Christmas of discontent could spill well into 2017

Employment disputes have not been far from the headlines over the festive period, and with Southern Rail staff looking set to strike twice this month, we are seeing what happens when relationships between company management teams and trade unions deteriorate. Industrial action is looking a very real possibility, and it appears little to no productive conversations are going on between the parties involved.

The so-called “Christmas of discontent” had a theme of acrimony between trade unions and employers, with talks breaking down and the threat of strikes. It would be easy to characterise the sides as being in a continuous battle against each other, but the reality is likely very different.

In truth, ongoing communication, collaboration and consultation between workers and employers determines the manner of the relationship when it comes to matters of employment dispute.

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If a dispute gets to the point of making national headlines, the cooling of that relationship has more than likely begun long before.

Behind the scenes, conversations are going on between the parties in order to avoid disputes being played out in a more public forum.

This dialogue between the parties helps make positions clear before disputes get out of hand.

New strike ballot legislation is expected to take effect this year, with critics saying it could not only make industrial action harder to achieve, but also polarise employers and unions further.

This makes the need for good working relationships more important if costly and disruptive staff disputes are to be avoided.

Leaving aside collective action, procedures governing employment consultations have been available for some time , but the devil is in the detail.

For employers, pitfalls can lie in a number of places and the pressure of handling a consultation can lead to essential legal requirements being overlooked: failing to appoint an appropriate number of employee representatives; poor timing of staff consultations; a lack of understanding of what type of consultation must take place; failing to identify when a consultation is required. All can have major financial and practical repercussions.

While not as headline-grabbing as trade union disputes, a poorly handled consultation can mean an employee leaves a company with a sour taste and potentially grounds for an Employment Tribunal claim.

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Strong communication from employers helps reassure staff, while an open-door policy ensures grievances – individual or collective – can be dealt with at source.

Sharing long-term strategies with employees and their representatives can help alleviate concerns and go a long way towards achieving long-term working relationships built on mutual trust and respect.

From Article 50 being triggered and the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit to Donald Trump’s presidency, 2017 could be another turbulent year.

If the end of 2016 is anything to go by, employment disputes will be a continuing theme. Employers and those who represent employees must ensure good consultation and establish open, honest lines of communication to resolve disputes before they break down beyond repair.

Ann Frances Cooney is a senior associate at HBJ Gateley