline could give an unprecedented boost to the status of the personnel business. It would oblige most companies to consult workforce representatives in advance of major decisions, such as take-overs.

The directive is opposed by the DTI and CBI. Accusations of intrusion into our voluntary model of employment relations are flying around. Consultation is admirable, opponents argue, but must not be compulsory. Yet, as an Industrial Society report, The Silent Stakeholders, published last week argues, there is a way to get the benefits of wider consultation without Brussels writing the script.

The striking thing is the degree of consensus about the benefits. The evidence all points the same way – collective consultation is good for business. Staff who feel listened to tend to be more motivated, more committed, more productive. Employees run shareholders a close second as stakeholders in the enterprise, so have a fundamental right to be consulted on big corporate decisions that directly affect them. There’s also the fact that the growing army of "knowledge workers" – the talent employers can least afford to lose – are unlikely to warm to an organisation that shows no interest in their views.

So consultation is good for corporate health, but perhaps compulsion is a bridge too far? Not really, as British employment relations long ago crossed that same bridge. There is a long-standing, complex web of law requiring collective consultation on matters from redundancy to transfers of undertakings.

Many organisations consult already, as the latest Workplace Employment Relations Survey shows. The researchers also suggest that with unions in decline and employers individualising the employment relationship, the art of consultation could be on the wane. Given the benefits of consulting employees and the fact European competitors appear to take it more seriously than the UK, this is a situation our economy literally can’t afford.

The way forward, The Silent Stakeholders argues, is flexible regulation built around existing successful methods. That would mean a right to consultation, provided employer and employee representatives agree to it.

For the personnel profession, this could be extraordinarily good news. Who better to advise the board on issues in need of consultation, and who better to show the organisation how? As the EU’s French presidency presses the UK to back the directive, will Britain’s HR professionals be voting non?

For information on The Silent Stakeholders call 0870 400 1000 or visit www.indsoc.co.uk/policy

By Patrick Burns, Policy Director, The Industrial Society

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