So what should an HR Director do when faced with industrial action? Let’s leave aside the alarmist headlines last week (was the UCU vote a clear mandate for strike action or a rather disappointing result with a few surprising failures to reach the threshold needed? You decide).
Practicalities first. Have all the legal formalities been observed – thresholds, notifications and notice periods for action and so on. Scrutinize the dates on the documents – errors can and should be challenged. Prepare for the actual day of action and be very clear in communications with staff – some staff will be genuinely nervous about crossing picket lines if they are not part of the action or don’t support it. Make sure your senior colleagues are on board and engaged on the day – HR Directors should not be the only ones taking the lead here.
Be very clear in advance of the day what the issues are and how your institution is involved, and what line you are taking. A short statement from the head of institution is helpful; don’t try to ignore the action or claim (directly or by implication) that it’s all a few malcontents. Engage with the issues and if you completely reject the basis of the grievances, then set out why, logically and calmly.
On the day, engage as much as possible with the picket line. Ask about the issues and be honest about what you and the institution can and can’t do (you and your institution can’t sort out the USS deficit, but you can listen and you can engage with the concerns of individuals and the union). Take the leaflets. Encourage senior colleagues to do the same. Check in with them during the day – it’s a lonely cold job being a picket and very few are firebrands.
Picketing is legal, within certain limits, so make sure you read the Code of Practice on picketing. Sometimes tempers run high and the picket line can swell over the numbers in the code (in general … not exceed six at any entrance to, or exit from, a workplace) or behaviour can become obstructive. It’s worth clarifying who is the picket supervisor and taking up any issues with them directly.
On the day of the strike, have an agreed method of establishing who is actually on strike and who is absent for some other reason. This is vital for the payroll.
Above all, stay calm at all times. Industrial action is a last resort, and you get weeks to prepare. Keep communications open with the union officials and with staff and colleagues.
And finally, walk round during the day and check how everyone is, in the offices and outside. Once at lunchtime I noticed that the picket line had all gone to lunch at once and left banners propped at each side of the main entrance with a pile of leaflets. I then spent an amusing 20 minutes on the phone to the regional officer debating the definition of a picket line (this wasn’t one).
Keep your sense of humour. None of this is personal. Tomorrow is another day.