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Consultation at work - time to clarify the meaning and purpose: Gill Dix

Tuesday 13 May 2014

There has been an explosion in employee involvement in Britain, but it's in the language used to describe it, rather than the incidence. Terminology is beginning to sprawl: engagement, consultation, communication, direct and indirect involvement, representation, voice and more. But if the meaning of different forms of involvement become conflated, is there a danger that we may take our eye off its real purpose?
Gill Dix

Gill Dix

Gill Dix is Head of Strategy at Acas.

Take consultation at work: a method for allowing employees to have their say and contribute to decisions. It's a statutory requirement in some aspects of health and safety, and redundancy, but what about consultation on other workplace and bigger business questions?

Evidence indicates that effective consultation can pay dividends in how people feel about their jobs and their workplace, but also that consultation provides opportunities for innovation and better quality of decisions making. More managers are also saying that they consult their staff: according the latest Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS), four out of five (80%) managers said they wouldn't introduce change at work without consulting employees first, an increase from 72 per cent in the 2004 study.

However, two new Acas-commissioned reports on worker representation and joint consultative committees have dug deeper, looking at the structures and nature of consultation. For those who believe that consultation is an important ingredient in productive workplaces, there are some findings that make for uncomfortable reading.

First, the proportion of workplaces where managers and employee representatives (union and /or non union) meet together in joint consultative committees (JCCs) has remained stable at 8%. But there has been a fall in the proportion of workplaces where there are JCCs at a higher-level in the organisation, where arguably some of the more strategic decisions are being made (from 29% in 2004 to 20% in 2011). Legislation may not have made a difference. Overall, the report concludes that, in spite of the legal framework introduced in 2004 to support employee consultation (the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations) there has been no great shift in the volume of organisations with consultative arrangements. The exception was in medium sized workplaces with 100 to 150 employees where the incidence rose from 9 per cent to 20 per cent.

Next, what about the quality of the consultation? When we are asked our opinions, we like to think that we have a chance to influence the outcome. It may be that the final decision doesn't go our way, but if the process is clear, we can start to understand why.

The proportions of managers saying their normal practice was to use committees at work to seek solutions to problems was consistent and moderately widespread with 40 per cent mainly using this approach when consulting committee members. This sounds like good news, and the figure hasn't changed since 2004. But there were also signs of consultation processes narrowing. The proportion of managers who said they mainly use committees to seek feedback on a range of options had fallen, from 45 to 39 per cent, while those saying they seek feedback on a preferred management option had risen from 9 per cent to 28 per cent. Worker representatives also reported a decline in so-called 'options based consultation'.

It is interesting that the managers who said their workplace had been most hard hit by the recession were the ones more likely to be actively looking to their employees for solutions: the report concludes that 'consultation can thrive when dealing with meaty issues'.

Surveys can only go so far in measuring management motivation. But it seems that managers' attitudes count a lot - those who most actively involved the employees in their thinking via the consultative committees were the ones who saw these groups as most influential. Those who saw them as less influential, in turn, tended not to actively use the committees to seek out ideas.

What about other forms of involvement? According to the WERS survey (van Wanrooy et al, 2013), there was evidence of communication arrangements in just under half of workplaces where senior managers met with employees, and allowed some time for questions; and the greatest area of growth was in communication by email rising from 35 to 49 per cent of workplaces.

But clearly it isn't just about numbers. How do we compare the impact of communication which managers may deem as 'two way in nature' when the format is either electronic, or largely about passing down messages? Perhaps we need to return to the meaning and purpose of different forms of employee involvement. We need to establish 'what works', who benefits and also explore the scope for what one of the report's authors, John Purcell, refers to as 'an integrated approach' to employee involvement, in which a variety of techniques go hand in hand.

7 Comments

  • Posted by Andy Charlwood  |  13 May 2014, 6:06PM

    I agree entirely on this Gill. The thing that struck me when doing the research that underpins the report was how shallow the roots of employee representation seem to be. While we found aggregate stability in the workplace coverage of workplace reps, there was a lot of 'churn' with workplaces that had worker representatives in 2004 without reps in 2011, while many workplaces that had been without representatives in 2004 had developed reps by 2011. This suggested to me that neither employers or workers are clear on the purpose or benefits of worker representation, with much worker representation functioning as little more than window dressing. Given the large amount of evidence on how meaningful worker representation can be a tool both for competitive advantage and social justice, the shallowness of representation in Britain seems like a missed opportunity.

  • Posted by ellen dacey  |  15 May 2014, 12:52PM

    Hi Gill,

    My manager/s have turned an informal chat over a coffee into 'informal mediation' between myself and a colleague.

