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ER Think Tank – Can ER ever truly be Strategic?

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Oasis HR: In terms of the strategic ER agenda, there are numerous initiatives which require consideration, such as: strengthening trust levels, engaging the entire workforce, improving productivity and performance, and enabling change; all of which drive great benefits for the business.

However, it seems that many ER professionals are grappling with convincing the business to think long-term, aligning ER to the overriding business agenda, challenging the perception that their function is purely operational, modernising relationships with Trade Unions and finding a balance between ‘leading the way’ and being responsive to client groups.

So, how can we effectively meet these strategic challenges and put a positive ER stamp on the workforce? There are arguably four main pillars of ER that can help inform the overriding strategy:

Developing progressive relationships, values and behaviours
Building clear and simple IR frameworks
Creating value from collective agreements and HR policies
Enabling change and doing so in a timely and efficient manor

Ownership and Responsibility

Within different business contexts ER can embody a different role, so being clear on what ER means for your organisation is key. Do you drive business change? Are you reactive to business wants or more proactive? Do you view yourself as the custodian of the employee relationship or consider this to be the Line-Manager’s role? Are you considered a Centre of Expertise? However your function is sliced and diced, being clear on your stance is crucial for monitoring success from a strategic standpoint.

In addition to identifying the direction and responsibility of the function, there absolutely needs to be clarity around ownership. Ultimately, where does responsibility lie and what constitutes as ER territory compared to HR Business Partner turf? Often it seems that the Business Partnering community feel that ER is stepping on their toes. In reality ER should be allowing Business Partners to tackle their core work activities and offer them support to help the HR function thrive as a whole. Show them how you can make them look good and build a positive collaborative relationship.

The Trust Agenda

Within the employee relations arena, creating a perception of trust and transparency can be challenging, particularly when operating in a unionised environment. It’s important to remember that you’re working with multiple stakeholder groups, and businesses who don’t view their Unions as key stakeholders do so at their peril! Building trust is key for generating engagement; however this must be managed centrally and delivered on a local level. Sending out bulletins and writing blogs doesn’t go far enough; managers need to get in the face of employees to spread key messages and build trust. If we’re being honest, we surely want to prevent our employees from seeking Union membership by making them feel confident that their employer is acting in their best interests.

Taking Control of the Message

One of the catalysts for a lack of engagement and trust is poor communication. It’s crucial to embed consistent lines of communication between the business and employees. From a trust point of view, it’s critical that your workforce hears about internal changes directly from the employing business before they do so from the Unions. Ideally communication should be packaged in a digestible format and fed down to staff from their most trusted colleague, their Line-Manager. Businesses should utilise the expertise of their Corporate Communications team for delivering messages and remaining in control of them. Unions are very good at communicating and articulating themselves during disputes; often the employers are restricted in terms of the message based on the impression it gives to shareholders, whereas the Unions don’t have the same restrictions. This is another example of where ER should partner with Corporate Communications to formulate responses to Unions and construct tactical messages.

The Future of Unions

With the common perception that Trade Unions ‘can’t pull themselves out of the past’ and with younger generations being less interested in collective consultation, are Unions here to stay? Ultimately it will come down to two variables, ‘Access’ and ‘Environment’. All the while Unions have access to an employee base that sits within a volatile, challenging or changing environment; they will have a purpose and will continue to grow. Very much like the employing bodies, Trade Unions are businesses with the same financial pressures and agenda to be profitable, so it’s likely that they will find ways to succeed. It’s also worth being aware of the drivers that prompt your staff to join a Union, you can offer multiple avenues / forums for them to provide feedback, but if they’re overworked and underpaid; joining a Union suddenly provides an unrivalled solution from a collective agreement standpoint. The employment proposition needs to be an attractive one.

Mature Union Relationships

The majority of businesses wouldn’t seek to encourage Unionisation, as surely the employer is the best ‘person’ to represent the needs of the workforce? However, the reality is that a large proportion of companies have inherited a Unionised environment. Businesses can either chose to work against their recognised Unions, or adopt more of a mature working relationship to take value from the situation.

When assessing an employer’s relationship with their Union(s), is conflict inevitable or is there a more enlightened path? The answer really concerns the type of relationship you are looking to build. Is it direct or indirect? Is it a partnership? Is it consultative? Is it at the senior end? As previously mentioned, it’s crucial to view Unions as key stakeholders and often the best formula for true partnership is strengthening relationships through your C-level population. Unions feel comfortable knowing that this employee base understands their business drivers and will therefore be more open to collaboration and partnership. However, it’s always worth bearing in mind that some Unions won’t be interested in forming partnerships and working too closely with a business, as it potentially threatens their reason for ‘being’.

So, is it preferable to recognise one or multiple Unions within a business? Firstly, it’s worth noting that it’s certainly not preferable for multiple Unions to represent the needs of the same employee base. This scenario often arises through TUPE or acquisition and can therefore be incredibly complicated when trying to reach resolutions. Secondly, the answer falls back to strategy and the question regarding the type of relationship you looking to build with your Union. If you’re attempting to build a partnership, much like in a human relationship, it’s better if the relationship is monogamous, as both parties better understand one another’s’ drivers and are better equipped for compromise. However, if your strategy concerns recognising a larger volume of Unions and playing them off against one another to prevent them growing, it’s a whole other ball game and one that is likely to be time consuming and full of conflict! Regardless of preference, the fact is that unless you’re setting up a ‘Green Field’ site you won’t have a choice, so effectively managing what you do have is your only option. Surely reaching a point whereby multiple Unions are signed up to a general direction of travel and the employer isn’t duplicating process is the optimum place to be.

Staying in Touch

Keeping in tune with your employees and providing them with an outlet to feedback to the business is a great way of monitoring engagement and responding to any prevailing issues. Face-to-face forums and social media communities can be equally as effective, however businesses should deter from communicating change issues via these channels. Often businesses are reticent to open up communication lines within social communities, however if the conversations are taking place online then they will certainly be happening around the water cooler, in the canteen or in office corridors – at least this way issues can be corrected if frustrations are made visible. When launching online forums, it is important to provide clear policies on what’s acceptable and what isn’t so employees know where they stand.

Motivating the ER Team

Many businesses report difficulties with sustaining high levels of morale within the ER function as a result of the team dealing with a multitude of negative cases. Is there an ‘expiry date’ for ER professionals or is there something more proactive that can be done to counter depleting energy levels? Firstly, assess the make-up and motivations of your team. Are they frustrated HR Generalists? Have they ‘fallen’ into the role by accident? Do they see their future in ER? Or are they true ER specialists? This will help you gauge what can realistically be achieved. From here you should have a good understanding of your team’s differences which you should be able to reflect in their training and workload – do they need coaching and support when dealing with emotive case management? Finally, it often proves a good exercise to move HR professionals around the various HR silos to ensure they understand the components of each vertical and can therefore apply their skill-sets most appropriately.

Final Thoughts

In answer to the main question ‘Can ER ever be truly Strategic’, the answer is absolutely yes. However the challenge is finding the headspace to think strategically when running a function that is predominantly operational. It’s ER’s responsibility to understand what is required from a business perspective over the coming years and provide solutions or a strategy to support this. What’s important to the business – the trust agenda? Union relationships? Case management? Identifying these strategic ER pillars will help with prioritisation and ultimately measuring strategy success.