When it starts being you

There is a quote in a Stephen King novel that goes something like this:

‘It’s like the old pie in the face routine.  It stops being funny when it starts being you’.

Over the last couple of years some key changes to employment legislation mean that employment rights ain’t what the used to be.

An increase from one year’s service to two in order to bring a claim for unfair dismissal.

The introduction of tribunal fees, reducing access to justice in a monumental way.

And now there are proposals to change the laws on industrial action, and in particular change the rules around balloting, with the result that it will be more difficult to call a strike. If the proposals go ahead, a simple majority vote will no longer suffice.  Instead there will need to be a minimum turnout of 40% of all of those eligible to vote before any action can be taken.

The question therefore occurs: do we have a huge problems with strikes in the UK?  I’m no @flipchartrick so there won’t be any detailed analysis, and neither will there be a @wonkypolicywonk style graph because I can’t work Excel.

But a glance at the data suggests…. Not so much.

A very quick review of the latest figures available from 2013 says that whilst working days lost due to labour disputes were up overall from the previous year, there were 114 actual stoppages in the UK.  Like, in total.

Of course there are big strikes from time to time and they tend to get equally big headlines. Some of these strikes do cause inconvenience. Especially when tube strikes take place on the same day as a CIPD conference.  But 114 stoppages suggests that British industry is hardly at a standstill because of the enemy within. So why the proposal?

Simple.  There is an election coming up.  So it is time for some tough talking headlines about tackling the usual suspects.  Benefits scroungers, addicts, people who should just get a job.  And now it is turn of the trade unions.  Only the thing with industrial action, and indeed many of the people against whom society’s ills are attributed, the reality behind the headlines is often very different.

According to an article over at the HR Magazine (citing research by Eversheds), 83% of businesses support the government proposals to reform strike laws. I’d like to ask those that said yes another question: when did you last have a strike, at your place? Or even the hint of one? And if you have or you might, would you rather rely on a statute that stops your employees from withholding their labour, or find a way to actually resolve the dispute and engage with the people that work for you?

There are a couple of things that I believe to be true. One of them, is that if you have to start pointing to a contract clause or quoting from statutes you are half way to losing the real argument – and creating a situation and a relationship challenge that only fixes positions and from which you may never recover.

I also believe that people act in the way that makes the most sense to them, that feels like the best option or choice in their particular circumstances.  So the more unusual or irrational the behaviour, the more important it is to try and understand why someone feels that this is the best thing for them.  I believe that there are better ways to solve workplace conflict than strikes.  But putting that aside for a moment, how many stoppages would the proposed change in the law actually prevent?  And what might the unintended consequences be too?

I know that misguided claims, vexatious claims, not founded in anything like employment law claims happen.  I’ve had my fair share over the years, just like most HR professionals.  I know that industrial action can be costly and disruptive for everyone involved.  But as HR professionals we can think about this stuff in different ways.  We can think about it narrowly, and consider the possible benefits to our own organisation. Fewer pesky claims to deal with, or less chance of industrial action, at our place.

Alternatively we can think about it more broadly.  Consider, in a labour market stuffed with low paid work, structural youth unemployment, zero hours contracts, a great big hole developing in the middle, a society in which you can live in poverty even when you are in full time employment, what we really want for employees and for workplaces.  Do we really want fewer employment rights, within this context?

Finally, you can think about it this way.  What, if the worst happened to you at work, would you want?  When I write a people policy, devise a new process, this is my starting point.  If I was sick, what would I want from my manager? If I was being made redundant, how would I want to be treated? If I was harassed at work, how I would I want to raise it?

We may never personally need to reply upon many of the valuable, hard won employment rights that we have.  But they protect us all the same.  So their slow erosion should concern all of us.  Because it stops being ok when it starts being you.


6 thoughts on “When it starts being you

  1. Splendid piece, Gemma. Well said. Just to add, of course, that aside from electioneering, efforts to change legislation on industrial action may arise from genuine anxiety that a second and deeper wave of austerity cuts could spark significantly more stike action.

  2. Strike action is so like “1970’s / 80’s” anyway, there are loads of other damaging ways to express total exasperation around now, Social Media being one and Glass Door being another. Of course with what might be a demographically related recruitment / retention problem on the horizon some will opt to work for someone else and ultimately how damaging is that. Take away the right to strike and you’ll send dissatisfaction underground, not overt, impossible to control, totally exasperating with no leadership to talk to. This is not a missive in support of strike action but really take care with what you wish for!

    • Peter, thanks for commenting. I hoping to do some research on employee voice and social media. I think that this is both an opportunity and risk for both organisations and trade unions alike. A new way of listening to it (if you really want to hear that is), a new way of mobilising action / influencing employers through the use of that voice. We have barely seen the potential I think. Would love to get a view from ACAS for the research at some point in the future!

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  4. Gemma, this was a great post. I think that you really hit the nail on a issue that actually goes beyond trendy political messages. Eroding employee rights have been an ongoing issue for the past 40+ years with the start of a globalized labor market back in the 1970’s. I would go as far as to say that, it has led to some of the highest income inequality (at least here in the states) among the classes in recent times. Labor law that erodes worker rights will have a huge impact not only within the employment market but will also impact overall economics as well. A weakened working class will begin to see stagnant or falling wages, and diminished purchasing power, both factors tend to be detrimental to the overall economy of a nation. Its sad when politicians begin to promote ideas and philosophies to the masses that bring our countries into what can only be described as political brinksmanship because they fail to fully disclose exactly how they’re ideas, proposals, etc will impact the overall populace.

    • Thank you for commenting and connecting. There is something running around in my head at the moment about employee voice, and the extent to which we are creating groups of people who simply have none. Is this happening as an outcome – or do we just really not want to hear them? Probably a future blog post!

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