CIPD Voice: Issue 8
Governments rarely have an easy job, yet in 2016 the job of governing the UK seems to have become a whole lot harder. This is not just because the referendum on Britain's membership of the EU has split the country down the middle: the tone of public policy debate appears to have become coarser. The media suggest we have entered a "post-truth" world, where statements are published on the basis of little or no evidence but circulated on social media and widely regarded as credible.
Both major political parties have been weakened by internal conflict. Insults and accusations of bad faith are thrown around at people who were formerly close colleagues. There has been a growth in "identity" politics, as people identify more strongly with different groups within society, whether based on class, religion or ethnic background. And this has been reflected in various forms of antisocial behaviour, including "hate" crimes. Popular trust in politicians, and in the political process, appears to be at an all-time low.
Lessons from employee relations
So what contribution can employee relations professionals make, and what lessons could they offer political leaders from their experience in managing workplace conflict? Politics has always been about reconciling conflicting interests, but the difficulties in achieving consensus appear to have become more acute recently. People are looking for leadership, but how can leaders get a hold of the situation, if people don't trust them and what they say is not believed?
The problem is, of course, not confined to the UK: similar developments are taking place in other countries. Partly it's due to fundamental shifts in the political tectonic plates, as ideas and beliefs that have remained simmering below the surface, or been at the margins of political debate, for decades have suddenly found expression. If governments are to respond effectively, they need to address people's deep-seated concerns. But they also need to help people feel comfortable with their place in society.
CIPD surveys invariably show that a majority of employers, up and down the country, say that workplace relations are good. Conflicts arise, but in general they are successfully managed. The basics of managing conflict are well understood. Building relationships requires the creation of mutual trust. This, in turn, depends on the perception that both sides are being treated fairly, and show each other respect. If managers can do it, why should it be so difficult for governments to do the same in the country at large?
One possible answer is that employers have more tools than government for containing conflict. By focusing on employee engagement, line managers can limit the scope for conflict or prevent it happening in the first place. If that doesn't work, employers can fall back on ethical or disciplinary codes and procedures. Governments, on the other hand, can only seek to "nudge" their citizens into behaving well, otherwise they have only criminal sanctions to fall back on to deal with serious misbehaviour.
Trust is clearly a key issue
What can politicians do in order to build people's trust in them? Essentially, they need to explain what they are trying to do, and then deliver on what they say. If they are unable to deliver, as may sometimes be the case through no fault of their own, they need to explain why they can't and, if necessary, say they are sorry. That is the truth underpinning the "psychological contract" between employer and employee, and the government needs to offer the same deal to the electorate if they want to retain its support.
What about demonstrating fairness?
One problem here is that there is no easy yardstick by which to judge fairness. Different people will have different opinions about what should be regarded as "fair" treatment. This is notoriously the case when it comes to pay: for example, what is a fair pay gap between the highest and lowest paid in society?
Employee surveys suggest that most employees believe they are being treated fairly. However, the gap between high and low pay levels in organisations has attracted increased interest in recent years. That has clearly been one of the factors that has persuaded the Government to consult on how workers can be given a greater voice in the workplace. Although it's a workplace issue, it's not one that many employers feel able to tackle on their own.
Respect is the third element in getting relationships right, and in some ways the most important. If people don't feel respected – if they feel ignored, or their views are not being listened to – they will be unhappy. Most large employers have made substantial progress in recent years in developing policies on diversity, so that women and members of ethnic minorities, for example, feel they are treated equally. Most UK politicians, though not all, understand the message about diversity.
So what can be done?
In practical terms, what should governments do to reduce political conflict and misunderstanding? The first answer is to communicate, often and by every possible means.
Employers know that, when you're getting tired of repeating your message, most people are just beginning to hear it. The increasing use of social media suggests that many politicians are fully aware of its power in getting across political messages. But good employers also know that the most important part of communication is listening: employee voice is about establishing an effective two-way dialogue.
Politicians need to build a sense of shared purpose. Governments that talk about wanting to create "one nation" are clearly aiming to establish a sense that everyone is in it together, and on the same "team". Political parties clearly help to cement a sense of common purpose among their members. However the scope for fundamental disagreement may still remain and leaders' abilities in the area of conciliation and mediation may be severely tested.
It is in the nature of politics that democratic governments need to seek compromise between conflicting opinions and interests. This will sometimes mean that their most enthusiastic and committed supporters feel disappointed, disillusioned or even betrayed. This is not a problem for autocratic governments or one-party states, who often find it easier to establish a fixed sense of direction, and don't tolerate open expressions of dissent.
It is not going to be possible for governments in the UK to eliminate conflict, and even if it were it would not be desirable. But employee relations is a broad church and has a lot offer about managing relationships. We need to keep banging the drum about the need for employee engagement, employee voice, clear sense of direction and shared culture. Without mutual trust, fairness and respect, damaging and unnecessary conflict will limit our national performance.
Mike Emmott, Associate Adviser
Mike's special fields of interest are employee relations and employment law. Central to his work is the way in which economic and social changes are affecting employee attitudes and working practices. Recent work has focused on employee voice, global employment relations, industrial relations skills and HR in the public sector.