How did you end up on a career path you did?
I started my career as a psychometric testing consultant since my training is in occupational psychology. I accepted an in-house assessment consulting role at British Airways in 2006 then moved into recruitment, HR business partner and then employee relations roles.
I later moved to Heathrow Airport as Head of ER, which was much more of a specialist role involving policy, case work and negotiating with unions, all the elements I enjoyed at BA.
After three years, I moved to Network Rail and became Head of Industrial Relations. This was a draw for me, as it meant I would be working with one of the most challenging unions in the UK, the RMT. It felt like the next step up after having worked with unions such as Prospect, Unite, the GMB, and PCS and being able to establish good working relations with them all.
The job also meant a shift to the public sector, working for the state rather than shareholders and with government involvement too, which added an extra challenge. The role was pure industrial relations, with all the policy and case work split off and looked after by the head of HR operations.
I joined Tesco in September 2019. The attraction was that it’s the largest private sector employer in the country and it also has a partnership style of union relations that I wanted to experience. Mainly, I’m dealing with Usdaw but we also recognise Unite and URTU, the United Road Transport Union. Usdaw is a very different kind of union to the RMT, less ideological and more pragmatic, which has given me even more breadth of experience. It has allowed me to change the way I operate in my role and be less adversarial and more collaborative.
What elements of the role most attracted you to the IR/ER field?
I think ER can be perceived as an area shrouded in mystery and seems to attract robust, straight talking characters but who are very credible and have the ear of senior managers and the chief executive.
For me that was part of the appeal of specialising in this area. I see IR or ER experts as dealing with the most difficult parts of HR, they are the individuals making redundancies happen or renegotiating agreements. It’s a real skill being able to go in a room and come out with an agreement or a deal that nobody thought was possible.
What were the main challenges you faced along the way?
Being at BA during the strikes in 2009/2010 was an important moment for me. I wasn’t involved in the negotiations but I experienced the consequences of the industrial action. BA got most of what it wanted but the experience ended up being extremely divisive among staff and damaging for the company brand and image. It made me realise how important a job it is to try and avoid reaching that point and encouraged me to focus more on employee and industrial relations in my career.
At BA, I also experienced negotiating decisions going against me further up the chain. I learnt not to get too attached to a particular outcome when negotiating if the broader interests of the organisation are being served.
What experiences prepared you most for a career in industrial relations/employee relations?
The RMT lives up its name, they fight for what their members want and if they don’t get what they ask for they ballot for industrial action. In three years at Network Rail, we had four ballots for industrial action for which we generally found resolutions for. Being able to handle those situations gave me a lot of confidence. I felt if I could work constructively with the RMT and achieve good outcomes, I could manage pretty much any negotiations process.
What does your current role at Tesco entail?
My team is responsible for policy, consultation around change and the trade union relationship. I also heavily support negotiations around pay, which unusually I think is led by the reward team at Tesco. I’ve found myself taking much more of a lead in that space due to my experience.
Currently, because of the fast moving Covid-19 situation I’m in talks with unions more frequently than usual to discuss changes as a result of government regulations or changes we need to make to our business to adapt.
Why do you think IR/ER practice is such an important part of the way an organisation is run?
I genuinely believe that ideas are better if they are challenged. Organisations can get to a better outcome if they submit their ideas for scrutiny to a trade union or an employee consultation group. Often, what an organisation puts on the table will be different to what the other side proposes. Yet there can often be a third, more effective way achieved by combining those two sets of ideas. That’s why building relationships is so important. We have to be willing to admit that, as leaders, we might not always have the right answers when it comes to managing a company.
I also think that in eagerness to put in place the HR business partnership model devised by Dave Ulrich often the employee advocate role of the business partner is overlooked. The IR/ER role can help fill that gap particularly in organisations where unions are not present. It’s often us that can see around corners, identify problems, then suggest solutions to those problems and represent the interests of employees and the business as a collective.
What are the current key trends/ innovations in IR/ER?
Covid-19 has forced some innovation through in just a few months that would have otherwise taken years. I never thought we would carry out pay negotiations by video call but that’s exactly what we have had to do. And there have been some major benefits.
For example, every year we have to negotiate separate collective agreements with 22 distribution sites. These deals are complex and time consuming, and involve people travelling all over the country. Although the agreements are supposed to be completed by July every year that target is never met. This year was different. With negotiations taking place through written correspondence and video calls, rather than face-to-face, we managed to agree deals with 11 of the 22 sites by the end of July. It was a much more efficient process.
One of the downsides of that, however, is there can be more scope for misunderstanding. Explaining complex issues is better face-to-face rather than in writing and you can’t read body language as well on a video call.
Covid-19 has also amplified, in my view, the case for moving to electronic balloting. My understanding is that during the early stages of the lockdown there was a period when it was lawfully impossible for a trade union to hold a strike ballot because the scrutineer companies were out of action. I do recognise that from an employers’ perspective, electronic balloting may mean that unions get higher majorities. Nevertheless, I am in favour of it. Not that I want strikes, of course, but I do want employees to be able to genuinely express how they feel about a particular subject of importance.
How do you envisage the IR/ER role might grow in the next five to 10 years?
I think it’s becoming more strategic so the focus is less on case work and instead on negotiating major change or redundancy programmes, IR strategy and policy. The proportion of UK employees who are trade union members is only around 23% so it’s becoming more of a niche skill and difficult to recruit for. This may mean the ER role starts to be merged with aspects that comprise the overall employee experience, such as diversity or wellbeing. BA was perhaps a frontrunner of this trend back in 2012 where policy, case work, diversity and inclusion and wellbeing all fell underneath the employee relations umbrella. I see that as becoming more common over time as the links between all these elements, as well as reward, become more integrated.
Interview by Rima Evans