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Train HR managers to cope with strikes

Joe Williams , 21 Jan 2011

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With the result due today of Unite's ballot on industrial action over British Airways, HR practitioners should ensure that managers are trained to adopt the right behaviour.


Industrial action appears to be in vogue. Strikes have recently been threatened or carried out by public servants in response to the Government’s £80 billion spending cuts, which are set to kick in when the new financial year starts in April. Len McCluskey, general secretary elect of Unite, Britain’s biggest union, says workers have a democratic right to protest against these cuts and any prospective job losses. With the prime minister saying he won’t back down in the face of forthcoming strikes, a potential showdown appears to be looming.

However, it is not just the UK’s deficit that has sparked a deep sense of injustice. London Underground drivers have threatened to strike over a pay dispute on the day of the royal wedding (29 April). Private sector companies – such as AstraZeneca, British Airways and Coca-Cola – have also recently experienced costly strike action. Indeed, the result of the BA cabin crew ballot on whether to strike again over the Easter period will be known later today.

Laying aside the issue of who is to blame for industrial unrest, the point is that if a strike hits your organisation, it can divide your workforce: some will support the action, others will oppose it. Any managers who get caught in the middle will immediately face a very difficult situation. Many of them will have never handled anything like this before. So what training are you going to provide to help them through this challenge?

Best behaviour

You can’t just give people a crash course in employment law or, worse still, a simple handbook covering the organisation’s policies on strikes and disciplinary action. Of course, your managers will need to know what’s expected of them and where the lines are drawn. However, what’s really important to get across to them is the behaviour that they will need to adopt and display.

A strike will often involve stress, conflict, dilemmas, frustrations and confused loyalties. Managers must try to remain neutral, respectful and professional. If the situation becomes hostile, they have to see it as a professional dispute and not personal. They may have to deal with workers wanting to take sympathy action or strikers asking to return to work. At all times, they will need to communicate effectively and provide support as well as leadership. Then, once the strike is over and everyone returns to work, they will have to overcome any lingering animosity and build bridges, so that the striking and non-striking staff can work together productively again.

These questions can be brought to life for groups of managers at a time. A facilitator can promote discussion around how managers would handle specific situations which may arise. There are resources available which can help*. However, a key thing to instil is the need for managers to set an example by role-modelling the behaviour they want to see in others.

With the increased threat of industrial disputes, HR teams have a responsibility to build the necessary skills within the organisation. This means providing the right development that will enable managers to feel better equipped to deal with a strike situation should it arise. How your managers handle a dispute will have a significant impact on your organisation’s ability to recover and perform again, once the strike is over.

Martin Addison (pictured) is managing Director of Video Arts

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