A Week to Celebrate Volunteers

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National Volunteers’ Week runs through until 12th June 2016, so I thought I’d flag it up and take the opportunity to explore an activity that has become increasingly politicised.

Volunteering is one of the great industrial relations controversies of recent times, albeit one that bubbles along underneath the ones that grab the bigger headlines (fancy more austerity, anyone?!).  For decades, it has been the mainstay of charities, community activity and sports clubs, but in recent years there has been a drive for volunteering to provide things that many people view as public sector duties.

We all seem to have forgotten, but David Cameron’s Big Idea when he became Prime Minister was the Big Society – essentially, in a world where there were going to be extreme cuts to public sector funding, the vision was that the strain would be taken up by voluntary effort.  That’s where the controversy starts, of course.

When budgets are tight, Governments always push for “improved efficiency”.  However, in governmental terms being ‘efficient’ doesn’t mean making optimum use of the resources at your disposal, or even finding ways to do more with what you have – UK Governments of every hue have used the same definition: “improving efficiency” means “do the same or more with fewer people”, rather than doing things better.  So organisations have been faced with arbitrary cuts to their staffing regardless of the potential impact on their ability to deliver statutory responsibilities on behalf of the Government.  In many respects, “Big Society” was the anticipation of that dilemma.  Had society been successfully motivated to volunteer for the requisite roles, they could indeed have plugged some of the gaps.

As the UK ploughs through its 8th year of austerity, with several more years to come, according to George Osborne’s forecasting, greater and greater “efficiency” is being sought in the delivery of public services.  Many organisations have adapted to serious cuts in their budget by reducing the number of people they employ.

The real problem comes in trying to continue work in areas where people have been made redundant.  This isn’t so much a legal issue (replacing a paid member of staff with a suitably skilled volunteer wouldn’t invalidate the redundancy) as a political issue (note the small ‘p’).  Often, the people with the relevant skills are those who’ve just been made redundant so, unless they’ve taken early retirement, persuading them to do the same job, just not to be paid for it, seems an unlikely scenario.

But are the same skills available elsewhere?  Often they aren’t, but when they are, there is another issue to consider- can you persuade the remaining staff, who are now seriously loaded with work, whose morale has been undermined and whose colleagues have been pushed out, that they should take on the additional workload of managing volunteers to do that same work?  A serious flaw in the model is that it’s all too easy to underestimate the amount of professional effort it takes to motivate, organise and deliver using volunteers.  Some of the bigger charities have been doing it for years, and still they need teams of staff dedicated to just that.  It is also an approach best used to deliver “added value” items.  Someone under an employment contract has an obligation to do the job they’re employed to do.  By contrast, if you’re trying to deliver basic services, and a volunteer decides not to turn up, there’s nothing much you can do about it – having managed numerous projects over the years, this is a very real issue that makes project and resource planning much more difficult.

There’s also the problem that people tend to volunteer to do things that they either enjoy doing or in which they have a fundamental belief, so there’s a big problem in getting them to volunteer for things that they believe should be the responsibility of central or local government, or that they simply don’t get a kick from doing.  And why not?  It’s their precious time that they’re donating, so they have an absolute right to use in the way that they want to use it.

Don’t get me wrong: the efforts of volunteers are incredible, and the number of things that happen just because some people are willing to give up their time is exceptional.  You can’t argue with an estimated value to the UK economy of £23.9 billion.  The question is whether or not it is an efficient, reasonable and dependable way to deliver public services: to my eyes, getting something for nothing sounds too good to be true, and we all know what they say about things that sound too good to be true…

Here Comes the Trade Union Act 2016 (but is time running out for the union movement?)

DSCN0519So, the Trade Union Act slunk onto the Statute Book on 5th May. We now know what it says, but do we know what it means?

The short answer is “sort of”, but it’s very close to “not really”…

What we do know is that among other things:

  • any industrial action needs to follow a ballot with a minimum 50% turnout
  • ballot papers must make clear the dispute and the action proposed
  • 14 days notice of specific action must be given to employers
  • in “important public services” ballots must also be supported by at least 40% of eligible voters

We don’t actually know as yet when the provisions will come into force, but there are several other uncertainties at this stage as well.  For example, it has yet to be defined which public services are deemed “important”, though we can probably predict that it will include Health and Education.  Furthermore, as with all laws, the final impact will be shaped by cases that go through the courts so, with questions remaining on the impact of this legislation on workers’ human rights, there may be uncertainty for some time.

