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150 years of representation to the benefit of employers and employees

In 1867, trade unions were decriminalised in Britain after a Royal Commission recommended that they were beneficial to employers and employees alike. Some 150 years on, there are around 6.4 million trade union members and many thousands of unaffiliated employee representatives. They play a crucial role in the workplace by providing a vital channel of communication between employees and employers to the benefit of both.

It's a role that has changed in the last thirty years or so, expanding from an initial focus on pay and conditions to a range of employment issues from equality and pensions to learning and the environment.

Keeping representatives at arm's length is to cut off an important conduit of expression. The most effective organisations thrive off trust and the mutual confidence between managers and representatives. By involving representatives whenever possible in wider business issues, trust swiftly develops and both sides can gain reassurance from each other's commitment to the interests of the organisation and its employees.

Giving employees a voice was found by the Macleod Review to be one of the main drivers behind employee engagement. Having a part in decision making can similarly engender a sense of control for employees, which has been shown to help reduce stress levels and boost employee health and wellbeing.

Representatives can be useful sounding boards for managers who want to canvas opinion on specific ideas or gauge the mood of the workforce. A close working relationship will also mean that representatives get an insight into the pressures of the commercial environment and an understanding of the bigger picture in terms of organisational objectives and business plans.

If a specific issue arises, joint working groups comprising employers and representatives can meet to tackle problems together in a non-confrontational way. By tapping into the expertise and knowledge of employees, solutions can be developed that are suitable for both sides. Usually there's greater employee commitment to recommendations too, because representatives have been involved in the decision-making process from an early stage.

Acas can give practical advice on setting up and keeping good relations at work. Acas provides detailed information about all aspects of Representation, including the Advisory booklet - Representation at work. Acas also offers a range of related training courses, such as Negotiating skills and facilitation.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.

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