9 tips for averting industrial action

CRASH COURSE: The junior doctors' strike has shown how damaging it can be when a dispute turns into industrial action. Here's how to stop simmering disagreements turning toxic.

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 07 Jun 2016

1. Avoid personalising it. 'The junior doctors' dispute became both personal and political, with Jeremy Hunt putting himself so much at the fore,' says Andy Cook, an employee/industrial relations adviser to boards and executives at Marshall-James. 'But when egos come into play, it's always a mistake because that person can't be seen to back down.'

2. Leave it to the experts. 'Leaders can set broad parameters for policy, but they shouldn't meddle when negotiations are moving forward,' says Roger Seifert, professor of industrial relations and human resources management at the University of Wolverhampton Business School. 'Let negotiators negotiate.'

3. Invest in line managers. 'One of the factors in having good employee relations is having line managers who are versed in people skills and are equipped with the necessary tools and behaviours,' says Cook. 'For most employees their immediate boss has more impact on how they feel about the organisation than their overall boss.'

4. Reach out. The informal relationships you build with employee representatives pay dividends when a dispute arises - and can nip a problem in the bud. 'Even the most capitalist manager and the most left-wing unionist can work together if they have a good relationship,' says Cook.

5. Keep talking. Communicate with your employees in a clear and consistent style, and they will not only learn to trust you, but will also understand the pressures that are coming to bear on your organisation, says Seifert.

6. Find an honest broker. A third party can unlock negotiations when they become stuck. Arbitration is a process where both sides agree to be bound by an independent judgment - 'it can save face if you have miscalculated, and get you out of a hole,' says Seifert.

7. Think positive. Remember you're not fighting a battle; it's better to think of your dispute as a problem to be solved. Make sure you have a genuine open mind and listen.

8. Assess the risks. A strike can be very costly to both sides and so most employers do everything they can to avoid industrial action, says Seifert. But you should consider the damage to your reputation as well as financial costs, he says. 'If you behave badly during a dispute, that will be picked up very quickly by social media.'

9. Compromise. Don't expect to win everything. It is usually far better to grant some concessions than to engage in out-and-out warfare with your own people. When a strike begins, events can take their own course; nobody knows where it will end.

Do say 'I suggest that we have an informal chat to see if we can find some common ground.'

Don't say 'We won't budge an inch. Our legal team is on this and you are going to be slaughtered.'

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