Hot Topic: Should employees choose between HR and employee representatives?

"Employees should not have to choose," argues Reward Gateway's chief people officer

Employees seem to be increasingly turning to unions, employee resource groups and consultants to solve disputes with an organisation, rather than relying on internal HR departments. But should employees have to choose between HR and employee representatives?

Is there a place for both? And if so, how can HR work better with employee representatives?

Kerry Smith, chief people officer, British Heart Foundation

There’s no need for an employee to choose between HR and their employee representatives. The key is defining the roles that both play, and the common ground in which they can create a productive and harmonious work environment to support the organisation’s goals.

Employee representatives – whether trade unions, employee recognition groups, change champions or other employee forums – can help to gather opinion from a wider scale than may be possible from an HR team alone.

They can help with communication cascades and feedback, particularly to groups who may not be so easy to reach. The employee voice is critical for any change initiative.

Early engagement with any employee group is key, so that they fully understand what the aim is. In my experience, the involvement of employee representative groups alongside HR can lead to better diagnostics of the challenges, more workable solutions and an opportunity to sustain and embed changes that benefit both the organisation and its workforce.

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Simon White, chief people officer, Blink

Employees deserve and require a space to have open and transparent two-way dialogue with their employer. Whether a third-party representative is involved or not isn’t necessarily the key issue.

Focusing too much on that can be an unhelpful distraction for HR teams. If there is no response to a serious allegation then employees are well within their rights to react.

HR or management teams saying: ‘Trust us, we handled it’, isn’t enough in the modern workplace. Modern HR practitioners need to get comfortable using even more communication options. I’ve worked in unionised and non-unionised environments. The fundamentals have always been the same.

If HR teams engage in two or more ways – regular and transparent dialogue, active listening, acting with integrity, and acting on what they hear – then employees and their representatives will build and maintain trust in them. This in turn will increase what they can achieve together.

Denis Wallace Barnard, director, Green River Technology World 

The fact that employees are turning to outside assistance with their problems is not new. It is very apparent that HR’s true role and purpose are not understood, either in the boardroom or on the shop floor. Everyone’s perceived expectation of the department will inevitably end in disappointment.

This is part of a deeper issue where HR, eager to burnish its credentials for the ‘top table’, has been shouldering responsibility for diversity, equity and inclusion; culture; environmental, social and governance issues; and any other thorny topic that no one else wants to take on.

At the same time, it loses the confidence of the very organisation it sets out to serve. HR cannot be responsible for cultural changes that require endorsement from the top. In the case of the GMB union and its proposed strike over alleged institutional sexism, the situation is clear: action must first be proposed and executed by the union executive, as would be the case in any organisation.

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Nebel Crowhurst, chief people officer, Reward Gateway

Employees should not have to choose between seeking guidance and advice from either HR or employee representative groups or unions. HR has a responsibility to build relationships by creating environments in which people have the opportunity to connect and feel heard.

HR needs to be accessible and approachable, and set out easy ways for employees to access the guidance and support they need. Organisational leaders play a role too, in partnership with HR. We need to work with leadership to ensure that they recognise the importance of open and safe two-way communication, breaking down barriers and perceived hierarchies that could cause employees to hesitate in raising concerns.

Where there is a need to work with employee representative groups or unions, the same level of integrity and trust should be built, making for a more conducive environment with leadership, employee representatives and HR all working together to deliver a better workplace.


This article was published in the May/June 2024 edition of HR magazine.

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