21/08/2013 - 16:01

Workplace relations a two-way street

21/08/2013 - 16:01


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Business should look a little closer to home before expecting the government to decree how it deals with staff.

Workplace relations a two-way street

Business should look a little closer to home before expecting the government to decree how it deals with staff.

Business seems to be always complaining about the influence of the unions in government and on current employment law, and how those factors hinder productivity.

And there’s no shortage of advice from business about what the government should do about it.

Well, what about a bit self help?

Sure, union influence on the shape of employment law has an effect on how employers manage and utilise their employees’ skills and experience, but employers need to start making what they can out of what they have.

A core issue affecting employee productivity that faces many businesses and their managers is the employer-employee relationship. Many managers do not like pushing employee ‘buttons’ for fear of not getting the reaction they expected – they feel it is all too hard and all too unpredictable, and then call on government to make the management of employees easier.

Well, the management of employees, be they good or bad, productive or not, is always difficult and always needs attention. Legislation won’t change that; legislation will only change the way in which employee dissatisfaction is expressed and can be managed.

Let’s look at collective negotiations. It is disturbing how many negotiations are started with the employer seeking nothing more than to minimise change in labour costs and retaining the status quo. That avoids confronting the workforce with changes that will improve productivity.

If those employers were serious about productivity they would be using the bargaining process to improve their employees’ contribution to the success of the business.

These employers would be conducting audits of the attributes possessed and behaviour exhibited by their workforce. This will enable the identification of improvements in the way employees are managed and utilised. 

The focus on the employees what employees are paid needs to change to the focusing on the cost of labour needed to provide the service or produce the product.

The strategy of seeking productivity improvements in exchange for increased earnings is the dominant negotiation position an employer should take.

Under the current law, a collective agreement can only be made between employers and employees. Unions may seek to be bound by them, but cannot make them.  That provides a very powerful opportunity for the employer who wants to seize it.

Of course some employers operate in industries that are subject to a high degree of union militancy. The militancy of unions in those industries is dependent on the depth of influence they exercise over employees, their bank balance, and their strategic position in the industrial environment. Individual employers can only deal with the influence over employees.

Businesses in Australia are generally not supported in their efforts to improve productivity at the bargaining table by their customers, and seldom strategically collectivise with their competitors; they fight to the last drop of somebody else’s blood. 

When they do collectivise, they adopt the strategy of minimal change and minimal or no productivity improvement. In such a bargaining environment, they are participating with one hand tied behind their back.

The answer: understand your employee relations environment; analyse how employee productivity can be improved; determine a level of reward for both the employer and employee commensurate with the improvements; maximise industry support for your postion; open the negotiations and maintain the initiative; and talk directly to your employees and not solely through their representatives.  

Remember that any agreement is just that – an agreement between an employer and its employees and nobody else.

Of course negotiations to develop a cost-effective framework for terms and conditions of employment is only one part of the productivity equation.

Employees still need to be managed effectively.  Employees still need material and equipment that is fit for the purpose and available when required to be able to effectively work.

Steve Scott is director at Perth-based Strategic Human Resources


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