What is clear is that the impact in the devolved administrations will, for the foreseeable future, be minimal as the Governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have all said that they won’t be implementing the provisions of the Act. So what can we expect to see in England?

Well, the intention behind the Act is clearly stated as making it more difficult for trade unions to take legal industrial action, particularly in what are being called “important public services”. This seems to have been a response to disputes in recent years where some unions have proceeded to industrial action with significantly lower turnout than is now being demanded.  A collective breath of relief will have been taken amongst all unions that the threat to allow employers to hire agency staff to complete strikers’ work was dropped from the final legislation.

The Government has recently taken a bloody nose in relation to it’s plan to do away with “check-off”, the mechanism by which union subscriptions are paid direct from people’s salaries, in spite of that system having little or no cost for employers.  Having now established through the courts that DWP’s implementation of that approach was unlawful, the Government now risks claims for compensation from the unions that have been affected.

The unions had responded through consultation on the Trade Union Bill that it was unreasonable to dictate the levels of turnout while the Government insisted that they continue to conduct ballots by paper and post.  In that context, it’s interesting to note the concession that there will now be an independent review of electronic balloting.  In spite of that, it is also worth highlighting that there have been many troublesome disputes, notably the ongoing one with Junior Doctors in England, where the turnout has significantly exceeded those imposed by the new strictures.

Given that, it remains the best approach for employers, especially those who are not bound by Government instruction, to work with their staff, including the unions where they are present, to make sure they avoid the dispute in the first place.

Who’s to Blame for Blame Culture…?

I remember a former CEO doing a Q&A session at an all-staff meeting. After various questions about the direction the organisation was going, someone asked about blame culture – the response was robust: “I won’t tolerate blame culture – if it happens, the individuals responsible will be identified and held accountable”. In spite of the guffaws around the room, the said CEO clearly couldn’t see the irony inherent in this statement. Yet blame culture remains part and parcel of many businesses across the UK.

This is a shame as it inhibits people from raising issues that need to be raised if an organisation is to continue improving its performance.  After all, how do you know where you’re going wrong if people are scared to point out where you are?  At it’s worst, the fear of being blamed even prevents people from coming clean about their mistakes, and how many employers wouldn’t rather learn from mistakes than not know about them? Even worse, the worry that they’ll be blamed may persuade some people that it’s better to say nothing, even if they know something illegal has happened.   The irony of this latter point is that the law is on their side – in theory.

The Public Interest Disclosures Act 1998 provides protection for anyone who makes a disclosure so they shouldn’t be sacked, or disadvantaged for having done so.  The Act covers disclosure of criminal offences, breaches of legal obligations, miscarriages of justice, danger to individual health and safety, damaging the environment or attempting to conceal any of these things.  If someone DOES suffer as a result of having blown the whistle, they have the right to make a claim to the Employment Tribunal and, if upheld, a dismissal would be automatically unfair.  Since 2013, the ET has the power to reduce the settlement if they think the initial disclosure was done in “bad faith”.

A critical point is that people need to follow the specified procedure, and are only protected if they state that they are making a disclosure under the Act.  The trouble is that many employers don’t have the mechanisms, or resources, to make sure that suitable protection is put in place before, during and after an investigation – or they don’t make it easy for their staff to find the right procedure to follow.  And if people use the wrong procedure to make their disclosure, or don’t specifically invoke that protection, it’s very possible that the law will leave them high and dry. That leaves people feeling too exposed, so it becomes easier to sit tight and say nothing, or leave (and still say nothing). There is also the problem that the legal protection of the Act only kicks in once someone can demonstrate that they’ve suffered a detriment (e.g. been sacked), by which point there is often no way back.

So, if the UK seriously wants to instigate a culture under which people report issues they see at work, perhaps we need to start by ensuring that people can be open about honest mistakes.  Thereafter, have the confidence to develop genuinely open and clear procedures so people can believe that they ARE protected – not just by the law – and encourage people to report things without fear and we might make some headway. Similar to the progress many organisations are making towards developing a safety culture, where staff routinely remind each other of safe processes, eventually perhaps we’ll learn to accept intervention as a helping hand rather than a criticism.

Accredited Mediator

While my previous career involved mediating between various parties on a regular basis, I’d never had my skills in this respect properly reflected through accreditation, so I decided it was time to address that. Thanks to training provided by The Mediation Partnership, I am now accredited mediator.

The training was both interesting and challenging, featuring a number of role play scenarios that were outside of my previous experience and allowed a wide-ranging exploration of approaches and techniques to develop my skills.

