Feet on the ground

first_img Previous Article Next Article Thenew right to be accompanied at disciplinary and grievance hearings has led towarnings of union recognition by the back door. But such fears are misplaced –even for non-unionised workplaces such as Air Miles, argues Tim CraddockListening to some commentators, 4 September 2000 will go down in the annalsof employee relations as the day the world changed. From that date, all workers(workers, note, not just the narrower definition of staff) have the right to beaccompanied by a trade union official in disciplinary and grievance hearings. No longer does someone subject to a disciplinary hearing have to rely onlyon a work colleague to help him (if he was even allowed that). He now has theright to call on the services of a trade union official, whether or not hisemployer recognises a union. For employers which do not recognise unions, this can seem a major issue.Some have probably never had to deal with a union in their lives. It mayconjure up visions of strikes, pickets and protests. Union officials aresomething to be feared and to be regarded as not quite the sort of people youtake home to mother. Taken together with the recently introduced statutory right to recognition –where unions can “force” recognition if they have sufficient members– the new right to accompaniment is seen by some as opening the floodgates tounion power. Under this argument, unions will use “trojan horse”workers to bring in union representatives to disciplinary and grievancehearings and then the unions will use this as an opportunity to get the otherworkers to join the union. Hey presto, union recognition! So, is this fear justified? Is the new right a back door for unions to forceemployers to recognise them? Does it mean a fundamental shift in the balance ofpower in the workplace back to the union-dominated 1970s? I believe these fears are misplaced. For unionised employers, the right toaccompaniment will have little practical impact as union representatives willalready be able to represent staff at disciplinary and grievance hearings. For companies which are not unionised, it will mean dealing with a newsituation, but certainly not one which should be unmanageable. It will all boildown to how it is approached. The Air Miles approach Air Miles is probably the best known loyalty scheme in the UK. Over fivemillion people collect Air Miles through their day-to-day purchases. They canredeem them for a wide range of leisure products, from flights and holidays tocinema tickets and restaurant meals. Founded in 1988, the scheme has grownrapidly and now employs over 1,000 staff split between two sites, one inCrawley and one in Birchwood near Warrington. The company is a wholly-owned subsidiary of British Airways, but, unlike BA,is not unionised. The new right to accompaniment may, therefore, have animpact. We are currently reviewing our disciplinary and grievance procedures aspart of a wider review. They are part of a “Performance, Behaviour andRelationships” policy which dates back to the founding of the company.Part of our review includes incorporating the new right. Some non-unionised employers may want to take the monastic approach – thatis, not tell their workers that the new right exists. Certainly, there is nolegal obligation to inform staff – the right is to be accompanied, when thereis a reasonable request from the worker. Why not just wait to see if any of your workers pick up on it? Who knows,they may remain in ignorance and you will never have to deal with a unionofficial knocking on your door. Such an approach is mistaken. First, why try to hide something which is nowthe law? It has received wide coverage in the media and people are increasinglyaware of their legal rights at work. If you try to pretend it does not exist,you will only succeed in creating an environment of distrust. This means thatwhen the situation arises (as it will) of someone asking to be represented, youwill be on the back foot. This can only add to the tension at the disciplinaryor grievance hearing. Second, if you have respect and consideration for your staff, you should beopen with them about their entitlements. If you are calling someone to adisciplinary hearing – or if a member of staff is raising a legitimategrievance – tell them of the right to be accompanied. That way, a climate oftrust is created at the outset of what can be a traumatic time. What about the role of the union representative? If you read the small printof the rules, the union representative may address the meeting and may confer withthe worker concerned. But the representative may not ask questions. Should thisbe taken as an opportunity to marginalise the representative’s role? Again, I would suggest that to try to do so will cause unnecessary tensions.Far better to take a proactive approach and set a constructive tone for thedisciplinary or grievance hearing. That way, points scoring over narrowprocedural matters can be minimised. The key is to remember what the purpose of a disciplinary or grievancehearing is. Put simply, a disciplinary hearing is to allow the employer to puta case to an employee, give the employee a proper opportunity to respond andallow discussion to take place before the employer reaches a conclusion; agrievance hearing enables an employee to put forward something which concernshim and to discuss it with his employer, with a view to getting the matterresolved. Consequently, anything which facilitates this process is beneficial;anything which confuses it is destructive. A constructive and experiencedrepresentative can help someone marshal his points and present them in a clearway. This can only benefit the decision-making process, ensuring an outcomewhich is fair and, importantly, seen to be fair. At Air Miles, one of our five core values is “care for people”. Tosome, this might sound like motherhood and apple pie – a nice thought, but notrelevant to the real world. To us, it informs our approach to managing ourstaff. If we have a disciplinary or grievance situation, it is important to usthat the person understands how the process works and what the outcome couldbe. Critical to this is that the person has good representation. We have a system of consultative committees, to which each area of thecompany elects a representative.  Staffare able to be represented by their consultative committee representative or byanother work colleague. They now have the additional option of a trade union representative. Underour new draft disciplinary and grievance procedures, we have recognised theright to be represented in a positive way. Role of representatives A disciplinary or grievance hearing can be a difficult time. We encouragestaff to have a representative in such hearings. We do not set hard and fastrules for the role of the representative, other than that they observe theappropriate courtesies. We are happy for the representative to support theemployee in whatever way is reasonable. For some, this will be to act as moralsupport; others might want their representative to present their case and askquestions on their behalf. The important thing is for the employee to be ableto put his case in the best possible way. Although Air Miles does not have any formal relationships with trade unions,we recognise the legal right for any member of staff to join a union of theirchoice. If a member of staff is a union member, then he or she may choose tohave an external union representative. All we ask is that the member of staffinforms his or her manager in advance, so we can arrange in advance reasonablefacilities for the union official. We believe this sets a constructive tone, which will reassure staff thatthey will not be seen as trouble-makers if they exercise their legal rights.Trust in your staff and keeping things in perspective are the essentials indealing with this – and other – new employment rights. The new law – key points– Where a “worker” is required or invited by his or her employerto attend a disciplinary or grievance hearing, he or she can reasonably requestto be accompanied by a union official of his or her choice (or by a fellowemployee).– A disciplinary hearing is one which could result in the issuing orconfirmation of a formal warning or some other disciplinary sanction.– A grievance hearing is one which concerns “the performance of aduty” by the employer in relation to the worker (strictly speaking, thisrelates to a legal duty the employer owes the worker, such as a health andsafety issue).– The representative may address the hearing and confer with the worker, butmay not, technically, answer questions posed to the worker.Tim Craddock is head of employment law and recruitment at Air MilesTravel Promotions Ltd Comments are closed. Related posts:No related photos. Feet on the groundOn 1 Dec 2000 in Personnel Todaylast_img read more