Should you bring back this ‘80s HR icon?

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For many HR leaders, the ‘80s weren’t defined by shoulder pads and spandex but rather unions and industrial action – now, that tumultuous employment landscape has long gone but it seems New Zealand’s largest supermarket is still being inspired by ideas old.

In 2014, industry veteran Jason Tuck was taken on by Countdown to head up a major structural change – the development of a dedicated employment relations function, entirely separate from human resources.

While most organisations have retained specialist employment relations roles, very few have distinct ER functions and it’s an initiative rarely seen since the heyday of unions.

“Like a lot of things, it’s gone in cycles,” says Tuck, national HR manager, employment relations. “Back in the 80s and maybe the 90s, there was a lot more union activity, a lot more industrial action – strikes and so forth – impacted on the efficiency and effectiveness of business,” he explains.

“During that period, there were a lot of specialist employment relations or labour relations roles that were just focused on that component then with the Employment Contracts Act coming in, you saw a large reduction in the number of unions – not so much in the public sector which is still the case but in the private sector – and you saw a large reduction in the industrial action that was being taken.

“Through that period of time, as the landscape changed, a lot of ER specialist roles just became naturally integrated into general HR because there was efficiency to be gained by doing so.”
So why has Countdown decided to rededicate an entire function to ER?

“In 2014, the supermarket side of the business decided to restructure their operations to provide more resources to store managers and they broke up into four zones,” explains Tuck. “At the time they were doing that, they said to the HR function; ‘Hey, here’s an opportunity to reconfigure your structure and align with us if you’re up to it and if you wish.’

At this point, the company consulted HR leaders from the 12 separate areas of the organisation and found that the overwhelming percentage weren’t exactly satisfied with the status quo.

“The feedback, pretty much unanimously, was; ‘We spend so much of our time dealing with reactive disciplinary investigations or assisting with issues to do with the collective agreements and hours of work changes, we just don’t get the time to get to the value-add HR stuff,” reveals Tuck.

“So the general manager looked at that and made a call that it would be worthwhile for the business to actually separate those two components out,” he continues.

“In doing so, they would have people who have specialist knowledge in employment relations and can focus on supporting managers with that side of the business while the HR function could then focus on doing what it needed to add value.”

Rather than being distracted by disciplinary processes and other traditional employment relations issues, HR is freed up to tackle more strategic endeavours.

Tuck, who was brought in to establish the function almost exactly a year ago, says the feedback has already been overwhelmingly positive.

“Managers feel like they’re getting more timely, consistent, accurate advice and the HR managers feel that they’re able to focus on where they can really add value to the business,” he reveals.

According to Auckland-based Tuck, the ER function offers three main areas of service to management – disciplinary, collective negotiations, and organizational restructuring.

“In all three of those areas, there is a lot of potential legal risk,” Tuck told HRM. “By having a small team of specialists who are knowledgeable on the legal requirements, the contractual requirements and also the right approach to meet the business’ right culture and values, that means there’s less risk and all of those three areas are managed more efficiently.”

However Tuck is quick to insist that the ER function doesn’t take employment relations responsibilities off managers’ hands – but rather educates them on handling the situations better.

“The component that is key to this model working is that we’re not there to step into managers’ shoes, we’re not there for managers to abdicate their responsibilities around decision making for disciplinary outcomes or restructures or even how they engage in and resolve collective agreements,” he told HRM. “We’re there to provide specialist advice and support and we’re also there to improve capability and confidence in dealing with those matters.”

The ER team has developed a comprehensive suite of training and subsequent certification process which has been rolled out nationally to improve managers’ capability in the employment relations arena.

So should you do the same for your organization?

“Each organization needs to look at its own specific circumstances,” says Tuck. “Things like what is their environment, do they have collective contracts, do they have a large number of disciplinary situations?

“In some cases, just having an HR generalist is sufficient because of the nature of the business and the type of issues coming up but for businesses that are larger, more complex, undertaking restructuring, have situations where staff are doing the wrong thing on a reasonably regular basis, maybe have unions in the mix as well, considering splitting ER from HR would definitely make good sense because you actually increase the calibre of the support that your operational managers are  receiving and the effectiveness of the HR function overall.”

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