Chartered Management Institute: In My Opinion

Management Today, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Chartered Management Institute: In My Opinion


John Taylor, chief executive of Acas and a CMI Companion, believes improving staff engagement has curtailed the impact of the recession on employment relations.

Has the recession had a Jekyll-and-Hyde effect on employment relations? We sometimes try our best to be the 'good' employer, engaging with our employees and looking after their health and wellbeing, but end up spending as much time (or more) playing the part of the 'bad' employer, intent on expenditure reviews and rationalising staff resources. If this is the case, these personality extremes can be hard to live with. That's especially true when almost half of us at work have known only good times, with economic growth and regular pay rises.

The depth and speed of this recession have come as a shock. We have seen the return of deflation for the first time in nearly half a century, with the introduction of 'quantitative easing' - printing money, to you and me - and a sharp rise in the number of unemployed (up from 2.22 million in March 2009 to 2.46 million in October). Overall, though, the impact of the recession on the UK has been patchy, with some areas hit harder than others. The private sector has suffered more than the public sector, with manu facturing and services experiencing the worst job losses. A study by the Work Foundation identified the core cities of the North East, West Midlands and Scotland as suffering the highest rise in those claiming Jobseeker's Allowance.

One issue people often overlook when analysing the impact of the recession is the relative inexperience of the managers and employees at the front line of employment relations. A whole generation of employers have never had to let people go, and a whole generation of employee and union representatives have never had to sell their colleagues a pay cut to preserve jobs.

In this recession, the old adversarial roles have shifted. Looking after sectional interests often comes second to survival. With the bedrock of financial stability crumbling under us, managers and employees can be unsure how to act. For example, employers might send out positive messages in a well-intentioned attempt to maintain morale during tough times, only to raise expectations about pay levels. Equally, employees may fear they are about to lose their jobs and decide they have nothing to lose by putting in a tribunal application against their employer.

In Robert Louis Stevenson's famous story, Mr Hyde was an incarnation of all of Dr Jekyll's bad impulses. One could argue that the recession has accentuated some of the worst aspects of employment relations - such as unofficial industrial action, rising numbers of individual and collective disputes and the increasing vulnerability of agency and temporary workers. Last January, 600 employees walked out of the Lindsey Oil Refinery in protest at the recruitment and working practices of a sub-contractor. This kind of mass action may become more common, with employees making a bigger statement about their economic hardship Historically, the number of employment tribunal cases rises during difficult times. …

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