M&S debacle shows the need for HR input

Last week employers in the UK
looked on in disbelief as the story of Marks & Spencer’s withdrawal from
France unfolded. Unions, the French legal system and politicians rounded on the
company, and the judge who ruled M&S acted illegally by not consulting staff,
launched an investigation which could send M&S directors to prison for up
to a year.

It is a far cry from
Trade Secretary Stephen Byers’ call for a review of consultation procedures in
February after redundancy announcements at Vauxhall and Corus. In the outcry
over the M&S lay-offs unions wasted no time in pointing out how soft the UK
Government is on multinationals who ignore employment law compared with their
continental counterparts.

The TUC has leapt on
the M&S story to bolster its call for national works councils, tougher
rules on European works councils and measures which could force firms to
reverse decisions about collective redundancies where they fail to comply with
staff consultation rules. And this is against the backdrop of a European directive
on consultation in the pipeline. If the climate of opinion cools towards
multinationals, M&S might have a lot more to answer for than upsetting the

Yet this whole mess
might have been avoided if there had been input from senior-level HR. At the
very least somebody could have explained the law to the board. There are signs
that M&S has made the classic mistake of making HR a low priority when
shares come under pressure. The strongest evidence for this was when Clara
Freeman, director of personnel and corporate affairs, was removed from the
board last September.

Could it be that
M&S is now suffering because it treated HR as a luxury it could only afford
while the going was good?

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