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The IR Guru Interview:

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

Emily Cox, Group Head of Colleague Relations and Policy at Lloyds Banking Group

“There’s always difficulty in balancing the needs of the individual with the rights of the many. However, effective trade unions can help with that.”

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

I have always been motivated by purpose and the opportunity to make a difference. I started my career as a trade union lawyer and my 20-year-old self could not be more surprised that I now work in a bank! I became a trade union lawyer because I believe in fairness, justice and inclusion. But I found that too often I was meeting people after the worst had happened. The people I met wanted their jobs back, they wanted dignity. I couldn’t achieve this through the employment tribunal system though. The job I do now is more satisfying because it allows me to influence – at scale – the approach we take. 

I remember the 2008 financial crisis vividly. I live in Newcastle and to me this wasn’t a ‘global’ financial crisis. This was something that affected my community and people I know. When the bank Northern Rock collapsed and it tendered for its first ever employment lawyer, I was seconded in and I ended up spending the next 10 years there. 

It felt hugely important to be part of the team that was fighting to save a bank in the North East in some form. It was important to the local economy and local supply chains and employed thousands of people. The Northern Rock Foundation also gave millions of pounds to local charities. During that time, I took over Employment Law and Employee Relations. I had to practise what I preached and be prepared to put my own advice into action.  

Being part of the team that returned Northern Rock to the private sector is still a career highlight. We all watched the television as the then Chancellor George Osborne made the announcement from the steps of 11 Downing Street. Thinking about the cheers that reverberated around the building at the news that jobs had been saved still makes me emotional. 

During my time at Virgin Money (which acquired Northern Rock) I had my daughter. I returned from maternity leave to a nice steady (and slightly dull) job in the People Team, which I thought I wanted. Fortunately for me, it only lasted two days before I was asked by the CEO to lead an inquiry into the progression of women into senior roles in the financial services sector. This took a year and was one of the best times of my professional life. The Women in Finance report and recommendations were endorsed by HM Treasury and the Governor of the Bank of England – and HM Treasury’s Women in Finance Charter was born. It covers more than 80% of people working in the financial services sector in the UK. I learnt a lot during this and met some amazing people. 

Virgin Money was taken over by Clydesdale Bank in 2018 and, attracted by the purpose of ‘Helping Britain Prosper,’ I joined Lloyds Banking Group the following year. I now look after Colleague Relations and Policy for the Group and I love my job and the people I work with. 

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

The hardest times in my career have always been the times from which I have learnt the most. I believe there is no such thing as a ‘bad experience’ it is all simply experience that makes you better at what you do.  

I learnt early on about the power of networks. When I got my first big job, it was at a time when Northern Rock was in crisis. If I’m honest I felt like an imposter. I was being too tough on myself, I only heard the critical comments. I think it’s so important to have people around that you can trust and can check in with. In times of pressure it helps me be more balanced.

Equally, when I was offered the job as the Director of Public Affairs at Virgin Money, I turned it down three times because as a new mum, I didn’t think I could do it. But there must have been something at the back of my mind that knew this wasn’t quite right. I remember seeking out advice from people I knew but who didn’t work at the same company. I took a deep breath and I took the job. I have never regretted it. 

I would also say it’s important to stand up for what you believe  in and to never, ever give up. There have been countless times in my career where it would have been easier to pipe down and go with the majority. But I’m afraid that has never been me. I always think I have been employed to have a point a view, and if I have an opinion I should express it. 

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

It’s a lifelong belief in fairness, equality and inclusion. You can make a real difference in this role. And companies like Lloyds Banking Group can show real leadership by making the case for these issues.

What does your current role entail?

It involves a strategic partnership with our two recognised unions, Accord and Unite.  I’m also responsible for helping the business with complex people change and working to build trust between colleagues and the bank. So, it’s much broader than industrial or employee relations.

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

Because colleague voice is important and trade unions at their best contribute to a collective colleague voice. There’s always difficulty in balancing the needs of the individual with the rights of the many. However, effective trade unions can help with that.

And from my perspective, the global pandemic has shown that there is a positive case for trade unions.  At Lloyds Banking Group, we have invested heavily in our strategic partnership with our unions during the pandemic and I think colleagues – whether members or not – have valued the fact that unions have had a seat at the table and worked with us to create Covid-safe environments to keep our people protected. Unions have been at their best, bringing real time colleague sentiment to us, which has enabled us to make agile decisions. We have listened to them and we have had some strong debates. It has resulted in improved overall decision making and been invaluable to building trust. 

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

Trust and purpose are crucial for both unions and employers. I think purpose is critical to building engagement. 

I think one of the bigger challenges for unions is how they organise in a world of remote working and rapid advancement of digital technology. With more of us using offices differently unions will need to evolve their face-to-face methods of recruitment and find a hybrid model that will fit the working styles we’ve discovered over the last 12 months.

Technology brings a challenge for us too. We successfully conducted pay negotiations last year using video conferencing. It can be tricky when you can’t quite judge the reaction of all those in the room because you can’t see everyone at the same time, or sense their body language. I think face-to-face interaction will become less frequent so we will all need to work much harder at communication and keeping misunderstandings to a minimum. 

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

Health and safety has been an area regarded as really technical and grounded in risk assessments and training. But the last 12 months have shown that how we look after our people and keep them safe is exceptionally important. This will be a growing agenda.  I think health and wellbeing will be something that draws good people to companies and it will drive loyalty. 

Finally, I think the way in which we work is changing dramatically. The ability to work remotely has been turbo charged by the pandemic. That is underpinned by the advancement in tech and the mass adoption of online meeting tools. I think we are blending work and our private lives in a way we haven’t done so before. 

My own view is that the employment framework that underpins this is stuck in the 1970s. As we work through the implications of the global pandemic we need to consider a new employment deal and I think in time, the framework will need to be re-imagined. 

When I first started work, I can just about remember people smoking in the office (and being surrounded by paper).  Mobile phones were banned from the workplace. We have seen huge transformation during my working life – smoking in the office and the banning of mobiles seems unimaginable now.  I think the next five to 10 years will see an even faster evolution of employment policy. Exciting times are ahead and what a privilege it is to be in our profession and do this job. 

Interview by Rima Evans

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