Staff Reps: Challenges and Benefits

The topic this time is employee / staff reps. For over 16 years, Jaluch has been supporting organisations set up, manage and train staff representatives. Across the years, we must have worked with thousands of staff reps in a whole variety of sectors and circumstances.

Sometimes organisations feel uncertain about managing staff representatives as it’s not a core part of anyone’s role. It’s always the ‘something else’ that needs doing alongside the day job but hopefully some of the following pointers will tell you more of what you need to know. There are lots of headings below to help you flick through and work out which parts are relevant to you.

If you have come across this article looking training, then please visit the staff representative training page.

The Legislation

UK – Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations (ICER) apply to businesses with more than 50 employees. Regulations give employees the right to ask their employer to set up a committee/process to inform and consult them about issues in the organisation.

Europe – The EU Council Directive applies to organisations with at least 1000 employees within the EU with at least 150 employees in at least 2 Member States. Directive requires a European Works Council or a Pan European Information and Consultation Procedure to be set up on written request by 100 employees in at least 2 companies in at least 2 member states.

Typical fears/concerns of HR and the Leadership team

  • The group may exert too much influence (particularly in a negative way). For instance they could become a negotiating group (which very rarely happens and can be easily managed).
  • The group may involve a lot of time to set up and manage – although there is often some time involved in setting the group up, once it’s set up then the ongoing management of it shouldn’t take up a significant amount of time.
  • The group may be unsuccessful – this is unlikely if the group is actively managed and senior management are committed to the group, but likely if senior management aren’t interested in the group and give lip service to employees’ suggestions/feedback.

What value staff reps bring to organisations

  • They can help staff to feel that they have a voice and have access to senior management, equally they can provide a useful platform for senior managers to seek staff views on policies/change to working practices etc.
  • They can improve levels of trust in the organisation, minimise rumours and misunderstanding, improve decision making (as employees are consulted) and ultimately organisational performance, if the staff reps help to implement positive change and improve motivation/engagement.
  • If an employee has been asked to attend a formal disciplinary or grievance hearing, it’s a real benefit to be able to offer an internal staff representative to attend the meeting. This avoids the employee asking to bring in a TU (Trade Union) representative or asking for a colleague to attend which can sometimes cause difficulty or embarrassment.
  • Although caution is needed – they can in some circumstances help to dissuade TU groups from setting up or even re-focus power away from influential TU groups – although naturally TU groups can be quite upset with this, hence why a cautious approach is advisable!

Challenges of setting up a committee

  • Often finding representatives can be a challenge – many people don’t want to volunteer/be nominated.
  • It can be very difficult to find good staff reps, who really want to be staff reps and who are active in doing that role. Many reps are uninterested, which results in the staff they represent becoming de-motivated about the whole representative process.
  • The most successful groups elect a Chair person (one of the representatives) to help focus efforts and keep everyone motivated – without a chair (or with an ineffective chair) groups can stagnate or become chaotic and disorganised.
  • Often you can find that it’s challenging to train and set up a committee – but then as they eventually get to know each other and form a good team they become very effective.
  • One major problem of setting up and electing a whole group together is that in 2 or 3 years time, literally overnight you can lose most or all of your staff reps as they get to the end of their tenure. This causes lots of headaches, but easily avoided if you plan ahead properly with continuity and retention of strong reps a real focus of your plans.

Challenges of keeping an existing committee engaged and motivated

  • Over time the energy within the staff reps group can wane. A really strong chair person can help keep energy up and maintain interest. You might find that organising some training/team building events on a regular basis e.g. every 6-12 months will help reps stay engaged and motivated.
  • If you have one or two ‘black widow spiders’ in your staff rep group that are negatively affecting the rest of the committee – then you need to make sure that you talk to them individually, and see whether there are opportunities to change their approach or whether they need some persuasion to leave the group! Fail to act and your whole committee could become disengaged, meaning that any money or time you spend on it will be wasted.

Top tips for Inducting new staff reps

  • Buddy them up with a more experienced staff rep member.
  • Make sure that all new staff reps go through training (ideally formally) and a full induction via another staff member.
  • Before they start you might want to give them an opportunity to attend a meeting purely as a spectator to make sure that they understand what their role involves and to help prepare them mentally (it can be quite scary if they aren’t used to formal meetings at work).
  • Ensure that they have the opportunity to talk informally (if necessary) to someone prior to supporting an employee with a disciplinary or grievance – this can often be one of the most daunting aspects of the role.
  • Consider coaching (if necessary) for any staff who are really struggling in their role or who need a little extra support. We often see reps grow in confidence across the years, so a little helping hand in the early months might be really beneficial for both the representative and the company.

