Reflections from Tbilisi

Mother Georgia

Kartlis Deda – Mother Georgia overlooking Tbilisi

I spent the second week of April in Tbilisi, Georgia, delivering training on Conciliation of Collective Labour Disputes*.  As with all training courses, and journeys to other countries, I learnt a huge amount from the trip, so I thought I’d reflect on the key points through this blog-post.

Vocabulary

I’ve had numerous conversations in recent months about the language used in and around mediation and other alternative forms of dispute resolution.  Conciliation and mediation are used interchangeably in Georgia, as they often are in the UK, but in many places around the world they have different meanings. This is something that I have increasingly noticed people find confusing.  It gets worse when you start to debate whether or not your style of mediation is facilitative, evaluative or transformative, at which point people not involved in the profession often glaze over while ‘mediation geeks’ get excited about when they might employ each approach. 

For my part, I think it would be better, in promoting the use of mediation (and other forms of ADR), for people to use consistent and, by preference, simpler terminology.  This is a big enough topic for Scottish Mediation to have committed the whole of their Mediate 2019 conference this November, and titled it The Words We Use.  It should be a fascinating discussion, and perhaps we can start to find some consensus.

Mediation as a voluntary process
Tbilisi trainees

Participants in the ITCILO Conciliation of Labour Disputes course in Tbilisi, April 2019, complete their final assessments.

A consistent theme raised by the participants in Georgia, many of whom were already experienced practicing mediators, related to the problems they face due to conciliation of collective disputes being a statutory step without which industrial action by a union would be illegal. This means people go into it as a necessary step in escalating their dispute rather than primarily as a means to resolve it.  My main experience of compulsory mediation comes through the Employment Tribunal application system and the Scottish Sheriff Courts. 

In the former, an applicant to the Tribunal has to go through ACAS Early Conciliation in order to get a code that allows them to complete the online ET application form.  When this system was introduced, it was tied to applicants also paying a fee to the Tribunal service.  As a result, few respondents (the employer against whom the Tribunal application is raised) had any incentive to engage with the process: regardless of the merits (or lack thereof) of the case, why conciliate when the applicant may not have enough money to submit their claim in the first place?  The removal of the fees has resulted in an increasing number of applications people who were inhibited from applying because they couldn’t afford the fee.  However, many respondents still seem reluctant to engage with the conciliation, and it’s difficult not to see that as a factor of it simply being part of the process rather than being seen as a genuine opportunity to find a mutually acceptable outcome.

With the Sheriff Courts, I have found many of the parties not yet ready to mediate, but having been ordered to do so.  A significant majority have reached a agreement, but this has often involved significant preparatory work so they are better aware of the process they are entering and the opportunity it represents to have some control of the outcome.  In such cases, the mediation is, however, genuinely voluntary so provides a real alternative to presenting their case in court with the associated stress, time and costs.

What does ‘success’ look like?

Following on from the above point, some of the mediators in Tbilisi were slightly despondent about their chances of success when starting a mediation. If the conciliation is just “part of the process” what are the chances it can be successful. 

But what IS success in a mediation?

The Tbilisi training team: Soledad Schenone, Malcolm Currie, Sharon Wakeford, Kinan Bahnassi and Ebrahim Patelia

It’s tempting to see a successful mediation only as one that ends in agreement, but that’s not always possible, especially with collective disputes where Politics and politics are in play. In that sense, it could be a success to help the parties better understand the nature of the disagreement they’re having. Or to help them identify options for settlement, without them having actually determined any preference between them. Or simply to understand their own needs (as opposed to wants) as well as those of the other party.

Ultimately, the role of the mediator is to help parties on their journey to a mutually acceptable outcome.  If that is at the start of the journey, perhaps it is success enough to point people in the right direction, while another mediator, later in the journey, might see them safely home.

* The training was commissioned by the International Training Center of the International Labour Organisation

To mediate, or not to mediate, that is the question

DSCN0199Mediation has been around for a long time, and has been used very successfully in many, many situations.