    1. Manager not a qualified mediator

    2. No further discussions or minutes produced post 'informal medaiton'.

    3 Notes produced 2 yrs post 'informal mediation' and being used against me to instigate formal investigation and now disciplinary hearing. 

    NOTE: to any employee do not sit with your manager/s for a cuppa.

     

     

  • Posted by Gill Dix  |  16 May 2014, 3:46PM

    Hi Ellen

    Thank you for your reply. The Acas Helpline offers practical advice on workplace matters if you are looking for specific advice.

  • Posted by ellen dacey  |  31 March 2015, 11:24PM

    hi gill,

    ive just read your response due to being very busy .... since my informal cuppa with manager and colleague (2011) the same colleague instigated formal complaints against me in the form of unsigned and unsubstantiated letters March 2012 which i got to see in July, followed by an investigation which i was refused to have my named persons called and received via email from the IO the list of allegations under investigation 3.5 months into the investigaiton (3:5 allegations mirror statements written by other members of staff and secretly placed on my personal file - c/o DP SAR), the untrained IO (ex work buddy of my dir manager) concluded on the balance of probabilities i was guilty - Dec 2012, this followed 2  reviews (1st at my request) which was in my favour (2nd at employers request undertaken by another friend of a friend) finally i go to a disciplinary hear April - August 2014 and was summarily dismissed for gross misconduct.

    now off to ET in June - practical adivce on workplace matters!!! 

    if only i had been told about my 'Gross Misconduct'

    if only i had not been allowed to have worked throughout the time i was conducting such 'actions'

    if only my employer had followed their own policies and procedures (oh i forgot ... they were using a 6 yr out of date policy)

    if only my employer had allowed me to call my persons to attend my discipinary

    if only the selectively chosen former managers and colleagues were aware of the allegations under investigation and disciplinary haring - none of them could but said i was not a team player ....

  • Posted by Chris Brown  |  11 July 2016, 4:14PM
    Please can you tell me if unsigned allegations be used against me in a disciplinary hearing
  • Posted by ellen.daisy@ntlworld.com  |  28 August 2016, 8:32PM

    hi  chris (brown) just read your comment - i use to work for Cardiff and Vale University Health Board who used unsigned and unsubstantiated letters which did NOT list allegations to commence an investigation.  months into the investigation the IO sent me an email listing the 7 allegations (3 from S Daw and 2 from J Kemp), but during the disciplinary hearing when i tried to pass the said email down the table to S Daw - HR bod took it from me !!! So you see the email FROM THE INVESTIGATING OFFICER was a 'secret' - at the Employment Tribunal i took S Daw to B1 page 303 ... aka THE EMAIL she clearly had never seen this list of allegations and said 'these are not my allegations, my complaints are my letters' (remember .... unsigned & unsubstantial).  finally to end my living nightmare (now retired registered nurse) S Daw said 'i knew of the dismissal but not the reason'.

    ps i was substantively unfairly dismissed aka won my case against CAVUHB as a litigant hip, hip hurrah x

    (but my case was procedurally unfair also) so its gone to EAT

    Chris... If you a union bod ...

    what are they saying and doing about the unsigned allegations?

    have the letters got typed name, but not signed? OR NO NAME?

    [i requested the unsigned letters to be signed and they were prior to disciplinary hearing = 2 yrs later lol]

    would like to hear from you about your case - if you ok with that?

    use my email - ellen.daisy@ntlworld.com

  • Posted by ellen.daisy@ntlworld.com  |  28 August 2016, 8:34PM

    hi  chris (brown) just read your comment - i use to work for Cardiff and Vale University Health Board who used unsigned and unsubstantiated letters which did NOT list allegations to commence an investigation.  months into the investigation the IO sent me an email listing the 7 allegations (3 from S Daw and 2 from J Kemp), but during the disciplinary hearing when i tried to pass the said email down the table to S Daw - HR bod took it from me !!! So you see the email FROM THE INVESTIGATING OFFICER was a 'secret' - at the Employment Tribunal i took S Daw to B1 page 303 ... aka THE EMAIL she clearly had never seen this list of allegations and said 'these are not my allegations, my complaints are my letters' (remember .... unsigned & unsubstantial).  finally to end my living nightmare (now retired registered nurse) S Daw said 'i knew of the dismissal but not the reason'.

    ps i was substantively unfairly dismissed aka won my case against CAVUHB as a litigant hip, hip hurrah x

    (but my case was procedurally unfair also) so its gone to EAT

    Chris... If you a union bod ...

    what are they saying and doing about the unsigned allegations?

    have the letters got typed name, but not signed? OR NO NAME?

    [i requested the unsigned letters to be signed and they were prior to disciplinary hearing = 2 yrs later lol]

    would like to hear from you about your case - if you ok with that?

    use my email - ellen.daisy@ntlworld.com

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