People & Culture Essentials Videocast with Simon Sapper at Makes You Think

David: Tell us about yourself. You’ve been in the trade union movement for a great many years, what’s your career been to date?

Simon: My journey has been wrapped up in the trade union movement. As a young man, I started as a campaigner for the anti-apartheid movement, then moving into the UK trade union movement working as a National Officer for Prospect and the Communication Workers Union where I served as a National Officer for around 30 years before bowing out to set up Makes You Think as a consultancy. Here, I work with membership-based organisations, predominantly unions, such as the Royal College of Midwives and the Fire Brigades Union, on organisational change, strategic development and governance issues. My side-line podcast, UnionDues, occurred almost by accident. I created the UK’s only podcast on all-things-union, and I think that’s really important because unions still have six and a half million members and yet there’s this gap in the exponentially expanding podcast market. I’m also privileged to serve on the Low Pay Commission – this is good culture in practice, working as an independent body to advise the government on the national minimum wage and national living wage. I’m blessed to have had a very long, happy and effective career, and culture is at the heart of this.

David: Absolutely. How would you describe the employee relations landscape at the moment?

Simon: I think challenging is the right word. The glass is half full: you can see lots of structural elements that are unhelpful when thinking about a dynamic, inclusive fair and just economy. I hope that the forthcoming employment bill will deal with a lot of these issues. First of all, you still have a preference amongst some employers to fire and rehire as a way of driving change. The latest attempt of this at Clarks has been rebuffed which is great. Ignoring any moral or ethical considerations, that kind of rupture in the employment relationship can’t be good but yet people feel minded to do it. There’s also notions about technology. Labour is still too cheap in this country because people would rather invest in labour which they can turn on and off like a tap than what they see as a significant investment in various technologies. This can’t be productive and promotes a gig economy. On top of that, you have the structural consequences of the pandemic which has hit low pay precarious employment very hard and the capacity of the healthcare service to keep us healthy and well throughout all of this. So, it’s a really challenging environment. A progressive employment bill would take us far in addressing those structural issues, enabling a comfortable debate about cultural transformation.

David: If the bill achieved some of those benefits, what do you think the benefits would be?

Simon: Conflict-based or coercive models do not work: they impede productivity, engagement and cost. It’s a clear risk management approach that prevails, relying on grievances rather than using proactive communication to better understand. The prize available for this bill would be true cultural transformation – if willing to supersede these traditional structures of litigation.

David: This is a really interesting part of public policy. We prescribe a set of archaic risk averse policies, from 1978 to 2007 case laws, which is truly absurd. I think we should take a long hard look at the entire employment landscape.

Simon: The employment landscape can’t be extracted from the general landscape. It’s interesting to consider whether or not the social consensus has to be in place before you consider an employment consensus.

David: If you look at civil or criminal justice systems in the UK, they’re becoming increasingly restorative, particularly as we consider mediation becoming mandatory. It feels that whilst we had the opportunity in 2007 withint the employment space to reflect this shift, it was missed. In many respects, the employment landscape is the last bastion of retributive justice.

Simon: In my view, there’s been a diminution of worker rights and worker organisation. That’s partly because of the change in the landscape towards smaller businesses making up the economy and then due to the legislative framework in which collective organisations operate. It’s tricky because you get into a vicious cycle. Many businesses hang onto grievance procedures as a shield of protection, seen as a necessary defence, and others with more positive working cultures may never use them.

David: There is no statutory, moral or legal requirement for employers to have a formal grievance procedure. We have the power and space to take the grief out of grievance, which is traditionally corrosive, punitive and punishing. What are your thoughts about a real focus on a new language in the procedures to drive the cultural changes that we’re describing?

Simon: I wouldn’t disagree with the analysis that you’ve just presented. The steps towards cultural change need a shift of language. But for many, there’s a deeply embedded mindset that it’s not an easy or comfortable process to undertake and it can feel laborious, time-consuming, expensive and frustrating. I think those who feel that way need to put those feelings into the context of the value of moving away from grievance towards resolution. You could argue that the BrewDog situation was perhaps symptomatic of that – 60 former employees said this was a toxic workplace despite their efforts to embed a modern and progressive culture. Can I ask, what did you feel about BrewDog’s response to that episode?

David: I was really impressed with BrewDog’s response to that episode, following transformational principles to address issues. It starts with giving those employees the opportunity to start dialogue and then give them a jolly good listening to. It’s about that return on investment – it’s a lot easier to ignore those issues but they clearly held their hands up and accept that they got it wrong. What I do know is that the organisation has begun to take action: not inaction or overreaction. This is something that all other businesses need to do – act now from a collaborative, dialogic, person-centred approach. By listening and seeking to understand, we gain powerful insights into the culture of our organisations, which is at the heart of the transformational culture model.

