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Promoting positive social dialogue

The recession has created many challenges for employment relations in Europe. In such challenging times, it is important to stress one of the EU's core values; the strong belief that employers and employees are dependent on each other. Dialogue between them is crucial and should be constructive.

Employees need to be empowered to engage in this dialogue. It's in everyone's interest to create a healthy society, promote innovative and dynamic industrial sectors, and maintain healthy labour conditions. This is achieved by ensuring participation in organisational decision-making, informally and formally, and at all levels. 

A European Commission (EC) funded project called New European Industrial Relations (NEIRE) has explored employers’ experiences with and expectations towards their negotiation partners in organisations – the employee representatives (ERs) – with the aim of outlining paths for improving social dialogue for innovation. Studies were conducted in 11 EC member states: Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom. 

The findings, which are outlined in a new handbook, highlight a number of suggestions from employers on how to improve social dialogue. These include: 

  • Providing simple and flexible structures for social dialogue. Many HR managers expressed the wish for more comprehensive and less ‘heavy’ structures of employee representation. There is a tendency to have stronger ties with the ERs who work in the company, compared with shop stewards who are employed by unions. In small organisations where informal dialogue is working, the structure of ERs was sometimes considered as less necessary. 
  • Promoting more innovative and less ideological trade unions. Employers in most countries expressed appreciation for ERs. Nevertheless, there is a sense among businesses that unions should be more adaptive to economic developments. 
  • Investing in informal relations. A key factor mentioned by many HR managers was to develop good and task-focused informal relations. Within each country the studies demonstrated clear differences between organisations and between sectors. In Belgium, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, for example, management widely uses informal communication prior to officially starting to negotiate. 
  • Developing the competencies of ERs. European employers said they prefer strong counterparts at the table and there is a general opinion among them on the need to professionalise the ER's role and provide suitable training to develop technical competencies. This training should include subjects such as business and management, but also help to further cultivate other skills such as communication and negotiation. 
  • Making the role of ER attractive. Many HR directors expressed concern about the recruitment of motivated ERs. Some possibilities put forward included rewarding the role of ER as part of career management, promoting adequate remuneration for ERs, and involving ERs for shorter periods or in specific project assignments, instead of longer commitments. 
  • Building trustTrust is recognised as key in the relationship between management and ERs. Employers need to be transparent and promote open communication in order to grow trust. 
  • Building on constructive conflict management. Promoting constructive management of conflicts is seen as important by many HR managers, and in general they believe that employers can contribute to that. Some of the companies studied use working groups consisting of the employer and ERs to overcome potential conflicts prior to negotiations. Members of these groups are selected based on expertise.

The project also explored ways to promote more efficient participation by ERs in decision-making processes, and improve the standard of organisational agreements.

The quality and innovativeness of these agreements has become increasingly important as a result of the growing pressure caused by globalisation and the ongoing financial crisis.

Patricia Elgoibar is an assistant professor at IÉSEG School of Management