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The IR Guru Interview:

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

Kirsty Lawrence, Director of TUI Aviation HR

“Everyone comes to the negotiating table with a very particular logic. Your logic is really no better than anyone else’s.” 

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

HR is a function that can be quite mysterious and so many people, like myself, fall into HR without really knowing its full breadth and impact. After taking a grad role in an organisation managing nightclubs, bars and bowling alleys, I had an inkling HR was where I wanted to go but I would have been hard pushed even then to explain what it really entailed.

I fell into it after I landed a job at British Airways (BA) delivering training at its head office. I quickly realised training wasn’t for me so when a role came up in the Industrial Relations team I thought it sounded exciting.  I got the job and absolutely loved it. For a number of years, I worked as an industrial relations advisor, then as a manager.

At that point of my career, I had to decide whether I wanted to remain in a specialist IR role or move into a generalist HR role. I decided on the latter and moved around the airline’s HR teams that looked after ground operations. By that time, BA had merged IR with generalist HR activity, so I also had responsibility for labour relations – IR took up around 50 per cent of my time.

In 2011, I led the HR team dealing with BA’s takeover of the airline BMI. This involved a large amount of industrial relations work, dealing with three main unions BALPA, GMB and Unite. We integrated half the workforce from BMI into BA but the other half was unfortunately made redundant. 

I left BA in 2013 and moved to TUI to run the HR team for its UK airline. I moved there to get more breadth of experience, particularly in the international arena.

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

Very early in my career at BA, I was thrown in at the deep end (with all the right coaching and support) and given accountability for some challenging pieces of business change. This approach had a huge impact on me, as I had to learn very quickly how to achieve a balance between the needs of the business, the union, and colleagues. Some of these changes looked small to the business but were significant for individuals, for example, when we had to move some workers, such as baggage handlers, from weekly pay to monthly pay. That sounds like a fairly straightforward change to agree but it had a big effect on people so there was strong opposition. 

I had to learn how to gain the support of staff not just by negotiating around the table but by looking very closely at the actual experiences of the people being affected. I spent a lot of time down in staff rest rooms (where baggage handlers would take their work break) to find out about their concerns so I could get a better understanding of the situation and try and find a solution. 

It really taught me the importance of appreciating the perspective on the other side of the table. The earlier on in your career you can do that the easier it becomes to understand the potential areas for conflict, so they can be addressed. After all, everyone comes to the negotiating table with a very particular logic. Your logic is really no better than anyone else’s. 

Another episode that was important for me followed the 9/11 attacks, which had such a devastating effect on the airline industry and on BA. It gave me experience of very tough union negotiating in a high profile, public campaign that had the potential to make or break the company. 

Significantly, it also helped me realise that there’s more than two parties in any negotiation. Officially, talks may involve only the company and union but unofficially there is a lot more negotiating going on. There’s usually a lot of work negotiating internally with other parts of the organisation – stakeholders that each have their own priorities. Building relationships with those groups is critical. I learned it is important to develop a broad mandate to take to the table, maximising the chances of achieving a deal with unions they can sell to their members and that an employer will benefit from. During those high-profile campaigns post 9/11, I saw lead negotiators be extraordinarily creative in order to come up with solutions that balanced the needs of all those stakeholders. That’s the craft we have to learn.

Working in international labour relations has also been crucial. Increasingly, organisations need HR leaders who can operate across national boundaries. Working in IR in the UK is a route to getting that experience. Without my background in IR, I wouldn’t be able to understand HR in other European countries where labour relations is embedded in different social models and structures for collective representation.

What elements of the role most attracted you to IR?

When I first started out, it felt cut and thrust to me. It was the first experience I had in HR where I could be really close to the business. Now what I find attractive about IR/ER work is that it permeates everything HR is trying to achieve – an engaged, capable, motivated and diverse workforce.  To attain that colleagues have to feel represented in the workplace. There’s no perfect model for that representation and it depends on the organisation, its history and its context. It’s HR that can help put in place relevant mechanisms, either collective or individual, to help employees find that voice.

What does your current role entail?

I have HR and labour relations responsibility for TUI’s UK and Nordic airlines. We have a number of other airlines in TUI group and we have centralised some of our European airline activities, such as engineering, airport operations and inflight product, and I am responsible for HR and change in these functions too.

I look after the relationship with BALPA and Unite in the UK. In addition, because I also have regional responsibility and a cross European responsibility for the aviation function I work with colleagues to develop our labour relations strategy with unions and works councils in other countries including Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.

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

It goes back to the importance of employee voice, which isn’t at all a new idea despite some recent HR thinking suggesting otherwise. Unions have been a very important collective form of voice in organisations. In the UK, union activity can be a bit ghettoised although in other parts of the world collective voice permeates the social model so formal collective representation is still valid and valuable and deeply embedded in the workplace. At the same time, individual voice and the opportunity to speak directly to senior leaders is just as critical as collective voice. IR and ER brings balance to both of those two sides. 

From an HR perspective, we have to know when and how to use different opportunities to speak to people, and how we might best hear from them. The Covid crisis has given us new ways to communicate. Before Covid, TUI’s airline boards in the UK and Sweden would travel around airports in both countries meeting pilots, cabin crew and engineers. We would get to see around 15 per cent of airport staff. Now, post-Covid, we are holding online meetings attended by hundreds of people and who are able to put their questions directly to senior leaders. The barriers are really broken down too – we are all getting a glimpse of each other’s home life. It’s more personal and can open the way for more honest interaction in some respects.

What are the current key challenges and trends in HR and industrial relations?

Where and how we work has changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic although it was a trend that was changing anyway. Not all work can be carried out remotely (pilots being an obvious example), so people are working in a hybrid way, working both in the office and virtually. This means HR will need to redefine workplace communities – we will need to find ways to create and develop teams and make people feel as if they are part of a community, no matter where they are working from. That’s going to be a challenge. 

For me, what’s also missing at the moment are those chance, informal conversations that take place before a meeting or at someone’s desk, for example. These are the conversations that can oil the wheels of the business, we can’t afford to lose them.  Currently, meeting online means every conversation is pre-planned, so it’s tricky. However, HR will have to make sense of issues like this.  We haven’t got all the answers yet but we are working towards them. 

For example, at TUI, one area we have looked at is onboarding. We are aware that currently new staff don’t have the same means of building relationships with their teams and leaders they would normally have had because people are working virtually. To make up for that, we are planning for extra dialogue and meetings to take place. That needs to become normal practice.

With regard to the union movement, I think we are at a bit of a watershed moment. New unions such as the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) are challenging some of the core principles of the long-established unions whose models are not set up to engage those workers not in permanent workplaces.  The IWGB has managed to establish a strong voice for gig economy workers and others by thinking differently and organising successful campaigns. The bigger and more well-established trade unions need to be more nimble if they are going to continue to be relevant and grow.

Interview by Rima Evans 

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