Simon: I agree, speaking up and listening are absolutely essential. It’s clear that progress is not always linear and it can be a very fragile thing, regardless of whether you prioritise open communication within your organisation.

David: Fragility and vulnerability reflects the complexity of people. That should be mirrored within every organisation. In many companies, those internal systems of typical grievance prevent and block those conversations from happening.

Simon: From my observations, the problem is that where people accept there’s an entrenched conduct process, they don’t realise that if they spent those precious time and resources elsewhere, they could be involved in something much more constructive. That mindset is the most difficult to change – those traditional steps are secure spaces with clear rules and regulations. The more people that have the vocabulary to talk about this, the greater possibility for change. It would be amazing to see a collective confidence.

David: Absolutely. We won the Change Management Award with TSB Bank at the Personnel Today Awards just two weeks ago and we were so delighted. That was TSB putting its people and values at the heart of its systems with a lot of evidence and data to support the change. It shows that the triumvirate of the modern firm could work together in a predictive and proactive way, using data and information to drive change.

Simon: That’s a cultural problem. Boards should want to know how to boost productivity, wellbeing, inclusion and so forth. I’m surprised when boards don’t want to do that. It can be very easy to slip from oversight into operational matters – that’s where you need strategic leadership and clear values to ensure the organisation is being run properly.

David: Boards need more non-executives to ask these questions and deliver governance and accountability. Feelings and behaviours can be harder to measure as abstract concepts but it’s not impossible.

Simon: The whole conversation about how data could and should be used is on a journey. The first trade union to appoint a Head of Data, Jenny Andrew, is the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists. That’s about using data in its fullest sense, and I think this example is an encouraging sign for other unions to follow suit.

David: Wow. We’ll be inviting Jenny to join us on a future videocast! That talks really powerfully about the impact of using data in decision making: when evidence supports values, it can work to accelerate the change within our organisations. What do you think, from your experience, might help Employee Relations shift from transactional to transformational?

Simon: It’s tricky. There’s great potential to drive positive change. I think they need effective and positive relationships with their key stakeholders, with support of the board and workforce. If you get that buy-in, you have space to make progress in the way that you want. Those two stakeholders are likely to be resistant to change, which is why this can be so challenging. You need a lot of energy to get off the launchpad, but once you’re in orbit you need less.

David: The fuel that flies the rocket is trust, being the glue that holds the social contract and psychological component together. In my book, I advocate for a cross-functional hub that brings together unions, management, HR, stakeholders and employee groups into the design and development of culture. In order for it to operate, it needs to build trust to enable true collaboration. How do you believe unions, management and HR can build that trust?

Simon: Even though it’s difficult to achieve this, it’s really important that we recognise and articulate it. We need to have our destination at the forefront of our minds. In my experience, you’ve got to try and find common ground. Can you get everyone on the platform first, and can you then get everyone on the train? Securing that buy-in is crucial to the success of the journey to your destination.

David: A common language, purpose and values can be the bond to bring people together. Do you have any reflections on organisational values as a seed to greater change?

Simon: That is the embodiment of the common language, or trust, between key stakeholders. You must work hard in most cases to identify those areas to build the trust. Even the language of values can be tough to shape. If you can do it, that has to be the place to start as the thread for organisational culture.

David: Without principles, trust breaks down. What are your thoughts about the role of mediation in wider industrial relations in reducing the risk of more formal remedies?

Simon: The agenda for change agreement and the obligation to seek mediation is a tremendously important statement of good faith. It’s always going to be better to talk. In the end, there’s going to have to be resolution so to build in the channels for discussion is enormously valuable when there is such tension in the relationship.

David: I want to come back to trust on two levels: the social contract and the unwritten psychological contract that exists between a leader and colleagues in the workplace based on expectations, behaviours and promises. How can organisations build a modern and progressive social contract that can support the development of an effective psychological contract which binds people together in a positive and constructive way?

Simon: I would say that you need to understand in what circumstances trust is diminished or lost. You also need to recognise that trust is not the same as enthusiasm: it’s clearly important not to overpromise and underdeliver as the companion of trust is honesty. So, trust is an absolutely vital ingredient for progress but just because trust is there it doesn’t mean that progress will necessarily follow.

David: It’s a starting point. Bringing good will, respect, communication, common sense back into the room. What or who has inspired you over your career?

Simon: I’m a values-based person so notions of fairness are deeply embedded me. One influence was my father who was active in his own union and was a guiding star for me in many ways. Two colleagues, my previous line manager and general secretary at the Communication Workers Union, both showed tremendous faith in my abilities and were very encouraging and constructive when things went wrong. I couldn’t have asked for better influences than those three people.