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The IR Guru Interview:

Our series of profiles on prominent figures in Industrial and Labor Relations

Alistair Paton, Senior Director, Labour Relations and Change, Asda

“There’s not many of us in IR, but we can be real influencers.”

How did you end up on the career path you have?

It wasn’t planned. I studied politics at Strathclyde University, which included a module on industrial relations. It enthused me so much I decided to switch my honours degree to that. 

After graduating, I joined the Royal Mail graduate scheme and eventually joined its Industrial Relations team in Edinburgh. After a couple of years, I moved to Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and its Employee Relations team. It was at the time of the acquisition of NatWest, so I quickly became involved in a range of IR issues.  I held various ER policy and HR Business Partner roles before becoming Head of Industrial Relations and getting involved in a range of projects, including setting up a new European Works Council (EWC), implementation of terms and conditions in different countries and all of the restructuring that tends to come with mergers and acquistions. After 19 great years at RBS, I left in April this year to join Asda. 

The experiences at RBS helped me also study to become a trained mediator and I was fortunate to be appointed to sit on the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) as an employer representative. 

What were the main challenges you faced along the way and how did you overcome those?

Looking back, all of the challenges I have faced have been centred around conflict situations or trying to resolve different interests and finding that common ground. I’ve learned that patience, and taking the time to listen and understand can really help move debates and discussions on. 

The earliest challenge I recall was at Royal Mail when there was a strike in the very late 90s. In those days managers had to deliver the mail to continue the service. I was 22 and this was all pretty new. I had to pick up mail from the delivery offices and, in doing so, cross a picket line for the very first time. What made it more difficult was that I was also filmed doing this by the union CWU (apparently to make it easier to identify me later). It was quite an eye-opening experience and one I couldn’t really have prepared for. Having said that, it was also part and parcel of the realities of the role, seeing first hand what happens when relationships in the workplace break down and how passionate people can become about defending their position. 

Part of my role at Royal Mail also involved conducting a joint review with trade union reps and managers following any period of industrial action in delivery offices. I loved this part of the job – myself and a senior CWU rep would talk to both groups to find out what went wrong so we could make joint recommendations. I learned a lot from the union reps I worked with but it was also a challenging time since I was young and didn’t have lots of experience. I had to find a way of gaining credibility quickly. Listening meaningfully to both sides and being able to use the review to achieve a positive outcome was an important step in building that credibility.

Meanwhile at RBS, dealing with the complexity of industrial relations in different countries was a key experience for me. I became the Head of Employee Relations for EMEA despite having no international experience and had to get up to speed quickly with diverse IR and legal systems (from France or Spain to Kazakhstan). I was able to call on my network to help me and was lucky to be around a lot of experienced people from whom I could widen my understanding and knowledge. I was quickly exposed to a lot of different issues in many different countries. 

I learned a lot working with Works Council Chairs. They helped me understand why we needed to do something in a particular way or why it couldn’t be done differently. It also enhanced my appreciation of different cultures. I found that each IR system was shaped by their countries’ histories, which I found fascinating. For example, co-determination in Germany is based on wanting to ensure one side doesn’t have more power than the other to keep the balance of power in check. 

I have learned that picking up the phone and understanding what is important to unions or Works Councils is time well served. Having resilience and the will power not to give up are also vital. Ultimately, I learned by just doing and getting stuck in; it’s the only way.

What experiences prepared you most for a career in industrial relations/employee relations?

I think most people enter into IR because they believe in fairness and integrity and that there has to be compromise somewhere, particularly where there are different interests. Sometimes it involves us holding up the mirror to both employee representatives and our own stakeholders to try and achieve that. 

I was responsible for setting up a new EWC after RBS (as part of a consortium) acquired the bank ABN AMRO. It was effectively a merger of the councils from the two different businesses: both with very different approaches to their existing EWCs. This gave me insight into negotiating and trying to meet the needs of the other side to reach agreement. It was a two-year long process and only reached a resolution when we truly understood what the Works Council needed. 

More recently at RBS, I was involved in setting up a Colleague Advisory Panel to help the group board gain a better understanding of workers’ views. It was a requirement of corporate governance changes made by the UK government in 2018. The panel was created so board members could hear from a cross section of workers, including unions, about issues important to them. Its creation was a success and it still meets with the board twice a year. I hadn’t had any board experience until that point so it gave me exposure to a different environment.  More than that though, I think it represented a step forward for industrial relations, which usually only involves discussions between management and unions. A board taking responsibility for having a handle on what’s important to workers – in addition to management having to engage with staff using the traditional forums used for IR – seems a natural progression and one that will be interesting to monitor. A broader worker voice being heard can only lead to better, more informed decision-making. 

