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The IR Guru Interview:

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

Philippa Stokes – People Director – Global Employee Relations And Compliance, Rolls-Royce

“The concepts of trust, honesty and engagement are critical, so organisations will have to work even harder to find common ground and be honest about the changes.”

How did you end up on a career path you did?

I graduated with a degree in French and linguistics then joined the Royal Mail Group personnel graduate trainee scheme, moving quickly into internal comms specialist roles. I moved to the Automobile Association to take up an internal comms role, a job which evolved to include employee relations and policy. There, I decided to go further into mainstream HR and employee relations rather than go down the corporate comms route.

I joined BA in October 2001 just after the 9/11 attacks and what we thought would be the most devastating event to hit the aerospace industry. Of course, now we know differently. My role there was in industrial relations and one of the first consultation pieces I was involved with was on 13,000 job reductions. Every day then was a critical step for the airline’s survival. Eventually at BA, I took on a mix of specialist employee/industrial relations and generalist HR roles. 

Finally, I came to Rolls-Royce in 2011 to take up an HR business partner role. I moved rapidly into the employee relations field working with the aerospace business, and then into a group level role working with the land and sea division before taking on my current position. 

What were the main challenges you faced along the way? 

I’ve had the good fortune to work for big brands with highly unionised workforces but most of those have had a strong UK focus. A big challenge for me was gaining international experience. I eventually got that coming to Rolls-Royce but it had been a stumbling block for me when going for roles previously. Global exposure is critical.   

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

Joining an airline just after 9/11 was definitely a formative moment. The extraordinary circumstances showed so clearly the impact of effective employee relations on the business – it felt like the stakes were high. It gave me some fantastic experience and helped me build courage in dealing with a difficult industrial relations environment. 

Living through a tough difficult and high-profile dispute at BA was also ‘character-building’. We had a few of these but one in particular involved multiple, concurrent bargaining group disputes, where a number of us were working alongside each other with different groups and constantly connecting on progress. Experiences like this give you an understanding and insight you just can’t get in any other way. 

Being an HR generalist and having good experience across the HR spectrum (training and development, reward and so forth) has also been invaluable. It adds to your credibility when trying to advise on various issues and when negotiating.  The same goes for having business and commercial exposure.  In order to be able to communicate something to your workforce, you have to show an understanding of it yourself.

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

It’s about human relationships. Looking back, I now realise what I found interesting about studying languages: it’s all about the subtleties of how people connect with each other and how they build relationships. Language can be pivotal in making or breaking relationships – unintentionally, damage can be caused by poor communication. So, organisations have to get that right and ER is critical to that.

I also believe that in every situation there is common ground. There is always a solution to a people-based problem, the question is whether those involved are willing and able to find and then accept that solution. 

What does your current role entail?

I report to the chief people officer and am part of the People Leadership Team. The job involves strategy, planning and thought leadership as opposed to day-to-day employee relations and operations issues. There are times I work on the latter, perhaps if there’s an international dimension, such as involving a European works council or if there are complex issues to address.

I also look after group people policies and employment-related compliance and the HR side of M&A activity, so it’s a role that involves a lot of collaboration and cross-functional working.

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

It flushes out what an organisation really stands for. It’s at the sharp end of organisational culture, there is no hiding place for ER, it’s very revealing of how an organisation deals with any difficult situation, whether that’s a redundancy programme or working through the challenges of Covid-19. Employee relations is also the ultimate in showing up a company’s approach to engagement of its staff.

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

There has been a continuing and developing globalisation trend in the way employee relations is managed and the way trade unions think. Unions have to consider how their own futures are secured, which has meant thinking differently and globally through forming alliances. So, global trade unions and associations are becoming more common – IndustriALL Global Union is an example. However, that’s been tempered a little by retrenchment, events such as Brexit or Covid-19 and some of the more nationalist political agendas that are emerging. 

The way people interact with the world is also increasingly individualistic and technology is making it easier to have a direct, instantaneous employee voice. Now anyone can go online and launch a campaign on any issue – you don’t have to be part of an organised group, such as a trade union, to have an employee voice. That’s a potential threat for trade unions.

Yet, employee relations specialists worth their salt will be embracing that and reinventing their approach in response. They will need to plan employee relations strategies in the full knowledge that workers’ priorities and expectations are different. The concepts of trust, honesty and engagement are critical, so organisations will have to work even harder to find common ground and be honest about the changes. This piece of work will be front and centre, responsibility for it can’t be abdicated to a third party. 

What are some of the challenges? 

Trade union reps have a huge range of responsibilities including being part of discussions on strategy or finances with senior company managers.  They also take on a substantial leadership role and need to be an effective communicator, for example, holding their own during tricky, detailed company discussions. Recent events and the unpredictability of the employment landscape have made union reps’ jobs even harder, they are making decisions on very complex issues that affect the long-term future of their employer.

So, I think employers need to ensure reps are adequately supported. It’s in the company’s interest to build relationships with representatives able to make robust assessments and informed decisions so disputes can be avoided.

How do you think the industrial relations/ employee relations role might grow in the next five to 10 years?

What will become more important is being able to manage a broader workplace relationship that goes beyond employees. After all, we are not all employees anymore, workers have multiple employers at the same time and different arrangements, and companies also work very closely with suppliers. And, as I have already mentioned, workers have much more of a direct voice now. They can email the chief executive themselves if they choose, there’s no need to go via representatives.

There will also be a growing emphasis on not just what organisations do, but how they do it, so issues such as sustainability and human rights. This is being driven by the investor community through the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and other measures. This is a big piece of work for ER and will increasingly take the spotlight especially in a post-Covid world.

Interview by Rima Evans

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