Despite that, many employers have been slow to adopt mediation as an approach, often reluctant to put it in place early enough to prevent some situations becoming intractable.  Indeed, it seems to be seen as an option of last resort.

Does this come from a lack of understanding of what mediation is and does? Or is it seen as an unnecessary additional expense? Whatever the reasons, the evidence suggests that it can be extremely successful, at least for those who believe it can be.  ACAS research published in 2012 showed mediation to be significantly more successful where an employer genuinely commits to the process.  Conversely, it is less effective where an employer is reluctant to use it.  It is not unreasonable to conclude, therefore, that the results are to a large extent self-fulfilling prophecies.

The paradox is that the statistics also show that mediation is second only to direct communication in successfully resolving issues between employees.

In many cases, those trying it have done so with internal mediators. While there are clear benefits from in-house mediators, this approach also needs care to avoid individuals perceiving a mediator employed by their company as being less impartial.  Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant, the perception is the key to the success of the process, so the results may not be what might have been hoped.  As a result, internal mediation may not be the appropriate approach in all cases.  Ultimately, the relative costs of employing an external mediator can pale into insignificance compared to the lost productivity that comes from letting a situation persist or deteriorate.

One conclusion was that one poor result can colour an employer’s view of the value of mediation as a whole.  However, further ACAS research concluded:

more than four in five (82%) [employers] said it had resolved
the issues either completely or partly

A key benefit of mediation is that there is little to be lost in trying it.  In this context, very few independent mediators would hesitate to have a conversation about their approach and to answer any questions that anyone involved might have.  It is better for both those involved and their employer to enter with a genuine commitment to find a mutually acceptable outcome or it is less likely to succeed.

If you’d like to know more about the mediation and dispute resolution services offered by Strathesk Resolutions, please e-mail contact@strathesk.co.uk or call Malcolm on 07736068787.

Bullying at work shouldn’t be hidden by ‘playground’ stigma

This is Anti-Bullying Week 2018 (#ABW2018), with a series of events, articles and publications aimed at making the problem of bullying something about which we all know more and are better equipped to stop.

As is inevitable, many websites and much of the Anti-Bullying Week 2018 material focuses on bullying amongst children, particularly in schools.  However, that doesn’t mean we can forget that for many people, bullying is a reality of their day to day working lives.  If you think you’re being bullied, please don’t feel you’re alone.  TUC commissioned research in 2015 found that in the UK almost a third of people experience bullying at work (and another 30% have witnessed it). 

This year’s theme is “Choose Respect” (#ChooseRespect), but bullying behaviours can go far beyond a lack of respect.  Agency Central describe bullying as encompassing:

  • Exclusion
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Verbal insults
  • Rumour spreading
  • Purposely preventing career advancement
  • Threats in relation to job security
  • Humiliation
  • Being overly critical

These are all aggressive/passive-aggressive actions, but take care also of the “charismatic bully” who may be more difficult to spot:

This type of bully will not rely on physical force to intimidate their targets, but rather will use subtle manipulation to exert their power over others.

In recent months I’ve advised several individual clients, each of whom has experienced bullying at work, on how to tackle the problem.  Although they are based in very different parts of the UK, there are key similarities in their situations:

  • Each knew they weren’t happy with their interaction with their manager;
  • Each has been exposed to 2 or more of the behaviours mentioned above;
  • In spite of this, each failed to recognise that they were being bullied.

With smaller employers, many of the problems have arisen from the lack of management structure, but even companies with great policies in place can face problems.  In 2 of the cases, the employer is large and has excellent Equalities, Bullying & Harassment and/or Dignity at Work polices.  With a bit of guidance on how to pull together and present evidence that their treatment falls outwith those policies, they’ve made real progress towards solving the problem.

Of course, sometimes there’s a deeper problem.  I have advised several employers over the years where inappropriate behaviours have become a part of their managerial culture.  The reasons behind these behaviours are too many and varied to go into here, but this recent article from Psychology Today provides a pretty useful exploration.  And underlying all of this is our ongoing economic and political uncertainty.  In 2015, ACAS stated:

as we look ahead to 2016, one finding in our recent paper especially resonates: the strong correlation between restructuring and organisational change and increased rates of workplace bullying.

