Employee relations - let us move away from this short termism

By Mike Emmott, Employee Relations Adviser, CIPD, @emmott_m

The party manifestos on employment issues are disappointingly thin – the big gap is on productivity. 

It’s no use lamenting low pay or declining living standards unless you have some ideas about how to boost productivity, otherwise it’s a zero-sum game.  CIPD is clear that successive governments have failed to give workplace issues the priority they deserve.  Outside the specific issue of training, there have been no calls to arms, no proposals and little or no interest. 

Yet workplace relationships, and the way work is organised, are critical to business performance.   We know this and it’s supported by research findings, yet somehow it doesn’t attract much official attention.  We’re talking about leadership, we’re talking about management, we’re talking about workplace culture, but governments have systematically turned their backs on these issues. 

Why? Possibly because they’re seen as too difficult, and governments believe they already have more than enough problems to deal with.  Both governments and employers also have a general preference for letting employers get on with managing their own business, and that is not an unhealthy point to start from.  But in the face of a chronic, and little understood, productivity performance in the UK that lags our major competitors, abstaining from policy engagement is not a viable long-term stance. 

The areas where party platforms address labour market issues are those that have wider resonance with electors, particularly flexible working and zero hours contacts.  On both these topics, there has been legislation by the present Government.  The right to request flexible working has been belatedly extended to all employees, and - as of this week - mothers and fathers now have more flexibility to share parental leave.  But we know that many fathers are still reluctant to take significant leave around the birth of their child, largely on financial grounds as well as social attitudes.  There is a clear case for making such leave more attractive. 

On zero hours, the Government has legislated to ban exclusivity clauses, which the CIPD has welcomed.  We don’t support an outright ban since our own research shows that many people on zero hours contracts finds it suits their particular circumstances.  We do believe, however, that workers on such contracts should be entitled to a written statement of their terms and conditions, so they know where they stand.  And it is unfair for employers to expect people to come in, or to have scheduled shifts withdrawn, at short notice.   More guidance in this area would be welcome.

Generally speaking, the CIPD believes we have the right balance of power between employer and employee, and we don’t need too much further regulation or de-regulation. However, there are areas of employment practice that could be improved upon, and where government action is necessary to complement the efforts of employers and trade unions. The recent focus on zero-hours contracts has shown that neither employers nor employees can be certain what rights an individual enjoys. The law on employment status has essentially grown like Topsy, and has about as much logic to support it.  We believe there is a strong case for simplifying the law in this area so everyone is clearer where they stand.

One problem with employment regulation is that governments tend to focus on the short-term and put off tackling the underlying issues.  However this is not a criticism that can be applied to the legislation around employment tribunals, where governments have made a number of efforts in recent years to create a system that is fit for purpose.  Not all those efforts have been successful.  But CIPD research suggests that, if we want to get issues of this kind into perspective, it is necessary to adopt a longer time frame. 

It’s still too soon to be sure what impact recent legislation on tribunal fees, early conciliation and settlement agreements will have.  But our research suggests that enlightened employers have picked up on earlier efforts to promote workplace mediation, and alternative dispute resolution more widely, and are re-skilling both HR departments and line managers to support a less procedure-driven approach to managing workplace conflict.  

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  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Sensible stuff, as ever, from Mike E. Though I think perhaps you underestimate the impact of ET fees, not on the firms that have CIPD members (and their employees), but on the firms that inhabit the less well lit parts of the labour market (and their, often exploited, workers). The ET serves two, related but quite different functions: it is a way of resolving disputes between essentially well-meaning employees and their employees that the parties have not been able to resolve themselves; and, NMW aside, it is - or was - the principal means by which workers exploited by rogue employers can seek justice. This second function has been near-destroyed by ET fees. To pick up on the them of your blog, in the short-term this may not be of much concern to CIPD types. But it should be, because in the long-run it leads to a general lowering of standards in the labour market that is in no one's interest.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Sensible stuff, as ever, from Mike E. Though I think perhaps you underestimate the impact of ET fees, not on the firms that have CIPD members (and their employees), but on the firms that inhabit the less well lit parts of the labour market (and their, often exploited, workers). The ET serves two, related but quite different functions: it is a way of resolving disputes between essentially well-meaning employees and their employees that the parties have not been able to resolve themselves; and, NMW aside, it is - or was - the principal means by which workers exploited by rogue employers can seek justice. This second function has been near-destroyed by ET fees. To pick up on the them of your blog, in the short-term this may not be of much concern to CIPD types. But it should be, because in the long-run it leads to a general lowering of standards in the labour market that is in no one's interest.