Typical fear/concerns of staff reps

  • Disciplinary/grievances – if this is part of their role, then often reps can feel very nervous about what they will need to do. We recommend ensuring that all staff reps are trained in attending grievance and disciplinary meetings and have the opportunity to have further informal support as and when they need to carry out this part of their role.
  • Reps are usually concerned about the amount of time this role can take up – and there is no denying that if done properly, in a busy workplace, it can take up to a couple of hours a week. It’s important to make sure that staff are given time to undertake this role – and consideration to support being given (e.g. extra reps if they have a particularly large group that they represent) if necessary.
  • Reps can be concerned about the politics and dynamics, particularly in a group that’s already established – and be nervous about making relationships with the other reps. So give them an induction and support just as you would an employee moving to a new role.
  • Reps often worry about whether they will have the confidence to raise issues with senior managers – and are concerned that they may ‘show themselves up’! Again, support them with this and ensure that senior mangers attending committee meetings are sensitive to the different confidence levels in the room.
  • Reps are sometimes nervous about how they will manage to consult with all the people they represent, particularly when they have a large consort to represent. As already suggested, talk to them about how long this role will take and be realistic about how much they need to communicate.

Top tips for when reps attend grievance, disciplinary and dismissal meetings

  • Representatives can be really valuable accompanying staff at disciplinaries/grievances as they can help to provide a common sense approach and help the employee see a logical way through.
  • Trained reps also understand the process that you are following so can help advise on the process and make sure that the employee understands the procedure that’s being followed. Sometimes they are even great at making sure your line managers stick to the procedure too which can avoid appeals and legislation claims down the line.
  • To get the most out of your reps, make sure that they are trained and given informal support to participate in disciplinaries/grievances – as this is often one of the most daunting aspects of their role!

The Paperwork – confidentiality agreements and constitutions

We strongly recommend that you have a staff rep constitution which clearly sets out the purpose of the group, and explains the logistics associated with the group e.g. how often they meet, numbers etc. so that reps are absolutely clear about the mechanics of the group.

In addition to a constitution, we recommend that there is a job description in place for staff reps so that they can really appreciate what is entailed in their role and new reps have a better understanding about what they are getting into!

Not all organisations ask reps to sign confidentiality agreements, many just mention confidentiality in the constitution, but it’s worth considering if you think that your reps will be regularly given confidential information that they cannot divulge. An alternative is to just issue a confidentiality agreement if any particularly confidential/sensitive issues arise. In our experience, these types of confidential issues don’t come up often and tend to be associated with a big project – so could be easily organised for a one-off event.

What do you do when a rep is on extended maternity leave, taking a sabbatical or on long term sick?

  • If the absence is likely to be medium – long term, then we recommend they elect a deputy to take over their role in their absence.
  • If the absence is likely to be long term then you may want to have a clause in your constitution that asks the rep to step down for the period of their absence, so that someone else can have the opportunity.

What do you do when a rep is under performing/actively disengaged with the process?

It can be difficult when a rep is underperforming/actively disengaged with the process, as you can’t really dismiss someone from their role as staff representative. However, usually a quiet discussion about their performance, the reasons, support you can offer and so on is usually enough to get to the root of the problem and either gently encourage them to resign from their role (e.g. if they are struggling to perform their role because they have too much on) or to help support them to understand the improvements they can make to raise their performance in the role.

And finally…

Bullying (albeit nicely and with a smile), coercing, forcing, bribing someone to step up as a ‘volunteer’ staff rep seldom works. Please, please don’t be tempted to go this route when looking for volunteers for the staff rep role. It usually back fires and you could end up demotivating a previously high performing, motivated employee.

We know this is a huge amount of information and if you’ve ploughed your way through this lot, it will have taken more than two minutes. Sorry about that.

If you found this HR blast useful, please do email us or leave your comments below and tell us in just one sentence what you valued. Your feedback is always welcomed.

If you have any questions, need training for staff representatives, would like us to support with setting up a new committee or reinvigorating a de-energised committee, please do get in touch by email or phone 01425 479888.

The information contained within this article is for general guidance only and represents our understanding of employment and associated law and employee relations issues as at the date of publication. Jaluch Limited, or any of its directors or employees, cannot be held responsible for any action or inaction taken in reliance upon the contents. Specific advice should be sought on all individual matters.

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