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Australian Industrial Relations will maintain its B.C. (Before COVID-19) posturing – What can employers do?

By August 12, 2020No Comments

The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the nation to reflect on what is right for the Australian community. Public health concerns compete with economic priorities and notions of civil liberties. To date government, business and the community have responded in a spirit of collaboration and consensus.

Against this backdrop, the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) was established to “anticipate and mitigate the economic and social impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic” (https://www.pmc.gov.au/nccc). Its review includes energy, manufacturing and industrial relations. A range of high-profile stakeholders are involved in the work of the NCCC Industrial Relations working group. Expectations are high amongst some of transformational change.

Industrial Relations provides a national, cultural lens on fairness, flexibility, and economic growth at work. In Australia, Industrial Relations have long been characterised by ‘adversarial bargaining’ – ambit claims, disputes and a ‘win/lose’ mentality. Images of pickets, headlines of exploitation and rip offs. In stark contrast, the initial COVID-19 response from unions and employers was consensus. The Fair Work Commission amended major Modern Awards provisions with the support of employers and unions in a matter of weeks. The conservative Federal Government engaged heavily with the ACTU. JobKeeper amendments to the Fair Work Act were implemented to expand the COVID-19 flexibilities across all workplaces and facilitate the payment of financial subsidies to a significant number of the workforce.

Can employers expect the Federal Government, ACTU, institutional business lobby and indeed the Fair Work Commission itself, to deliver an improved Industrial Relations system? 

Pragmatically it is unlikely that Industrial Relations will move beyond its traditional paradigm. Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter recently identified ‘advanced leadership’ as a key ingredient in delivering transformational change. Kanter suggests an ‘advanced leader’ understands that established social institutions can be barriers to progress if they focus on defending their turf rather than embracing innovative reforms.

With union density having declined from 51 per cent in the mid 1970’s to around 14 per cent today is it plausible to think that unions would post pandemic agree to vacate the Industrial Relations field? Will the Fair Work Commission ever turn its back on its 116 years of history and involvement in shaping Australian workplaces?

While the NCCC review process is not complete, signs of the traditional Industrial Relations posturing is returning. JobKeeper flexibilities are now being reassessed and challenged as the virus continues within the community. The exposure of significant underpayments within the private sector and government agencies and the issuing of injunctions and penalties for inappropriate union conduct have continued.

The broader Industrial Relations system does not define the total connection between an employer and employee. Employers are best advised to focus their efforts at the level of direct influence and greatest return – the employment relationship itself.

The employment relationship sits at the heart of Industrial Relations. From a legal perspective the relationship reflects the rights and relative power between an employer and an employee. At a personal level the direct employment relationship delivers an emotional, behavioural and material connection between people at work – a connection to trust, dignity, aspirations and material value.

As with any relationship it is complex and requires constant attention. For an employer to relinquish the responsibility for the development of an employment relationship to potential Industrial Relations legislative and system change, will continue to be an ineffective strategy.

Best practice ensures that a focus on building trust through honest, direct communication with employees is done on a continuous basis at all levels of the organisation. Ensuring that all actions, systems and processes support the message requires discipline. Employers who wait for an enterprise agreement negotiation to roll around every 3-4 years to talk about the challenges they face will be perceived as cynical (at best). A classic waste of resources that produces only conflict, complexity, distorted relativities and barriers to change.

To be clear this does not mean an unrealistic, Pollyanna approach to the employment relationship. No one expects there to be a culture of ‘toasting marshmallows’ and ‘campfire singing’ at work. Rather the employment relationship should be defined by honest conversations, accountability and behavioural change that achieves improved results for both employees and employers.

To maximise the benefit of the employment relationship, an employer must continue to align its Industrial Relations strategy with its overall Human Resources and broader business strategies and systems. When an employer consistently and honestly communicates to employees its challenges and achievements and supports employees to achieve their best at work – greater productivity, improved employee engagement, and a stronger connection to the customer is achieved. A distinct competitive advantage.

To establish exceptional employment relationships with your team contact Employee Relations Expertise now.