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The IR Guru Interview:

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

Nigel Lewis, Director of Employee Relations and Policy, BBC

“If people are given the opportunity to have some influence they are more likely to accept change and that change is more likely to be successfully embedded.”


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

I joined the Lloyds Bank management trainee scheme in the 1980s and was on a career path to becoming a bank manager. A development opportunity saw me move across to HR in the compensation and benefits field. That was supposed to be a short-term placement but a further opportunity led to a role in industrial relations. This was a turning point in my career. I loved it, it gave me a new vocation, one which I have pursued ever since.

I did two or three different IR jobs at Lloyds before moving to TSB, when it relaunched back onto the high street as a new challenger bank following the financial crisis of 2008. I was responsible for setting up, then leading its employee relations function. 

I moved to the BBC in 2016 as Head of Employee Relations and Policy, before taking on my current role.  

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

The financial crisis was the most challenging and significant event during my career, in terms of the impact it had on employee relations. Almost overnight, Lloyds stepped in to buy/rescue HBOS, a move at speed that was unprecedented given the size of the two banks.

For five or six years, we went through a massive amount of restructuring. Everything changed. There were significant challenges around merging cultures and harmonisation of terms and conditions. It also meant the number of unions we were dealing with suddenly doubled. Although we had Unite in common, the main unions across the two banks were very different (Accord at HBOS and Lloyds Trade Union at Lloyds). There were important union negotiations and consultations almost every single day for a couple of years – it was certainly a challenging and exciting experience. In addition to that, we had years of ongoing redundancy programmes to deal with in the aftermath of the financial crisis. ER was at the forefront of enabling all this change.

A significant career move was deciding to leave the Lloyds ‘mothership’ and move into TSB when it relaunched on the high street. It gave me my first experience of being part of the senior leadership team.

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

It seemed incredibly exciting to me. I think it puts you at the very forefront of the business agenda. You get involved with issues at an early, confidential stage. Being involved in every bit of an organisation gives you tremendous understanding of how it works and how it is changing. 

I have always loved debating and felt I was good at conflict resolution. ER has been an arena where I can use those skills to facilitate discussion and find solutions to get to an agreed outcome. When you are successful, it can be immensely rewarding.

What does your current role entail?

I have overall responsibility for the union relationships and employment policies. We recognise a number of unions but the main two are Bectu, which represents workers in the media and entertainment industries, and the National Union of Journalists. It’s not rocket science. All things said and done, it’s about building and maintaining trusted relationships and developing policy that supports the business strategy, culture and employee proposition.

Since I joined the BBC, I have undertaken a major review of terms and conditions. We have been successful in negotiating a new set of employment terms and conditions across the whole organisation using a different approach. This involved joint working with unions to first highlight issues, agree the agenda for change, develop different options and redraft many policies from scratch. We separated this activity from the negotiations, only engaging in senior level union and BBC leadership talks once those working parties had developed proposals based on the principle of the ‘best that could be achieved through joint working’. Only then did negotiations and staff consultation take place, before eventually being put to a ballot of union members and a final agreement. 

The process took the best part of three years. This is a long time but not only did it result in an unprecedented agreement, it reset the union/BBC relationship and how we work with our unions.

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

Employee relations is about engaging the workforce, whether that is through its policies and practices or how it manages change. It’s how employers deal with change, how they give employees a voice and say in what happens. If people are given the opportunity to have some influence they are more likely to accept change and that change is more likely to be successfully embedded. Doing this badly will cost time, money, reputation and talent.

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

Developing relationships based on trust and integrity in order to get things agreed are the basics of ER and I don’t think that has changed at all. However, there has been a move in recent years to broaden out the focus of employee relations.  

When I started, it was about industrial relations – dealing with the unions and being legally compliant and adhering to your agreements and processes.  

This is still important but the focus has broadened to look beyond union membership and ways of ensuring that all employees have a voice, whether in a union or not. 

We have seen the rapid growth of social media and along with it, employees forming groups for specific interests or a specific issue.  How employers interact or recognise those groups can be challenging. How does that sit alongside the traditional union relationships and consultation frameworks? We aren’t structured to deal with that, there are no rules of engagement or agreements in place on how a WhatsApp group should behave or interact – and how we should interact with them. This is unlike the formal consultation machinery in place, based on recognition agreements and industrial relations law, and which has established a common understanding of how people should behave and interact.

When to engage or when not to engage is an important consideration. As an employer you may find yourself involved in talks alongside the unions and sharing different pieces of information with various groups at different times. I am certainly still finding my way with this. 

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

We are heading into a very different world with new ways of working. We were on that path even before Covid-19 hit, the pandemic has just accelerated it all. There is going to be significant change and disruption. I think employee relations will be more important than ever. Without an effective employee voice there’s a chance we won’t get to optimum outcomes. 

It’s going to be interesting to see how the unions engage. A union that wants to problem solve and work in partnership to reach the best possible outcomes will be very valuable. They will have to find ways of staying relevant and attractive to members and future members. 

Interview by Rima Evans

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