Pucker up and give this gift horse a big wet kiss

What has the DTI ever done for us? 
Well it is making sure that HR is taken seriously for the first
time.  Not bad for such a dead duck

HR professionals are about to get the biggest legislation-fuelled boost to
their status for years.

A profession embarrassed about its lack of clout is being handed – via DTI
plans to make larger employers inform and consult workforces about major
decisions – the means to make boards sit up and listen. Surprising then that
the profession’s senior representatives seem determined to look this particular
gift horse in the mouth.

Reactions to DTI plans from the ‘official’ voices of personnel have ranged
from the suspicious to the downright hostile. But research by The Work
Foundation suggests critics are misreading both the profession and the

The DTI’s High Performance Workplaces, which would bring the UK in line with
European legislation, proposes new information and consultation obligations on
organisations with 50 or more employees. Under the plans, and as already
happens in much of continental Europe, larger employers must inform and consult
employee representatives in advance about a range of major business decisions.
The reforms – based closely on the EU’s directive on information and
consultation – will not kick in until mid-2005.

So will personnel professionals be filing the DTI’s plans under challenge or
opportunity? A forthcoming Work Foundation study based on interviews with HR
practitioners paints a picture of a profession apprehensive about change, but
also pragmatic about the prospect; and suggests the DTI may already be on the
way to defusing some of the biggest worries.

Take the most frequently voiced criticism of the proposed changes – that it
will impose a ‘one size fits all’ EU-blueprint on UK employee relations and
communications practice. The DTI report is clear this just isn’t going to
happen. Existing good practice, of which there is plenty, will be preserved
where it complies with the spirit of the EU directive.

Another HR concern is that, as with working time and the minimum wage,
regulation will be difficult or impossible to implement because it isn’t
properly thought through. This time, the consultation period is unusually long
– giving more time for considered responses – and the DTI is going out of its
way to listen to practical advice on implementation.

But the biggest concern, by far, is that the regulations will compromise
employers’ need for confidentiality and rapid decision-making. High Performance
Workplaces is robustly upbeat on both counts.

The myth that the city effectively bars companies from disclosing
confidential information or consulting employee representatives at early and
sensitive stages of major business decisions is forcefully demolished. Stock
Exchange rules do not outlaw confidential disclosure to workforce
representatives ahead of even the most major business decisions, such as
takeovers and mergers.

Nor will the regulation provide a licence for leaks or an excuse for slowing
decision-making. The DTI tackles both of these management neuroses by
confronting a third: namely, that employers who allow formal consultation are
opening the door to bargaining. The DTI paper reminds those unused to the art,
that consultation is about management listening to views, and only then deciding.

In return they will get the relatively higher levels of workforce commitment
and understanding that more consultative employers already tend to enjoy.

The practitioners interviewed by The Work Foundation were quick to realise
that this EU-inspired legislation contains a potentially enticing prospect for
the HR profession. In the run-up to implementation in 2005, who will be in pole
position advising boards on their obligations, benchmarking current practice
against the new legal standard, reviewing and refreshing consultative
arrangements, or inventing them in the anti-consultation organisations the
regulation is actually aimed at? HR practitioners, that’s who.

It might be time for the profession to stop looking this regulatory gift
horse in the mouth, and instead give it a big kiss on the lips.

By Patrick Burns, Director of advocacy, The Work Foundation

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