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Industrial Action – plan your responses in case you are caught up or caught out

When the economic climate is troubled, industrial action tends to increase due to several factors – differing political views, general uncertainty, frustration and accentuated problems within organisations.  You can be caught up by such action even though your organisation is not a target.  For example, delivery drivers and service engineers may encounter picket lines when visiting customers’ premises.  The customer and supplier relationship can turn sour if your staff are not briefed on what to do in such situations.   Therefore, it is wise to plan for such issues and to brief staff.    It is assumed for this article that the industrial action is lawful.  Some common aspects are considered below.

Encountering Picket Lines at Customers’ Premises

Often customers will advise you if they are experiencing such action and provide advice about access or alternative arrangements during the action.  What should your staff do if they come across a picket line unexpectedly?  They have the right to pass but must be prepared to stop and listen to the reasons for the action and accept any literature handed out.   However, it is daunting for a member of staff to face a picket line even if he is in a vehicle.  The individual needs to know the company position and what will happen if he follows his own conscience.

The general principle is that the driver or visitor should make it clear that he wishes to go through and if so proceed slowly and be alert to the clearance around the vehicle.   Staff need to know what to do if the picket line is hostile and does not allow a pathway through the line or the individual assesses that it is unsafe to proceed.    Actions you could consider are:

  • The company should ensure that the driver has a hotline to call to seek advice.
  • The company should make contact with the customer if there is any difficulty in getting through the picket line.
  • Give some freedom to the driver to assess the situation and to decide, if appropriate, not to cross the line but he must then park up nearby to notify and seek advice from his company.
  • Inform staff what will happen if they decide not to cross a picket line because of their sympathy with the views/cause of those taking action e.g. will loss of pay result and/or disciplinary action?
  • Should modifications be made to any bonus schemes so that individuals do not feel obliged to take unwise actions to pass a hostile picket line.   If bonus earnings are linked to deliveries/services, staff are likely to be  realistic in assessing whether it is safe to proceed.  Your staff will feel aggrieved th0ugh if their reasonable assessment is that it is not safe to proceed but they lose bonus.  You may wish to amend the scheme to protect their earnings if, for example, missed deliveries are made up within a certain period.

Good relationships with a customer can become fraught if the customer feels that your staff have antagonised the participants in the action with the result that the customer faces more problems.  Briefing staff is an effective action especially as your staff will feel more confident ab0ut what to do and that their company is supporting them.

National Industrial Action Campaigns 

Even if you have good relationships with staff, your organisation may become involved in national campaigns.  In some instances. staff will only wish to take a token form of action and therefore discussing the nature of any action and implications is wise to ensure that the action is understood and how services will or will not be affected.

The real problem emerges when staff feel that the issue is of personal concern and that industrial action is necessary.  The way the campaign is conducted nationally will be outside the control of many organisations.  Even so, managers should discuss with local representatives the nature of the proposed action and ensure that the implications are understood and modified if appropriate.   It is important that staff understand the implications for themselves.   Many employers will take the view that they do not wish to damage the longer term employee relations within the organisation and so will take a balanced view of their response to the action.

Assuming the aim is to try and minimise the effect on the organisation, examples of issues to consider are:

  • Discussion with local representatives to agree:
    • any key/critical services to be maintained.
    • whether or not any facilities will be granted to those on a picket line e.g. access to water supply, toilets.
  • Monitoring arrangements to identify any unexpected issues that arise during the action  and the process to resolve those locally.
  • Clear explanation of the normal flexibility clauses and the extent of cover that may be required during the action (to offset disputes about working to rule).
  • Payment and leave consequences if an individual fails to attend work on a day of industrial action – some staff will take a day off to avoid having to participate and/or cross a picket line.  What policy will you apply about requests for leave, sickness on the day of action or non attendance.
  • Payment implications if an individual does not carry out the normal contractual duties during a period of action – you will need to consider whether it is better to have partial performance and pay staff or require full performance otherwise no payment will be made.  Much will depend on whether the action is for odd days or a continu0us period.
  • Decide the more effective means and tone of the briefing or message to staff re the above matters – ask several staff to read a draft to ensure that it does not have unintended  inflammatory points.

If you decide to accept partial performance, y0u need to make it clear that it will only be accepted for a temporary period and that only part payment will be made equivalent to the partial duties.  The latter can be difficult to assess and this is a grey area in law still.  Thus you may be better to accept partial performance and pay normal salary but c0nditional upon ensuring that includes key activities .   The alternative is not to accept partial performance and to warn staff that they will be sent home without pay if they refuse to perform their contractual duties.  Beware of any staff who continue to attend work and work partially as you need to ensure that they realise that they will be working as volunteers without payment.   Under some pension schemes, days off due to industrial action are regarded as non pensionable days which can not be made up at a later date.

Later, we touch upon the managerial responses if action escalates or turns nasty.

It is also worth checking the terms of customer contracts to ensure that there is some flexibility about service standards when the customer or you experience industrial action.  Check that situations beyond your control includes action against customers otherwise you may find that payment is declined by customers if you do not deliver.

Local Industrial Action

If action is only being taken against your organisation, the history of trust in difficult times will be an important factor in discussions with representatives.  A record of trust will enable constructive discussions to resolve the dispute with minimal disruption in many instances. Similar points as noted above apply.  One additional point is that in local action it is useful to clarify that the different representatives are in agreement about the issues as occasionally that will not be so which can lead to talking at cross purposes.

Some times local industrial action can become entrenched and lead to a damaging situation for the organisation.  You should be prepared to take a firmer but measured approach.  If the situation deteriorates significantly you may need to consider insisting upon contractual performance failing which staff will be sent home without pay until further notice.  The point may come at which dismissals may need to be considered.  Although a drastic step, it may be the only way to signal the determination of the company to survive by seeking a fresh start.  Care is needed though as dismissals during industial action carry high risks even after the protected period of the first 12 weeks.   Being selective about who is rehired is fraught with legal issues and particular advice should be sought about the circumstances and options.

Be Prepared

Planning your responses to the different scenarios will help to deal with industrial action in an appropriate way and seek to minimise the adverse effects your services.

Have you considered your employee relations climate recently and your readiness to respond to industrial action?    An external, objective review with your operational management team will  prepare you and give you confidence that you can respond in a measured way.  Contact us if you would like to undertake a review or seek professional advice via help@hr-management-dimensions.co.uk

Visit our web site to learn about commercially focused hr management solutions to effecting change in your organisation.

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The article is provided for information but does not constitute advice as your circumstances and pertinent facts are not known to us so you should take advice before acting on any points in this article.

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