Employee relations: an overview
This factsheet was last updated in July 2014.
What is employee relations?
The term 'employee relations' was conceived as a replacement for the term 'industrial relations' but it's precise meaning in today’s workplaces needs clarification. In 2004/5, CIPD undertook research into the changing nature of employee relations work in UK organisations, through interviews with HR and Employee Relations managers to provide a snapshot of current attitudes and practice. The findings are given in our report What is employee relations?
Our more recent report Managing employee relations in difficult times concluded that dealing with the trade union relationship remains an issue in many workplaces but is not widely seen as problematic. Trade union influence is still an everyday reality for some, but continues to decline across the wider economy. The report also found that the main focus of employee relations is not on collective machinery but on individual relationships. In the face of tough economic conditions, there is a new emphasis on helping line managers to establish trust-based relationships with employees.
The decline of ‘industrial relations’
‘Industrial relations’ is generally understood to refer to the relationship between employers and employees collectively. The term is no longer widely used by employers but summons up a set of employment relationships that no longer widely exist, except in specific sectors and, even there, in modified form.
The decline can be measured on a number of different dimensions. From a peak of some 12 million plus, union membership has fallen to around 7 million today. Between 1980 and 2000, the coverage of collective agreements contracted from over three-quarters to under a third of the employed workforce. At the same time, the range of issues over which bargaining took place decreased massively. The Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) 19981 showed that union officials spent most of their time not on negotiating pay and conditions but in supporting grievances on behalf of individual members. Even where collective bargaining continued, its impact on the exercise of management discretion was greatly diminished.
The shift in the coverage and content of collective bargaining has been reflected in a dramatic reduction in industrial action since 1980. The number of working days lost per 1,000 union members decreased from an annual average of 1,163 in the 1970s to 76 in the 1990s. They remain low and are below the levels in many other developed countries.
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