Sometimes employment law (typically collective redundancy rules or TUPE) requires an employer to consult with appropriate representatives of affected employees. The rules are, to be honest, tedious and time consuming, but it must be done.  And it must be done at a time when an organisation is already going through a challenging change process.

So, how best to approach it?

Every consultation is different and numerous factors will determine how best to tackle it. But, broadly speaking, there are two types of mindset from which to approach it:

  • a ‘tick box’ mindset – viewing consultation as a necessary formality and doing the minimum required to avoid being sued (protective awards being punitive and potentially very high); or
  • an ‘open’ mindset – viewing it as a means to navigate, improve on, and even thrive through an organisational or business change.

Employers with a primarily tick box mindset may (possibly) avoid legal action but they risk missing the wider picture.  At a time of difficult and sometimes-emotive workplace upheaval, tick box consultation can engender (or at the very least do nothing to prevent) disengagement, cynicism and distrust. This has ongoing reverberations in the workforce, even when it is all over.  And low employee morale in the post-change organisation may slow down, or even prevent, the realisation of the improvement that the change was designed to achieve.

Maintaining morale through workplace change is often not about the leadership's desired end point, but the journey it takes to reach it. Contrast then employers who embrace consultation as an opportunity rather than an obligation. Get it right and you can maintain and even improve trust, engagement, performance and productivity – usually at the point you need it most.  Approaching consultation with an open mindset is far more likely to ensure that employees feel valued, acknowledged and heard. Effective consultation can also lead to better organisational decisions. The best consultations are often those where the management decision-makers genuinely view the employee representatives as partners in the process.

Part of getting it right requires that those representatives are in the right mindset too. They need to properly understand their role, what is involved, and what they should (and should not) expect.

Some representatives won't have done anything like collective consultation in their day job. They will have different levels of knowledge, experience and skill (and effective and constructive consultation can require quite some considerable skill). Often there are misunderstandings around what the law requires (crucially around what consultation actually is).  I often train employee reps on their role.  As an external (and neutral) person I find (more than in any other type of training session) that training is about managing expectations and removing misconceptions at a time when people feel anxious, even angry, about what is going on.

I can tell almost immediately whether the reps think ‘the management’ is in ‘tickbox’ or ‘open’ mindset. I ask: “What made you put yourself forward to be an employee rep?”  The answers are invariably honest and revealing.  Those who have constructive motivation have belief in the process and those running it.  Others are doing it to ensure "I don't get shafted", and the consultation is surely off to tricky start...

Good training sets employee reps up for a far better approach to consultation and far higher skill in implementing it. And those who have to consult with them can benefit hugely from their input (not to mention saving a lot of time).

Of course, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. So much of the process will be dictated by the organisational change that triggers it, but a great deal can be achieved by approaching it with an open mindset (as well, of course, as a firm grasp of the boxes in need of ticking).  Mindset matters.