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Representation at work improves dispute resolution

05 December 2012

Lyndsey Boardman

Role of employee representation in solving problems at work to be discussed at UCLan seminar

Conflict in the workplace is more likely to be resolved effectively if employees are represented, research by an employment relations expert at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has shown.

Dr Richard Saundry, a Reader in International Employment Relations at the University, suggests that workplaces which have a clear structure of representation, such as trade unions, experience fewer individual employment disputes.

The role that representatives play in disputes in the workplace will be discussed by leading practitioners, policy-makers and academics at a seminar to be held at UCLan on 12 December.  

The seminar, hosted by the Institute for Research into Organisations, Work and Employment (iROWE) at UCLan, is the second in a series funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which brings together experts from across the country to explore workplace dispute resolution and the management of conflict.

"The damage to working relationships, as well as the cost in lost management and staff time, can be substantial, while the prospect of employment tribunals is extremely daunting.”

Dr Saundry, who is organising the seminar, said: “Finding ways of resolving individual employment disputes has become a major issue for employers and employees alike. The damage to working relationships, as well as the cost in lost management and staff time, can be substantial, while the prospect of employment tribunals is extremely daunting.”

Recent attention has focused on the coalition government’s plans to reform the employment tribunal system to make it more difficult for employees to make claims and provide employers with more freedom and flexibility over hiring and firing employees.

At the same time, the government has sought to encourage the use of mediation and early conciliation as a way of resolving disputes without the need for litigation. Most recently the Chancellor, George Osborne, suggested that organisations be allowed to offer employees shares in return for basic employment rights.

However, Dr Saundry argues that the real solution – for both employees and employers - may be to give employees greater access to representation in the workplace.

He added: “Our own research has found that where there are positive relationships between employers and employee representatives, disputes are much more likely to be settled through informal discussion and negotiation. However, where employees don’t have that third party to go to, disputes can escalate, with parties developing very entrenched views.

“Representatives not only provide support to their colleagues but can provide an early warning system that identifies emerging problems as well as helping to manage the expectations of employees.

“It is telling that most managers tell us they would much rather employees are accompanied by an employee representative during disciplinary or grievance hearings.”

“Our own research has found that where there are positive relationships between employers and employee representatives, disputes are much more likely to be settled through informal discussion and negotiation."

The seminar will feature contributions from leading academics such as Professor Ralph Fevre, from the University of Cardiff, Dr Andy Charlwood, from the University of York, Dr Peter Samuels, from the University of Nottingham and UCLan’s Dr Gemma Wibberley. In addition there will be presentations from Paul Nowak, from the Trade Union Congress, UNISON’s Steve Stott and Richard Dunstan, from Citizens’ Advice.  

Dr Saundry hopes that the seminar will make an important contribution to the continuing debate as to how the UK’s system of dispute resolution can be improved.

Key themes that emerge from the seminar will be fed into a high-profile conference to be held at the University of Westminster in London which will end the seminar series in September 2013.

For more information about the series visit the website.