It’s good to talk…

Sunday nights are usually reserved by the BBC for a sumptuous wallow in period escapism, all top-coats and corsetry, blushing betrothals and absent-minded parsons. Not so this winter, with a drama as bleak as a zero hours contract.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South was one of Victorian literature’s great statements on the mutual obligations of workers and managers, a headmistressly ticking-off about the need to reform the quid pro quo of work.

Naturally, it doesn’t spare the industrialists and the atrocious conditions they perpetuated and justified in their factories. But neither does it have much sympathy for trade unionism. It is not good enough for workers to treat their employers as a mere ‘interest group’, she chides; they ought to constructively engage with the dilemmas of business. Employers, after all, are a mixed bag, as noble and as savage as, well… everyone else.
If you had to televise the fundamental beliefs of the human resources profession, here – in a nutshell – they are.

Mrs Gaskell would surely be agreeably surprised by this season’s major legal development. The Information and Consultation (I&C) Regulations, which are due to come into force next April, are currently taxing many minds at many larger companies.

Here is the state obliging employers to talk to their workers about the things that affect them  – and even some that don’t. In turn, here also is the implicit suggestion that it is the duty of employees to take an interest in the problems facing their employer. Once, employment was very parent-to-child. Now, we are all grown up enough for adult-to-adult interaction  – or so the Government hopes. Mutuality, common cause, optimisation: ugly words, but good ideas, and now back again with bigger regulatory boots on.

John Monks, the former TUC general secretary and social partnership’s most vocal cheerleader, reckons: “The Information and Con-
sultation directive is potentially the most significant piece of employment legislation ever to be introduced in the UK.” Gerry Sutcliffe, employment minister and a former union official, declares he is “absolutely passionate” about information and consultation. Employers, or at least members of bodies such as the European Study Group, claim the regulations are “an historic opportunity”. Only a throwback mill-owner could fail to be impressed that there is something unusually optimistic going on.

As always, beneath the big-hearted intentions, there are plenty of nits to pick. The most basic objection to the information and consultation regulations – that trust and commitment do not happen by command –  is a valid one. In the past, an unwillingness to share information on the part of business has been matched by blank indifference from employees. Regulation changes nothing instantly.

The lawyers can also hand themselves another cigar. Anyone lost in the fog of voting thresholds, triggers, pre-existing agreements and statutory fall-back provisions, can see one thing: more money going to the folk who invoice people by six-minute slivers of time.

And then, of course, despite the warm words, business-as-usual has sometimes returned to mar I&C developments. The attempt by some employers to smear the Central Arbitration Committee  – the government body that will enforce the new regulations – as being run by a Marxist-Leninist cabal, says more about the accusers than the accused.

For once, though, it is best not to get too distracted by the details and to stay relentlessly, optimistically, on-message. If the I&C regulations are to grant workers unprecedented levels of insight into the organisation they work for, and in turn lift the level of involvement they are willing to give to their employer, then spirit is everything.

The regulations mark a new start, a new mood. They are, in effect, a thoroughly Gaskellite injunction that neither side of the employment relationship is entitled to treat the other simply as a means to an end. Despite appearances to the contrary, there is a person attached to both those who offer work and those who supply labour.

For employers, the arrival of a new employee right to be consulted means a chance to put some very grand theories to the test. For many years, research has been touting the benefits of having ‘an employee voice’. The opportunity for workers to be involved in decision-making is one of those famous ‘high-performance work practices’. If employers have to go to the trouble of setting up new structures for consulting staff, it is entirely legitimate to expect some payback in the form of employee engagement.

Yet, in a sense, the employers are on trial as well. On the whole, they have not exactly rushed to involve their employees. In some magnificently wry comments made in 1984, sociologist William Foote Whyte reflected on his efforts to persuade business of the benefits of worker participation.

“The question that they [businessmen] frequently asked revealed the nature of their interest: ‘How can we make the workers feel that they are participating?’ We sought to explain that, in the long run, workers would not feel that they were participating unless they had some real impact upon decisions important to management as well as to workers. This generally ended the conversation.”

It is such attitudes that partly explain the information and consultation regulations. What is on offer today is the potential of a new dialogue at work. Maybe we really can do better than “get your filthy hands off my toys” and “not playing, anyway”. It’s what Mrs Gaskell would have wanted.

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