HR professionals lack IR skills

by Stephanie Zillman29 Oct 2012

Do HR professionals have the IR skills required to navigate the complex landscape of industrial disputes? You told us a resounding ‘no’.

The results of the latest HC online poll have found that just 31% of HC readers believe HR professionals are equipped with the skills to handle the tough landscape of industrial relations issues at work – a resounding 50% said there’s still a lot of work to be done.

According to one expert consultant, who was not surprised by the poll results, there are two reasons HR has fallen behind in their IR know-how. Firstly, university courses aren’t pulling their weight in skilling budding professionals in this area, and secondly, many already in the field still haven’t caught up from the 2009 legislation change. “I think the old Work Choices legislation in from 2006-2009, really made IR a lot easier, in the sense that union powers and employee rights were significantly reduced during that period and my experience was that even people who may have had IR skills leading into 2006, by 2009 they were kind of out of practice, and got a bit rusty,” Livingstones managing director Alex Aspromourgos told HC.

Following the 2009 introduction of the Fair Work Act, Aspromourgos said it has taken HR professionals a bit of time to adjust to the new legislative environment. However, there are IR skills which are integral to the HR role, and do not change alongside the politics of legislation.

Conflict resolution is one such often overlooked IR skill, and Aspromourgos said the problems arise when issues which could have been resolved relatively easily and painlessly are allowed to fester and needlessly escalate. “It can become a major destabilising issue at the workplace, or it could become a legal issue which involves external advisors with all the associated costs of having legal representation going through an unfair dismissal application or a general protections matter or a discrimination claim. Whereas if the issues were identified early and resolved quickly, that all could have been avoided.”

The return of up-skilling in the area of conflict resolution is difficult to quantify because if it’s done very effectively, with early proactive intervention by HR professionals who can identify the issue and know how to resolve it early, it never escalates. “So you never have the comparison between the two scenarios, because you know suddenly, this workplace doesn’t have any particular IR issues. And that doesn’t just happen by chance – it happens because of good HR processes and practices that are in place, and it’s not just the professionals being skilled, but it’s also the systems and the processes of the workplace being consistent with an early intervention and resolution process,” Aspromourgos said.

Key takeaway?

Developing skills in managing industrial relations matters needn’t be wholly tied to the legislative landscape. Acquiring skills in conflict resolution and ways to manage issues as they come up is a skillset which puts HR professionals in good stead regardless of the politics of any legislative changes.


  • by Michael Cosgrove 30/10/2012 12:51:09 PM

    Reinforces what I have been saying for some time. HR practitioners main downfall is not knowing when to simply ask for assistance. As with any employee it is better to seek help, guidance or advice than continue to advocate from a weak position and make the situation worse. There are plenty of training courses available, and also coaching and mentoring programs.

  • by Peter Spence 9/11/2012 12:05:45 PM

    Thank you for the insightful article and I agree with your key takeway message - acquiring awareness/skills in conflict management for HR is essential, but I would go further that it should be a focus of the HR function to develop these skill sets amongst the entire organisation's HC. As our the organisational workforce becomes more diverse, there is the risk of increased conflict - throw in the move toward more networked organisational forms that rely upon a negotiated order as their structure and it becomes obvious that conflict management, as part of wider negotiation and collaboration should become a core competency of the organisation to reduce the high costs of conflict.

    Dispute Resolution Systems Design complemented by ongoing training/development and evaluation may be a small but valuable investment in comparison to the high costs of conflict.

  • by Emma Sidney 10/12/2012 5:38:11 PM

    As someone who sees HR professionals to discuss exactly this topic I have also found a need to offer assistance and structure even to larger businesses. Brand damage, unbudgetted costs and director vulnerability are the flip side of a lack of IR expertise.

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