Thurrock Council triumphs with 2016 Award for Employee Relations

Thurrock Council – a unitary authority in Essex – beat, among others, Essex County Council this week to win the 2016 Personnel Today Award for Excellence in Employee Relations. We look at what they did to win, alongside awards entries from our runners-up.


Thurrock Council

About the organisation
Thurrock Council is the local council for the borough of Thurrock in Essex, England. Thurrock has been a unitary authority since 1997, combining the functions of a non-metropolitan county with that of a non-metropolitan district. Thurrock is divided into 20 wards and elects 49 councillors.

The challenge

Employee Relations – the judges

Jocelyn Prudence, Independent

In 2015, Thurrock Council ended its outsourcing agreement with Serco in an attempt to save costs and bring services back in-house. It was wholescale organisation change that required complete integration into the council. Existing Serco employees needed to feel valued and needed post-transition, and more than 400 staff needed integrating back into the council.

What the organisation did

  • Created “Operation Welcome”, which included communications, project summaries, newsletters and weekly briefings with the transition leads.
  • Established a wider transition programme, led by a small core team, which recognised the need for supporting the transitioning employees, as well as existing staff.
  • Invited transitioning staff to join in team engagement and awareness sessions, and shared detailed plans and encouraged both sets of employees to share their ideas to make the transition a success.
  • Engaged three key trade unions in regular consultations and discussions to ensure their concerns were understood and addressed.
  • Identified external support to ensure all aspects to Operation Welcome could be delivered – from the formal TUPE requirements through to resilience support and providing managers with opportunities for development before they joined.
  • Undertook an intensive due diligence process, involving third party contracts, complicated staffing arrangements, and a high dependency on agency workers across many roles.
  • Created the Staff Matters Programme, which was packed with innovative support and development for people going through transition.

Benefits and achievements

  • On 1 December 2015, 380 staff were TUPE’d across, plus more than 100 agency workers, 75 contracts worth more than £8 million, plus £1 million of IT equipment.
  • From September onwards, 140 programmes ran, and feedback has shown that more than 90% of participants strongly agreed that it was “relevant to me and my role”.
  • Majority (95%) of participants agreed that they felt “supported through this transition” and they “know how to access the support available to them”.
  • Throughout this time, more than 700 staff experienced the benefits of the Staff Matters programme, which has now become embedded in the core development offer for all employees.
  • Kept the spend as low as possible with the whole programme costing less than £10,000 by balancing commissioning external providers with the use of in-house expertise.
  • Requests for individual coaching and mentoring support increased – there was a 5% spike in requests for support with common themes from managers being “how to build a cohesive effective team over times of change”.
  • Positive productive relationships with the trade unions was achieved – constructive dialogues focused on each stage of TUPE.
  • Able to resolve trade union concern over the large number of agency workers who were assigned to the service.

Judges’ comments
“The scale of the initiative is impressive and the approach very thorough and wide ranging. The training looks good too. A good example of bringing services back in house.”

Thurrock Council collect their 2016 Employee Relations Award

Thurrock Council collect their 2016 Employee Relations Award


Essex County Council

About the organisation
Essex County Council (ECC) is the third largest local authority in the UK, employing more than 7,200 employees. It has an annual budget of £2.27 billion and serves approximately 1.7 million residents. Like many local authorities, it traditionally used national pay arrangements, combining increments with an annual cost of living award. These are contractual, negotiated nationally and paid regardless of individual contribution or in relation to the ability of the authority to pay.

The challenge
In 2014, only around 20% of the workforce was on local performance pay and the initial aim was to increase this to 50% for the 2015/16 financial year, followed by a second phase to capture the majority of the rest of the organisation. Benefits to the council included local control of the cost of rewarding its employees, while the workforce would benefit from a modern, performance-based pay process giving all employees the same opportunity to be rewarded directly in relation to their contribution.

What the organisation did

  • Recognised that performance pay is not a concept that trade unions traditionally support, so aimed to achieve the transition by listening, being clear and honest in its communication, and building strong industrial relations.
  • Approached trade union partners to open discussions to extend performance pay, they then consulted with their members and received support to enter into negotiations.
  • Proceeded using a “dismiss and reengage” process, which involved a period of comprehensive consultation before varying existing employees’ contracts to local pay arrangements by April 2015.
  • Reached a collective agreement during the second phase, which resulted in a unanimous vote for acceptance.
  • Implemented a change management and communications plan, which included a dedicated intranet page and email address, face-to-face meetings, phone calls and drop in sessions held across the county.
  • Ensured that the language used in all the communications was consistent and enabled understanding. To support this, the HR team dedicated a resource to promptly reply to emails, return phone calls or have face-to-face meetings.
  • Achieved stakeholder engagement and sponsorship from line managers of affected employees by encouraging them to attend meetings and use the same communication channels set up for the affected employees.
  • Shared all communications with stakeholders, including trade unions, before they were published.

Benefits and achievements

  • Built a relationship of trust and understanding with employees and trade union partners.
  • The 2016 employee engagement survey (immediately post full implementation) shows that ECC employees are more satisfied with their total reward package compared to 2014 (immediately pre-implementation) with 45% positive responses in 2016 vs 33% in 2014.
  • The majority of employees in the workforce are now removed from national pay and placed upon local pay, providing vastly improved financial planning and a consistent basis upon which employee performance can be recognised and rewarded.
  • The number of high performers has increased significantly (13.1% in 2013/14, 16.2% in 2014/15 and 20.9% in 2015/16).
  • ECC can now determine affordable reward arrangements that are distributed subject to performance and contribution, rather than by national prescription.

