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.