Consultation at work - time to clarify the meaning and purpose: Gill Dix
Tuesday 13 May 2014There 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 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.