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Social media needs to be taken seriously warns Acas

Thursday 02 December 2010

The employment relations service Acas has warned that the rise of social media could see more and different forms of unofficial unrest used in future disputes.

The accessibility and speed of tools such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook mean that workers can be mobilised quicker than ever before according to Acas Chief Conciliator Peter Harwood.

Speaking at the joint Acas / IDS conference on bargaining and industrial relations prospects for 2011 he said:

"New technology is changing the way in which workers are able to organise. Demonstrations and flash mobs can be arranged at the touch of a button and they can communicate in seconds, not just nationally but internationally. Last year's wildcat strikes at the Lindsey oil refinery are a case in point.

"The Lindsey dispute was characterised by the setting up of networking groups. There was a website and text message and email groups, enabling demonstrators to communicate rapidly across the country and to expand the action to over twenty other major construction sites within hours.

"The threat of unofficial industrial action is one that both employers and unions are wary of. The lack of official leadership in such disputes means negotiating can be complex and a resolution harder to achieve.

"Employers and unions need to understand the role of new technology and not just leave it to their IT departments."

Underlining the importance of getting industrial relations right in the first place the Chief Conciliator added:

"New media can pose new problems but the solutions are still from the old school – prevention is better than cure. It is essential that employers, managers, and trade union representatives improve communication and engagement, so that potential issues that may cause conflict are aired and listened to and early action taken."

The conference was chaired by Acas Chair Ed Sweeney and speakers included IDS Pay Report Editor Ken Mulkearn and IDS Head of Pay & HR Services Alastair Hatchett.

Delegates also heard from Acas Chief Executive John Taylor who used his speech, with BT's Tom Keeney, to highlight the value of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) – a service where Acas leads the way.

He said:

"When ADR is introduced at the very early stages it can prevent a disagreement developing into an entrenched dispute with the distance between the two parties increasing at each step of the conflict.

"Issues are best resolved in the workplace. Resolving disputes without going to court can save time, money and stress for both parties."

Notes for editors

1) Full list of speeches and speakers:

  • The Role of Employment Law in the Economic Recovery - Edward Davey MP, Minister for Employment Relations, Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS)
  • The Economic Outlook - Ken Mulkearn, Editor, IDS Pay Report
  • The Future of National Collective Bargaining - Alastair Hatchett, Head of Pay & HR Services, IDS
  • The Role of The New Social Media in Industrial Disputes - Peter Harwood, Chief Conciliator, Acas
  • The Trade Union Agenda for 2011 - Frances O'Grady, Deputy General Secretary, TUC
  • Economic Recovery, Engagement and Industrial Relations - Nita Clarke, Director of IPA and was Vice-Chair of the Macleod Review, and an HR Manager
  • The Alternative Dispute Resolution Process in Action - John Taylor, Chief Executive, Acas with Tom Keeney, Head of Employee Relations and Resourcing, BT plc
  • Legal Developments on Ballots and Industrial Action - Professor Keith Ewing, Kings College London

2) The phrase "alternative dispute resolution" (ADR) refers to a range of voluntary processes involving a neutral third party that brings two sides together to resolve disputes without having to resort to litigation. In most cases, this means the two parties working together to find a mutually acceptable agreement. ADR can be described across a continuum and can involve anything from low-level facilitation to high-level intervention – from arranging an informal meeting to discuss the next step to accepting the binding decision of an arbitrator where parties have reached an impasse.

Acas Collective Conciliation helps parties to make progress towards the resolution of their dispute in 9 out of 10 cases. Six in 10 collective conciliation customers report that the conciliation that Acas provided helped to avoid strike action. It also brings wider benefits to the parties in terms of improvements to the employee relations climate. An independent assessment of the economic impact of the Acas Collective conciliation service found that every £1 spent on the service saved the economy over £90 (A review of the Economic Impact of Employment Relations Services delivered by Acas, Pamela Meadows 2007.)

3) Acas' aim is to improve organisations and working life through better employment relations. It provides information, advice, training and a range of services working with employers and employees to prevent or resolve problems and improve performance. It is an independent statutory body governed by a Council consisting of the Acas Chair and employer, trade union and independent members.

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