In 2011, Australia recorded mixed results for industrial action. While the total number of disputes across the country declined from 227 in 2010 to 192, those that did occur involved far more people and garnered much media attention.
Employers and industry bodies believe that a rise in industrial action is an inevitability given the present government and increased union access to workplaces under Fair Work Australia.
Managing workplace relations, good union communications and preparedness for industrial unrest are always prudent HR practices for any organisation.
IR is not OHS
In 2011, while speaking to Human Capital Dr. Paul Gollan, an expert in HR Management and Professor of Management, Associate Dean (Research), Faculty of Business and Economics at Macquarie University, suggested that a lack of IR expertise among HR practitioners had compounded the then number of industrial disputes. He noted that responsibility for IR had largely been removed from the workplace during the Howard government years and that this had coincided with many universities removing IR courses from their core management studies. As a result some HR personnel have had limited exposure to the principles of IR management.
Following the Labor Government's scrapping of Work Choices, IR negotiations are now once again occurring within the workplace. This makes it imperative that every HR practitioner become familiar with Federal and State IR legislation that affects their workforce. Although it is a slightly separate area, HR should also be fully conversant with the company's occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations. After all, worker health and safety was one of the founding interests for unions and, while the two topics are different, unresolved OHS issues have been known to spark industrial unrest.
It is HR's responsibility to put in place a thorough set of policies and procedures defining how IR and OHS matters are to be dealt with. These should be reviewed, updated and communicated to managers and staff on a regular basis.
Controlling your labour costs, while agreeing to greater benefits
At the same time, technology has made flexible working conditions attractive to both recruiting and retaining new employees, particularly those who want to work part-time and are sufficiently flexible to take on shift work.
Enterprise bargaining agreements and all their complexity can now be managed successfully for both full-time and part-time workers with modern internal management and reporting systems. The new workforce management systems which can underpin flexible yet accurate award interpretation will result in accurate payroll delivery, shift flexibility, labour optimisation and accurate staff cost forecasting. Being able to offer flexible shift options that work for both the employees and employers and being able to prove your IT systems can handle these accurately to ensure compliance and correct payroll, is absolutely vital in any enterprise bargaining IR situation.
Systematic documentation provides proof
HR should also be ensuring that any conversations, agreements or activities involving potential IR and HR issues are thoroughly documented and filed for future reference. For example, even small details regarding equipment checks and certifications, records of staff training and fatigue management can cause contention between the business and its employees. Noting issues, the people involved, the impact(s) of the issue, steps taken and details about the final resolution is critical. It’s essential that the records are detailed, consistent, easily located and accessed should a problem or query arise.
The need for documentation is no less important when it comes to dealing with individual staff and IR issues. Action taken over employee misconduct or poor performance must follow procedural fairness and be recorded. Data should typically include a description of the issue; how the issue has been investigated; any evidence; the employee's response; confirmation of witnesses involved in the interviews, copies all correspondence relating to the issue, and detail about any subsequent disciplinary action. It should also note what future action will be taken if the issue continues.
This is where automated workforce management and OHS systems can help. They offer automated management of flexible arrangements and well-defined workflows that guide staff and management through to fast resolution of any problems. They also provide auditable, indisputable proof of compliance – something that can be an important tool when trying to defuse potential industrial unrest.
By maintaining a central store of IR and OHS data, automated software systems also facilitate rapid reporting of trends such as improvements or declines in workplace safety, absenteeism and changes in productivity. The information is not only a valuable management tool; it is also an extremely useful support when engaging in negotiations regarding employee conditions.
HR can't always predict exactly when industrial action may befall a company but it does have a responsibility to try to reduce its impact. Fast access to accurate, detailed workforce data, entrenched IR and OHS processes and procedures, and proven compliance can all go a long way towards mitigating that risk.
About the author
Daniel Sheahan is the CEO of ComOps