Now, unless I’m reading the commentary wrong, uncertainty, restructuring and organisational change aren’t going away any time soon, so there is real merit in taking measures to prevent bullying from taking hold.

At the same time, there is increasing evidence of significant detrimental impact on personal and organisational performance.  Indeed, more research from ACAS estimated the cost of workplace bullying to the UK economy as £18 billion. 

In other words, for business to be successful, and for the economy to grow, this is an issue where increased awareness, and real efforts to curtail bullying, simply aren’t optional.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Putting Mental Health in its Proper Workplace…

Lochnagar in a dark mood

Last Wednesday was World Mental Health Day 2018.  The day aims to raise awareness of mental health and the issues around it, particularly those that arise from mental ILL-health.

I even put out a post on LinkedIn to publicise it, asking followers of my posts “are you going to do anything to mark it?”.

At that stage, I was planning to write a blog post covering one of the ‘hot’ topics around mental health.  I envisaged something that covered:

  • mental health being wider than mental illness
  • the need for employers to take work-related stress (and other mental health issues) as seriously as they take physical health & safety
  • the equal need for workers to also take work-related stress (and other mental health issues) as seriously as they take physical health & safety
  • the growing, and increasingly expensive, trend towards presenteeism
  • etc.

It felt like it would be an article that would almost write itself, with a wealth of research and worthy opinions to which I could refer.

But I didn’t write that article

OK, the immediate question is WHY didn’t I write the article, but to answer that, I need to give some context.

Back when I was in my 20s, I went through a period of around 6 years during which I struggled seriously with depression.  I started having strange emotional reactions to events and situations, sometimes feeling almost numb to things that should be upsetting, then finding a quiet corner to cry in over irrelevant small events.  I eventually recognised this wasn’t right, and went to see my doctor, not sure what was wrong.  He was excellent and openly explored both the problem and my treatment options.

That’s not to say I felt down all the time

I found I could hide from the symptoms with adrenaline, so I flung myself into work projects and put in loads of unpaid overtime, because although I felt stressed, it felt normal to be stressed under that pressure.  Indeed, I might have gone on like that for considerably longer had the project work not eased off.

Around this time, I remember a poster campaign by the Samaritans that really struck a note.  There were 2 posters, one said “Can’t face going to work?”, the other “Can’t face going home?”.  At the moment I noticed them, I recognised I was stuck in the limbo in between.

After resisting drug treatment for several months, I eventually agreed to take antidepressants.  It took 3 attempts to find one that worked well enough and that didn’t give me significant side-effects, but I realised I’d found the right one when, after 3 weeks or so I woke up feeling ‘normal’.  It wasn’t uniform, but the world wasn’t the uniformly dark place it had become and I started to re-emerge.  Luckily, I was able to re-engage with the talking therapies I’d already tried, though this time I was able to understand and work through the underlying reasons I felt the way I did.

It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t until I was well into my recovery that I felt able to share with friends and colleagues what I was going through.  The fear of stigma has a basis in reality, but the obstacles to being open seem insurmountable when you’re in a ditch.

So, why didn’t I write that article?

It’s simple.  Although I’ve recovered from my depression, and haven’t been there for more than 2 decades, there is a slippery slope towards mental ill-health that I have learnt to recognise and avoid.  The several days running up to World Mental Health Day were crazy, with too much travelling, a heavy workload and not enough down time to recover.  I recognised that, to write it, I would have to risk compromising my own mental health. 

In the end, I made a pragmatic decision: I marked World Mental Health Day by NOT writing that article.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

A record year for strikes

The Office of National Statistics has recently published its latest figures around industrial disputes, one of the highlights being the record low number of days lost to strikes, with a similar low for other forms of industrial action.  So, does this trumpet the success of the Trade Union Act 2016?  In short, no.