Judges’ comments
“A bold move on a difficult issue. Dismissal and re-engage can be controversial. Seems to have been handled well.”

Impellam Group

About the organisation
Impellam is the second largest staffing business in the UK (and 6th worldwide) and is a leading provider of managed services and specialist staffing expertise. Primarily based in the UK and North America, the company also has smaller operations in Australasia, Ireland and mainland Europe. Impellam employs more than 3,100 permanent staff throughout its network of 21 market-leading brands across 220 worldwide locations.

The challenge
Feedback from business areas revealed that improvement was required in employee relations (ER). It highlighted the following key issues: technical capability gaps within the employee relations team; ineffective partnering with the brands as the team was disjointed and reactive; lack of support/training for managers; and case information was not being shared with the brands.

What the organisation did

  • Introduced “MANAGING SMART ER” – an initiative created to enable the HR advisory team to build closer relationships with employees and become major influencers in how people were managed.
  • Developed the level of technical expertise of the ER team in all ER topics and encouraged the team to adapt the way in which it partnered its brands.
  • Enabled the team to flex common approaches to managing ER issues by establishing a greater understanding of each brand and differentiating the advice to suit that brand’s requirements.
  • Publicised what the team does through the “HR charter”, which provides commitments to the company’s managers around service delivery.
  • Started to track ER cases to gather insights into what cases were telling the organisation and to understand ER case durations. The team deal with around 50 cases and more than 600 queries per month.
  • Designed and delivered different types of training to its managers on the full suite of ER topics, including monthly HR Essentials training (full day); ER webinars and bite-size, one-hour sessions.
  • Cascaded its ER “know-how” to managers through coaching conversations and HR Essentials training, which is empowering managers and enabling them to deal more pragmatically with issues.
  • Issued quarterly ER insights to all brands, providing a high level overview of the ER climate within their brands.

Benefits and achievements

  • Training has helped managers become more aware of how to handle difficult people issues and the importance of fairness in the workplace. Managers are now naturally adopting high integrity leadership when managing ER issues.
  • Majority (96%) of managers are now adopting high integrity leadership when managing their people issues to support the company’s overarching strategy.
  • Evaluation from training sessions has revealed that on a scale of 1 to 5, the majority of managers feel much more competent, confidence increasing from a 2 or 3 to a 4 or 5.
  • Involvement in all TUPE transfers has mitigated any costs arising out of potential failures to consult and/or providing inaccurate employee liability information data.
  • Company has built ER “know-how” by sharing the ER insights pack, which has helped the brands understand the ER climate within their business areas, and develop appropriate people strategies that will maintain a positive ER environment and strong employer/employee relationships.
  • By sharing its ER insights, it has given managers information on how other brands have managed similar situations, which has provided managers with different ideas around how to manage their people issues.
  • By tracking case durations and taking a more proactive case management approach, most cases are now resolved within 12 working days, which means people issues are being dealt with in a timely way.

Judges’ comments
“A good initiative but [there] doesn’t appear to be evidence yet of the benefits.”

Vector Aerospace – Bryan Kent

About the organisation
Vector Aerospace is a global leader in aerospace maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), providing responsive, quality support for turbine engines, components and fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. It employs approximately 2,300 people in 21 locations across Canada, the US, the UK, France, Kenya, South Africa, Australia and Singapore.

The challenge
Since becoming commercially owned, the company has evolved to reflect a global diverse commercial customer base, in addition to strong military alliances and partnerships on programmes such as the UK MOD Chinook programme. Contractual arrangements have transitioned from collective arrangements to a combination of both collective and personal contractual arrangements. Even more significant is the continual cultural evolution of the organisation, requiring a HR function that develops and matches the maturity of the organisation’s needs. Employee relations is integral to this success.

Bryan Kent was a full-time official with the trade union Unite, and represented employees with compassion pragmatism and energy. Kent officially retired in 2010, and Vector approached him with an offer to facilitate the Vector industrial relations relationship working for Claire Silvester, the now global VP of human resources.

Benefits and achievements 

  • Bryan Kent cemented strong industrial relations across large sections of the workforce – within the UK business, approximately 40% of employees are members of recognised unions, with 70% being covered by collective agreements and policies/processes.
  • He advised on complex interwoven TUPE and TURERA issues providing both procedural and process clarity in this complex area and also the practical transfer of skills and experience.
  • In 2012, Kent was integral on the company’s first defined-benefits pension closure, which covered 996 members who voted in favour of the closure terms by a resounding 89%.
  • He single-handedly closed a smaller defined-benefits scheme representing the company and the workforce in 2015.
  • Through Kent’s intervention, long-term sick absence has been reduced from 3.7% to 2.49%.
  • In 2011, he reduced absence from 8% to 3.5% then down to 2.5% on average the next four years, keeping it stable.
  • The procedure Kent helped to co-create with the company has led to savings in excess of £1 million.
  • Working with UNITE and others, he established communication within the company and confidence in the new responsibilities.
  • Kent’s combination of calmness, humour, candour and a “twinkle in his eye” have made him a valued member of the team within Vector Aerospace in the widest possible sense.

Judges’ comments
“Clearly a very effective and well-liked individual who has really made a difference.”

Comments are closed.