Why do I need to know about it?
Organisations’ negotiating skills (or perhaps lack thereof) have been headline news frequently this year, most notably in the transport sector. Also never far from the headlines has been Brexit, and the question of whether the UK government has the clout to negotiate a favourable post-EU deal.
The most obvious area many in HR will need negotiating skills for is industrial and employee relations. “Enterprises often stand or fall on the quality of their relationship with their staff,” points out Paul Sellers, pay policy officer at the TUC. “A key part of the HR professional’s role is to ensure that staff are not just treated as another factor of production.”
But being able to negotiate is a skill that goes far beyond industrial relations. “Negotiation is basic to accomplishing work as an HR profession,” says Deborah Kolb, professor at Simmons College School of Management, and author of Negotiating at Work: Turning Small Wins into Big Gains. “When HR leaders ignore chances to negotiate for resources, for flexibility, for assignments, for support on a risky venture, among many other issues, they fail to take control over levers for their own career success.”
Caroline Nugent, HR and OD director at oneSource and president of the Public Service People Managers’ Association (PPMA), highlights that without trade unions to negotiate with, those in the private sector are in danger of their skills getting rusty. “Many private sector companies don’t have trade union recognition as HR’s never had to deal with them. Therefore they have lost skills dealing with things like strikes,” she warns, emphasising the need for all HR professionals to keep this skillset polished.
What do I need to know?
“It’s important to know from the outset what the deal breakers are, and to stick to your guns on those issues. You then need to ask yourself how important the other issues are and whether concessions can be made in respect of them,” says David Browne, a partner at Shakespeare Martineau with extensive experience advising on restructures, TUPE and trade union relations. “It is also crucial to remember that you should never go in with your best offer at the first time of asking.”
A degree of flexibility may be more pertinent in some situations than others. “Think on your feet; don’t walk in with just the answers you expect,” advises Nugent. She also advocates walking away without grudges to try again at a later date if no solution can be reached.
Where can HR add value?
“Trade unions can be a valuable ally, not least in arguing for necessary areas like training and development. Negotiations, and the broader relationship that should underpin them, are also an opportunity for HR to establish a genuinely independent dialogue with the workforce,” says Sellers.
“Although often undervalued, a well-judged and sophisticated HR hand in negotiations is often the key to a mutually beneficial outcome and to long-term organisational success.”
The impartiality HR might bring can also be a boon. “HR can often be seen as independent and not emotionally bound to the subject of the negotiation. It can play a key role in defusing the situation,” explains Browne.
“HR professionals will often be more informed than most about key issues affecting the organisation, and that knowledge can be persuasive,” he adds.
In terms of negotiating internally, perhaps with the board or other directors, bear in mind you can create a ripple effect. “When you negotiate about everyday work practices you are not the only one to benefit. You also create small wins for your organisation; by making promotion and selection fairer and more consistent, for example,” says Kolb.
Negotiation is a skill many throughout an organisation will benefit from, advises Kolb. And so it’s imperative that HR devise L&D initiatives accordingly.
“Conflict is a fact of life in most organisations; we want people from different functions and teams to come together to develop and execute policies and programmes and inevitably there will be disagreements about the best paths to choose,” she says.
“So HR has a major role to play in helping their organisations develop their negotiating capacity. For if people know how to negotiate effectively they can turn their differences into agreements that all members of a team can buy into.”