To those of us involved in industrial relations the latest figures are unlikely to come as much of a surprise. The statistics around strikes have been running at record lows for a number of years now. What IS strange is that, unless they have a record of doing so, many employers remain reluctant to engage constructively with unions.  This often seems to their being wedded to views of the role and operation of unions that weren’t even that accurate in the 1970s, from whence they originate.  Indeed, if you genuinely want to communicate with your staff, the structure and training they can gain through a union presence can make the process significantly easier and more efficient.

So why have I attached a picture Charles de Gaulle airport? Well, mainly because French Air Traffic Control is virtually synonymous with “on strike”, and I was drawn to a recent article examining industrial relations in France and how it relates to the UK. An interesting factor in France is that union membership is only around 8%, meaning that it’s really only union representatives who join.  This phenomenon was examined in Economist magazine back in 2014:

…the real source of French union strength today is the statutory powers they enjoy as joint managers, along with business representatives, of the country’s health and social-security system, and as employee representatives in the workplace. Under French law, elected union delegates represent all employees, union members or not, in firms with over 50 staff on both works councils and separate health-and-safety councils. These must be consulted regularly by bosses on a vast range of detailed managerial decisions. This gives trade unions a daily say in the running of companies across the private sector, which accounts for the real strength of their voice.

So, in effect, people in France don’t join trade unions because they don’t need to, so long as there are enough people willing to act on their behalf.

Returning to the UK, there has been a long-term downward trend in unions taking strikes, one that was well established well before the Trade Union Act 2016 kicked in to make taking industrial action more difficult.  For the last several decades, unions have been adapting to increasingly exacting legal requirements to take industrial action, meaning it is still perplexing why the TUA 2016 was put in place at all (and it remains unclear if it is consistent with human rights legislation which enshrines the right to withdraw labour).  Unions’ main approach has been to become more effective at influencing, better prepared to be persuasive negotiators and of more constructive value to employers that are prepared to engage constructively with them.

I’m currently working with several clients, some of whom face difficulties engaging collectively with their workforce because they lack representative structures, and others that simply want to improve how they interact with their unions to the benefit of everyone in the company.  The common theme is that, if you want to avoid disagreements with your staff, discuss things with them substantively and discuss them early and, ideally, draw out any ideas they can add.  The better people understand the problem, the better they will understand the solution.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

Business lessons from the ridge

This time last week I had just completed a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye.  Having returned to ‘normality’ and processed some of the reactions I had during the 32 hours we were on the mountains, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on how this relates to my work.

This was an expedition suggested by two of my school friends.  We all grew up on Skye and have walked together on the Cuillin many times since we were children.  However, in spite of having ‘done’ all of the Munros (Scottish Mountains higher than 3000 feet high) in the Cuillin, none of us had traversed the whole ridge, and it was about time that we did!

It was an exceptional experience, and one that affords a range of emotions and times for either concentration or reflection.  In many ways, it’s an opportunity to undertake some sustained mindfulness practice: focusing on the rock when climbing, concentrating on staying upright on a steep slope while ignoring the 2000 foot drop should you miss your step, then marvelling at the view when you reach the top of the mountain are all great levellers.  Life looks different from up there:

1. Perspective – it’s always useful to look at the world from a slightly different angle.  Looking from one direction some of the ascents we made seemed impossible, but when we got to the right starting point there was usually a visible route.  Also, someone else’s perspective of your problem can point to a much simpler solution than you can see yourself.
2. Pushing beyond your comfort zone  – this is often the best way to develop a bigger comfort zone. indeed, by the end of the second day of our traverse we were all significantly more comfortable on a near precipice than we had been starting out.  That reminds me of the journey I’ve taken since starting my business two and a half years ago
3. Trust yourself – sometimes the worst thing you can do is overthink.  It can lead to indecision and unnecessary mistakes.  Other times, the right move wasn’t obvious until we had to make it.  Ultimately, which choice we made wasn’t as important as having the conviction to make it work!
4. Will you achieve it alone? – appreciating when is the right time to ask for help can be as important as any other decision.  We started by deciding we needed an experienced guide (the excellent Dave Fowler from Skye Guides).  Climbing as a team of four meant we were constantly communicating with each other, and failing to do so would compromise the safety of the others, which led to smooth progress and none of us being too precious to ask for help, hints and tips.  Similarly, many of my clients could have solved their problems more easily, and with less input from me, had they asked for help/advice sooner.
5. Achievement is addictive – confronting that feeling that you can’t overcome an obstacle only to regroup and overcome it is a wonderful feeling.  I think all of us reached this point over different challenges, be it a challenging move part way through a climb, toiling due to the heat (a bizarre problem to face climbing in Scotland!) or fatigue due to long term ‘exposure’ (i.e. having precipitous drops on all sides), and had to draw on each other and on our internal resources.  The same happens in life all the time, but it’s too easy to miss the achievement of having solved what, to someone else, may be a relatively simple problem.
6. Modern life can cause unforseen problems – climbing on gabro (the main rock that forms the Cuillin) causes some serious abrasion on your hands. My hands haven’t been so smooth and soft for years, but I haven’t been able to unlock my phone with my fingerprints since I came off the hill!
7. New possibilities – lastly, and importantly, there’s nothing like a once in a lifetime experience to make you want to do it all again!

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Are you dying to go home?

An accident waiting to happen? Every year more people are killed at work than in wars

 

28 April each year is International Workers’ Memorial Day (#IWMD18 #IWMD2018) so, for 2018, it falls on Saturday.

It’s hard to believe that the world of work is still so dangerous.  Many of us underestimate the risk of the things we do each day. How many people in the UK treat driving along the road as the single most dangerous thing they do?  Yet every day 5 people die doing just that.  The same goes for many of the activities we do every day at work – lifting and carrying heavy boxes, walking up and down stairs (especially while talking on your mobile phone), etc.  There’s a long list of things we all do in our working day, often without thinking, that are significantly more dangerous than we ever give them credit.

Some people describe taking precautions to prevent such activities from injuring people as “health & safety gone mad”.   However, that view disrespects the aim to make sure people go home as healthy as they were when they arrived at work.  In spite of those measures, 142 people in the UK still died after going to work in 2014/15.  Even more worrying are the estimates of 13,000 people dying each year because of past exposure to harmful conditions at work, 8,000 people dying of occupation-related cancers and 4,000 from exposure to dust, fumes or chemicals.  And that’s in the UK where we’ve had the Health & Safety at Work Act in place since 1974.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), across the world:
  • Each year, more than two million men and women die as a result of work-related accidents and diseases

  • Workers suffer approximately 270 million accidents each year and fall victim to some 160 million incidents of work-related illnesses

  • Hazardous substances kill 440,000 workers annually – asbestos claims 100,000 lives

  • One worker dies every 15 seconds worldwide. 6,000 workers die every day. More people die whilst at work than those fighting wars.

International Workers’ Memorial Day is a reminder not to be complacent, to avoid seeing common sense anticipation of ‘accidents’, and taking steps to stop them from happening, as an unnecessary imposition.

IMWD also provides an opportunity to reflect, to remember the people in the UK and across the world who have died trying to support their families and possibly to attend one of the many events to mark the Day across the country.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

International Women’s Day – is it needed?

Grand Canyon

Today is International Women’s Day, so I thought it was timely to reflect on perceptions of women’s place in UK society.

 

A recent survey published by Sky News has suggested that a majority of Britons think that feminism has gone far enough.  But has it?  There are clear contradictions within the findings: 70% of people think men are paid more than women for the same work; 65% believe a man will be favoured over an equally qualified woman, yet:

a total of 67% of Britons think feminism has either gone too far (40%) or gone as far it should go (27%)

Perplexingly, women themselves are almost as prone to thinking that enough is enough, with 61% either thinking feminism has gone too far (35%) or has gone far enough (26%).

