In the latest UnionDues podcast, we take a deep dive into the world of mediation. And goodness knows we need to, because unresolved conflict is reported to cost UK businesses £33bn a year. That’s not to mention the stress and misery that unresolved conflict causes workers and their unions. Is beefed up mediation a way forward?
Mediation is about “disagreeing well.”
Rising to this challenge is David Liddle, a vastly experienced mediator and CEO of the TCM group. And he’s clear that mediation isn’t just (or even) about reaching agreement. “Whether people agree or not is irrelevant, “ he says “the point is to disagree well.”
And a large part of that, David is clear, is down to business leaders ( “Good leaders need to hear from people who are going to challenge them.”) and how they are rewarded – “If all we are rewarding is financial success, then that’s all our CEOs….will be driven to achieve.”
The HR community also do not escape scathing scrutiny, responsible, according to David, for “fanning the flames of fury and anger” with a procedure-driven, litigation-centred approach supported by grievance and discipline policies that “are the antithesis of everything that makes a good human being.”
From one-off cure to long lasting prevention.
He makes good, telling points, but it seems to me there are two clear challenges – the first is how to move from a short-term one-off reactive intervention to meet a particular dispute or some other need, to long-term prevention.
And secondly, how to secure wider buy-in for this approach. Look at structural barriers such as out-sourcing and precarious work. Look too at the rash of “fire-and-rehire” efforts (and a shout out to the GMB, and a great campaign to stop this happening at British Gas which we also review in the podcast).
There’s no doubt David is sincere, articulate and fundamentally correct that person-centred employment policies and a genuine, robust commitment to dialogue makes for better business sustainability. It’s refreshing to hear a bold call for “a new social contract” that “will be the driver of successful businesses of the future.”
Building back better?
This language is important. We hear, almost incessantly, that we need to “build back better” after Covid. But despite many weighty signatures supporting the Compass-inspired declaration, we don’t seem to have either built a coalition delivering change or found a Beveridge-esque figures to galvanise opinion.
Slowly pieces of a jig saw are being placed on the table. We don’t have the complete picture yet, nor necessarily have any two pieces that link up with each other. But look at the Unions21/SPERI report on adapting and growing collective voice, the call for Social Rights enforceable in law, and (of all people from all places) the “things can’t be the same” pitch from new CBI Director General Tony Danker. David’s “social contract” is in very interesting company.
I recognise, though, we are walking something of tightrope here. It’s easy to see how a “person-centred policy” can bring intolerable pressure for workers. Real-time performance monitoring, for example. Firms like Accenture proudly boasted of abolishing annual appraisals, but is this alternative actually worse? And aren’t we entitled to see grievance procedures as a refuge and a response to management excess?
Real and reinforcing barriers.
And those structural barriers are real and reinforcing – government policy, one-sided flexibility at work, uneven use of technology in favour of low wage, precarious employment. And recent political history teaches us to be watchful for (and suspicious of) political leaders and those who promise much but make no provision for delivering anything.
Back to the podcast – and without giving away too much, it was an animated back-and-forth conversation. David invited me, as soon as we are able, to walk down the high street and work out why some businesses have survived and some not. He’s pretty sure that the former would be those adapting the confident, pro-active, person-centred approach. Regrettably, I’m not so sure. But you have to have a vision of where you want to end up.
#Thought4TheWeek and #RadicalRoundup
Also, Prof. Mel Simms looks at the importance of evidence-based policy making, how easy it is to be distracted, and pays tribute to the late Willy Brown1 in her latest Thought for The Week (as an illustration – What percentage of the UK workforce is currently working from home? Listen and see if you are close.) Plus, of course, Josiah Mortimer previews this week’s Radical Round Up.
1 Prof Willy Brown was widely regarded as the father of the Low Pay Commission (of which, full disclosure, I am a member). Listen to this podcast to find out more.
An edited version of this post appears on Left Foot Forward