What elements of the role most attracted you to the ER/IR field?

The importance of voice and fairness. We have a vital role to play in ensuring organisations can be the best they can. 

Trying to understand different needs, wants and interests and working through all the options to find something that works for everyone, particularly when it involves a complex issue is something I thrive on. If there is a willingness on both sides there should always be a workable solution. However, that relies on us asking the right questions and listening hard to gauge what’s going on. 

What does your current role entail?

ASDA is a huge retail organisation and joining it during a global pandemic when the focus on food retail has never been more intense has been a privilege. Seeing what our colleagues do day in, day out, to ensure products are on the shelves and that all our stores and depots are Covid secure has been humbling.

Labour relations has been in the middle of it all. I lead a team of six and we are involved in guiding the business in engaging trade unions and employee representative groups. Our focus this year has been working with our representatives on all we are doing in response to Covid, as well as other business changes we need to discuss with them.

The team also drives the information and consultation process, helps navigate any legal considerations that arise from implementing change, advises and leads on pay negotiations and provides support with the people side of any change the business needs to make. 

We recognise the GMB union in Great Britain and Usdaw in Northern Ireland. In addition, we regularly meet with our colleague voice groups for employees who are not members of the union. We meet them around the same time we would unions to update them on any changes. 

Why do you think IR/ER practice is such an important part of the way an organisation is run?

There’s so much change taking place, particularly now. We have a key role to play in helping businesses navigate that change safely and understand what needs to happen and when. 

Also important is being able to communicate with union and employee reps about the reality of what’s going on, so they get some insight into the complexities organisations face. There’s not many of us in IR, but we can be real influencers by having those informal discussions that can help reps understand the wider context.

There has been an emerging trend over the last few years of organisations having to demonstrate to investors how they engage and listen to colleagues. That plays right into our space and is about ensuring good industrial relations practice.

What are the current key trends in ER/IR?

As a profession, I think there is lots for us to do around conflict management. We can help organisations manage both individual and team conflict and help line managers and representatives resolve issues. Labour Relations has a role to play in building the case for interventions such as mediation, particularly as the workplace changes. For organisations wanting to focus on cost or avoid issues festering there’s an opportunity here.  I have seen it work really well but it still hasn’t got traction everywhere yet. 

In addition, the advance in different types of voice is something we need to be more aware of. Labour relations is not just about unions and representative groups – it has become about engaging with the various outlets where views can be shared, whether that be social media, online campaigns, media leverage and so forth. Organisations collating all these views from all these various sources and using them to improve working lives is a trend that is emerging. 

Undoubtedly, this is a challenge too. Data insight is something labour relations professionals will increasingly rely on. What’s happening behind the views being shared, what does it tell us? I think we need to become more comprehensive and balanced in what organisation feedback surveys tell us but layer that with additional information we glean from representatives. That’s the important insight we need and will help us understand what is really going on in an organisation. 

How do you think the ER/IR role might grow in the next five to 10 years?

Labour relations roles have always reflected what’s going on in society at any point in time. So, we have to deal with the challenges of the day and respond accordingly. The rise in different types of employment and forms of working (in the office or at home), increase in AI and automation, changes in customer behaviour, economic uncertainty and issues such as digital developmental point to changes in the content of work and how the workplace is organised. That will lead to change and an increasing need for IR and ER roles, so we can help navigate how these changes can be accepted by different groups, including employee reps. 

Some unions are already talking about the right to disconnect and giving workers an opportunity to switch off from technology when they are not at work. They are trying to move the debate on from the more traditional discussions, exploring how to adapt to latest developments including new technology and the need for digital upskilling, or ensuring AI is adopted in a fair manner. 

The IR/ER professional will also have a role to play in understanding developments in social protests or campaigns that arise from different routes such as social media – from our own employees as well as from our supply chains. We need to be able to listen to a cross section of views. That means engaging with groups wider than unions. 

Lastly, we will no doubt change our name at some point, every other function has. Whether we still carry “industrial relations/ employee relations/ labour relations” in our title remains to be seen. I’m beginning to see more organisations replace that with “workplace or colleague relations”. Whatever happens, given the political and economic uncertainty and the need to bring informed insights when managing change with representatives, the need for industrial relations skills and experience in organisations has never been greater. 

Interview by Rima Evans

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