HR Improve – Employee Relations

What matters

What matters next

Industrial action is happening on the largest scale we have seen for decades and across multiple sectors at the same time. Maintaining positive employee relations is more crucial than ever, given the cost of living crisis and geopolitical climate.

For employers, managers, trade unions and HR specialists, employee relations encompasses not only the individual relationship between employer and employee, but also the relationships between the different stakeholders and the wider employee population. While some sectors are unionised, and others are not, we are seeing an increased awareness of individual workplace rights, through new legislation and the mainstream media.

The importance of employee relations 

The importance of employee relations has changed over recent years and arguably getting it right is one of the main challenges currently facing both public and private sector employers. There is a balance to be struck between giving employees a voice whilst ensuring that businesses are able to deliver on their priorities without compromising on employee engagement and wellbeing. Good employers will provide employees with channels to raise issues on an individual basis by implementing effective grievance and whistleblowing policies, for example. More recently however, we have seen a significant shift towards collective action, with disputes being escalated via a trade union, employee representatives or other employee forums. 

Common themes emerging from such action include changes to workers’ terms and conditions, staff shortages, pay, and so-called ‘fire and re-hire’ tactics used by employers to push through change in challenging circumstances. Unsurprisingly, these issues have been thrust into the spotlight as the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic; businesses have had to drastically re-think how to deliver for customers and clients while introducing wholesale changes to working practices quickly and at scale. 

The employment relationship 

On an individual level, contracts of employment and policies within a staff handbook govern the employment relationship and employers have a minimum obligation to comply with the Acas Code of Practice on grievance and disciplinary procedures. In addition, there are certain statutory rights which impact an employer’s ability to discipline or dismiss employees, prevent discriminatory conduct, and provide minimum protections to employees in a number of different situations. 

On a collective level, organisations may recognise a trade union, or have a need to engage with employee representatives to deal with complex issues such as organisational change requiring collective consultation or when negotiating changes to collective bargaining agreements. Balancing employee relations with the commercial interests of a business can be difficult, and where change is necessary, employers should seek to foster positive relationships with trade unions and employee forums with a view to improving the working life of employees.

Employee relations has traditionally been a matter between an individual employee and their employer on the one hand, and the employer and their collective workforce on the other. However, as seen during the recent industrial action taking place across the NHS, within education and across the transport sectors, the government is being asked to weigh in on the debate and has announced the Strikes (Minimum Service Level) Bill (which at the time of writing is awaiting royal assent). If passed, the new law would impose a requirement by the government on certain public sector employers to ensure that minimum service levels are in place. While the government’s intention behind the controversial Bill is to mitigate the disruption of strike action to the public and ensure their safety, trade unions with a mandate for industrial action from their members may well seek to argue that the government is taking an active role in the stipulating the terms and conditions of the employment relationship.

Top tips

While trade union membership has historically been on the decline, their prevalence and remit remains high on the agenda. From rail strikes to university marking boycotts, the influence of trade unions is especially apparent in today’s headlines and is often an everyday reality for many organisations. Being able to successfully navigate employee relations on a collective level is key to building positive working relationships during times of crisis and when dealing with everyday HR matters. 

Top tips for fostering positive employee relations include:

  • having recognition and reward systems in place which make employees feel valued; 
  • having open communication channels in place and providing opportunities for employees to voice their concerns either collectively or on an individual basis;
  • dealing proactively with issues up front by having an effective framework in place which facilitates discussions between individual employees and their line manager about workplace behaviour and related issues;
  • investing in employee wellbeing;
  • actively engaging with and consulting the workforce and any recognised trade union or employee representative body about upcoming changes to achieve greater by-in from a much earlier stage, helping to mitigate the risk of claims and disputes in the future;
  • having a clearly defined process for negotiating with the trade union or employee representative body, setting out the stages to be completed and defining when and how the process will end. 

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.

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