The course is accredited by the Scottish Mediation Register.

 

A Port in a storm…

Forth Rail Bridge from Hawes Pier (small)

So, almost unnoticed behind the stramash of George Osborne’s eighth budget, the Government has been defeated again in the House of Lords over it’s Trade Union Bill.  As before, the headlines are all about the impact on Labour Party funding.  As before, the implications for trade unions and workers’ rights to organise themselves and, in particular, campaign about members’ issues have been largely skimmed over, as has the fact that several unions aren’t even affiliated to the Labour Party in the first place.  There’s more to come on this as there is another day of Review (the line by line consideration of the Bill) in the House of Lords, then the third and final Reading.  All of that against a backdrop of several high profile strikes, most of which look, from the outside, like they could have been avoided.

Neither the BMA nor Junior Doctors in England are renowned as militant types, but they see a compromise to healthcare delivery in the revised contracts they are being offered. Jeremy Hunt’s responses have done little to allay insinuations that the changes are as much politically motivated as financially, but then neither side is indicating much room for manoeuvre so it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a simple end to the situation.  Imposition of the new contracts may solve the short term problem for the Government, but it’s hardly going to encourage newly qualified doctors (or anyone else) to view NHS England as an employer of choice.

Meanwhile, Grangemouth is in the news again, this time with a dispute between Forth Ports and dock workers.  In recent years, Grangemouth has become associated with industrial unrest and high pressure tactics on all sides, largely due to the strikes called against Ineos at the Oil Refinery there in 2008 and 2013 and, while this is a different set of workers and a different employer, the rhetoric from both sides seems woefully familiar.

Having only read about these disputes, and having not been directly involved, it’s always difficult to see the full picture, but the common theme seems to be one side claiming they’ve not been consulted, the other side saying they have and that there aren’t any options but the one being presented.  It’s not always simple to understand the subtle differences between informing people, consulting them or negotiating change with them, but it’s nigh on impossible if sides don’t speak to each other.

As with most disagreements, there is unlikely to be complete truth in either position, but it does seem that the parties involved subscribe to different dictionaries and are therefore working to different definitions of many of the terms they are using. That’s not an uncommon situation but is one that, if not addressed, will damage all parties’ reputations and can only be resolved in the long term by both sides being willing to hang up their boxing gloves and start their relationship again. Working out how things got so bad isn’t easy, but is possible – and would be in the long term interests of any business that wants to develop a genuinely healthy relationship with their staff.  After all, a happy staff is a productive staff within which everyone becomes an advocate for their employer.

There’s a truism that any employer will end up with the unions that they deserve, and that unions will end up with the Management they deserve.  That’s always worth bearing in mind as, when the disputes are over, everyone will still have to work together – and surely it’s better to work somewhere that you can have a polite discussion than one where every minor disagreement becomes a major dispute?

The future for Employment Tribunal fees?

Applications to the Employment Tribunal in Great Britain have nose-dived since fees were introduced in 2014. But is it good for 70% more people to bite their lip? And is there an alternative to calling their bluff?

Recent Employment Tribunal figures show that the total number of claims for unfair dismissal in Great Britain fell to 12,652 in 14/15.  Compare this to the 92,000+ unfair dismissal claims in 11/12.  While cause does not necessarily imply effect, the timing of this fall correlates exactly with the introduction of fees for each application to the ET.  The recent figures confirm the trend implied by previous figures since the introduction of the fees, evidence enough to convince the current Scottish Government to announce that, under the new powers in the Scotland Act, and IF they are re-elected in May, that they will withdraw the fees from the Scottish ET (which would bring Scotland into line with Northern Ireland, where the fees were never introduced in the first place).

Few people who take a case to ET return to that employer, even fewer successfully raise a claim and stay employed there. Conversely, the costs of recruiting and training someone new are enormous – the 2015 CIPD/Hay Resource & Management Planning Survey indicates that recruitment costs alone can be up to £10,000, not including training and development.  Compare that to the costs associated with resolving a problem so a member of staff can remain a member of staff.

At the same time, of the unfair dismissal cases that were upheld, the median award was £6,955, a drop in the ocean compared to the legal costs, operational disruption and emotional upheaval involved in a Tribunal – most often, there are no winners.

Far better would be to find a mutually acceptable solution – whether through mediation, developing managers or by introducing more effective processes, or a combination of all three. Invest a little in mechanisms to avoid the ultimate employer/employee conflict, and potentially boost morale and productivity into the bargain, or pay the costs – the choice is yours.