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The IR Guru Interview:

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

David Wintle, Head of Employee Relations, GSK Consumer Healthcare

“Working with unions and getting them to be change advocates rather than blockers of change is very powerful.”

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

I’m an engineer by background. I studied naval architecture and started my working life in the shipyards in the north west in the late 70s. I was designing and building war ships, working for the company British Shipbuilders (that later became Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited) so it was very much a manufacturing and highly unionised environment. I was there at a time there was a lot of strike activity – the industry appeared to be in terminal decline. I moved into HR partly by chance but partly because the shipyards were under huge threat and I didn’t see a future career for me as a naval architect though I loved it. So, I took on a role as graduate training and development officer, recruiting and training 80 graduates a year. 

After 10 years in the shipyard, I took up a personnel manager role at Glaxo (before it became GSK) and I have been at the company in its various forms ever since. After a couple of years, Glaxo found out I was an engineer by trade and was keen to capitalise on my skills and experience in that area. So, I spent many years in line management in engineer-related jobs and ended up with a role line managing around 400 people. 

I moved to corporate headquarters to do various HR business partner roles at national and international level. I have at one time or other looked after all the regions: Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Latin America, as well as global primary manufacturing operations. Because I gained so much experience in restructuring, acquisitions and disposals and spent a lot of time consulting and negotiating, it seemed an obvious move to head up ER and IR in the pharmaceutical manufacturing business, taking a lead role in the UK negotiating with unions (mainly Unite and the GMB).  I later moved into the global space and was appointed to be Global Head of Employee Relations.

GSK is currently in the process of splitting the company into two, one a biopharma business and the other a consumer healthcare business. I was asked to move across into a new role as head of ER/IR for the consumer business, which is my current role.  

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

I was educated at public school so being thrown into the very different environment of a trade apprenticeship in a shipyard in the late 70s was a sink or swim situation. It was a formative experience and I learned a huge amount. I was working with people from all walks of life and I had to fit in and get on with them, as well as understand different perspectives. 

Back then the unions were very powerful. They had enormous influence in the yard over working practices, the levels of productivity, engagement and the nature of relationships. In my later life I used and leant on these experiences. They helped form the person and professional I am, as well as helped shape my approach to employee relations, communication, engagement, consultation and so forth. 

Also worth mentioning is the fact that as I progressed up the shipbuilding company in the 80s, the IR environment was incredibly confrontational and personal. Nowadays, if we disagree with people we do so in a respectful way. Back then it was about mudslinging and name calling. During one strike, when I was involved in managing a secure submarine facility and had to cross the picket line every day, like others in this situation, I had to endure pretty outrageous verbal abuse. All this drove in me a desire for fairness, integrity and to engage with people meaningfully or negotiate with credibility. It became important for me to give people ways to develop employee voice and raise concerns, which has become a key component of my day-to-day work. 

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

I never had a mission to get into IR or ER directly. When I got promoted into senior line manager roles, the way I managed was influenced by those formative experiences I have already mentioned. This meant I wanted to adopt a style that involved listening, engaging, empathising, explaining, creating voice and building positive culture change. Even as I got more involved with consultative bodies in the UK as well as European Works Councils my approach continued to be influenced by those early experiences. I was keen to set best practice really. 

What does your current role entail?

Functional leadership for employee relations with a focus on achieving high employee engagement to drive business performance and growth. I don’t get involved in practical day-to-day ER case management. 

I am involved with strategy setting, standard setting, deriving policy and practice. For example, I recently developed 17 global employment guidelines, which are the minimum standards GSK expects of its operations anywhere in the world. I have also developed a set of redundancy standards.

In addition to that, GSK is going though massive change and I manage the governance for all of that. 

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

It wasn’t that long ago leaders had to be convinced that the best performing organisations had high levels of employee engagement. It’s regarded as rather obvious now. Critical to driving that engagement is voice. Unless employees feel they are listened to, or have some influence, or that they have some control over their destiny they won’t be truly engaged. It’s that aspect of employee and industrial relations that I think is really very important. 

We have invested hugely in this and have made impressive improvements with engagement at GSK. It’s been a long hard slog.

Taking the UK as an example, although parts of our workforce are no longer unionised, every employee has a representative, either negotiated or non-negotiated.  So, wherever they are in the hierarchy or whatever department they are in, they can access support, express a view or ask a question. We also have a number of alternative channels open to all employees, wherever they are based, to ensure that they feel they have a voice. That’s something we are very proud of. 

Meanwhile, there is a school of thought that says trade unions have had their day. Their value has been brought into question and some practitioners feel union involvement in change slows down processes and acts as a barrier. I still believe they have a role to play, however. Working with unions and getting them to be change advocates rather than blockers of change is very powerful.

What are the current key trends/ innovations in ER/IR?

At GSK, we like to think we are up there with the best in how we have developed and modernised voice, and formal consultative machinery. There’s a lot of work going on in that area. For example, now we communicate key messages or share news from our consultative fora much faster using internal social media and video clips rather than relying on copious notes written up a couple of weeks later.

Mediation is a direction of innovation. This involves moving away from traditional approaches to settling grievances and ER cases using a neutral third party. We are using it more at GSK and have gone down the mediation route on a much wider basis as a better alternative to litigation.

Another current focus is trying to escape the restructure-redundancy-rebuild- rehire loop that companies get into. Like many companies we need to find more effective ways to make sure our employees develop and change direction rapidly enough to meet the changing needs of the business, which means we don’t suddenly find that we don’t have the right capabilities, skills or organisational structure and the company needs to make costly and painful decisions to change direction. 

We are currently trying to learn from IBM and others who appear to have identified approaches that have enabled them to break out of this paradigm. Admittedly, this can be a difficult process for individual employees because it can involve regular assessment, training or redeployment and so forth. But investing in this process, and in individuals to keep them and the business on course, is a much less painful process than the perpetual redundancy cycle.

Can you outline some of the key challenges facing ER/IR?

The development route to specialising in ER/IR is difficult.  Throughout my career I have been grounded by my training experiences – working as an apprentice in a factory and then moving to HR. It’s provided a lot of learning and helped me gain respect and credibility.

The modern structures of HR (although introduced for all the right reasons such as efficiency and cost) don’t lend themselves to that training to give a person a route to development. The real issue we have at GSK, and it’s certainly not unique to this company, is finding a way to break out of a site specific or country specific ER/IR environment and moving into regional and global roles. There are not many roles that provide exposure to line management and/or HR operational management in that context, so we struggle to fill posts in ER/IR.

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

In a way because we should be getting better at raising engagement levels and reducing levels of conflict, we should be putting ourselves out of a job! But that’s never going to happen. Actually, rather positively the role has become more business critical. In the past, we may have been seen as a necessary evil but now we are key to mission and strategy, for establishing culture and driving reputation. 

I think we will see a much more inclusive application of ER/IR that extends beyond employees to the contingent workforce and down the supply chain, particularly as we outsource and rely heavily on an extended network of suppliers. Ensuring that working practices are appropriate, and that we are delivering a living wage and on other aspects of human rights, are becoming a growing part of ER/IR responsibilities.

Interview by Rima Evans

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