Whether or not this recent finding is a manifestation of the increasing refrain of “PC gone mad” is a matter of speculation, but it is disappointing that attitudes seem to be so at odds with reality.

That said, some progress is being made – UK companies employing more than 250 people now have less than a month until they have to report their gender pay gaps, which I suspect will leave many scrabbling to reach some kind of balance.  Others may, as has been done for many years, identify that a small or reducing gap means that enough is being done.

Yet, while the gender pay gap is widest for the over 40s, alarmingly the gap for people in their 20s has been increasing, so there really is no room for complacency.

 

Article 23.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work

The UK signed up for that 80 years ago this coming December, passed the Equal Pay Act in 1970, and pulled other discrimination together in the Equalities Act 2010, yet we still don’t seem able to deliver the non-discriminating, fair society to which those commitments aspire.  Everyone has a value, and everyone should be respected.

The sad thing is that 110 years since its origin in the USA, there is still a need for International Women’s Day because, while the UK is significantly better than many countries, we still have a very, very long way to go until women are truly treated as equals in all aspects of society.

 

Shared Parental Leave, Another Push?

The Government is running a campaign to encourage new parents to share their parental leave.

Shared Parental Leave is an option that’s been available for a couple of years now, but has never really taken off.

A recent article in Personnel Today refers to Government figures indicating that only 2% of families have taken up the option of sharing parental leave.  This primarily seems to be because there’s no provision for the person receiving a share of the leave to get any pay. While some employers, largely legal firms, have agreed to pay parental leave sharers as if they were on maternity leave, they are definitely in the minority.

When I wrote this LinkedIn article back in 2016, I didn’t expect things to improve any time soon – sadly, I haven’t been disabused on that score. However, until shared parental leave is put on an even footing with maternity/adoption leave, I suspect it will only be the minority of families who can afford the drop in income who will have an option to take up the provision.

And I know the image attached to this post should have related to the page from the Government website, but who can resist baby pandas?!

Training in Copenhagen

At the end of November I delivered a training course on Advanced Negotiation Skills. OK, that’s something I’ve done quite frequently over the years, but this course had a slight difference.  This was the first course I’ve delivered as an Associate with CEDR.

It was wonderful working with my co-trainers: Andy Grossman has been delivering conflict resolution training with CEDR since “forever” (about 20 years) and has a wealth of experience; the third of our team was Phil Williams, a retired police officer who now specialises in delivering training around hostage and crisis negotiation.

Djøf delegates getting to grips with collective bargaining, November 2017

The trainees were all members of Danish organisation Djøf (the Danish Association of Lawyers and Economists), a trade union for lawyers, economists and a wide range of other skilled workers across all sectors.  Trade unions are much stronger in Denmark that the UK, with around 67% of workers in membership.  Indeed, the workforce takes a key role in the strategic direction of many businesses. As such, they operate at all levels of the business and often have a greater buy-in to business decisions than is the norm in the UK.

It was fascinating to see how the delegates worked through the course and embraced different aspects of negotiation. The emphasis was clearly on cooperation and people seemed genuinely uncomfortable even having to role-play situations where they had to hold a line and end up in conflict. Their explanation was that this is the Scandinavian way: being reasonable, finding the common ground and working towards a mutually beneficial outcome are second nature.

While Andy and Phil focused on negotiation theory, behaviour and motivation in negotiation, I focused on the collective aspects of negotiating in a workplace.

Like many unionised organisations in the UK, it’s common in Denmark for there to be multiple unions involved with an employer. To simulate that, we ran role-play scenarios where the delegates had to negotiate towards a pay agreement, given a range of restrictions and contradictions within which to find an outcome.

It was wonderful to see the range of approaches they came up with to present and justify their position, whether they were role-playing management or staff, and the enthusiasm with which they set about negotiating.  Suffice to say, it was encouraging that all of the groups were able to achieve their objectives and came away with a greater understanding of the challenges ahead when faced with real collective bargaining situations.

All in all, from a training delivery perspective, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience!

 

Malcolm Currie

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the topics raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.