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Valued allies for an even better workplace – the evolution of Employee Relations at Serco

Our relationships with trade unions (TUs) are a vital part of our engagement with employees and how we manage our business. We are committed to supporting the rights of our colleagues to join recognised TUs or employee representative bodies, and we strive to maintain open and constructive relationships with them.

David Cadger’s career with Serco spans three decades, in which time he has become the Company’s resident Employee Relations (ER) guru. Today, as ER Director for the Group, he is responsible for TU policy and approach, as well as managing senior TU relationships in the UK and monitoring TU relationships and practice around the world.

ER at Serco has changed a good deal in the last 30 years, but for David one of the most important evolutionary shifts is happening now: a new leap forward in business maturity regarding this critical stakeholder group.

“If you’d told me ten years ago that this would be happening, I wouldn't have believed it,” says David. “The world used to see Employee Relations as a mystic art – not to be interfered with by anyone outside the HR function. Now, though, there’s growing recognition that we all own effective and transparent Employee Relations, and that we need to work much more closely with TUs.”

This is all the more important because the risks and opportunities are evolving as well, and can easily be underestimated:

“Our predecessors only engaged with TUs when they absolutely had to. That was a mistake in my opinion. Previously, I’d have said industrial action was the biggest threat, but it’s the risk to our reputation, built through the hard work of our people, that we need to be most mindful of. TUs are as influential and well connected today as they ever were, with a strong political, media and social media presence. They can have a very positive influence on how we’re viewed, as an employer and a public service provider, or conversely a very negative one.”

David is quick to emphasise that TUs are valued allies:

“They’re very passionate about protecting workers – about safety, security and a fairer society – but they don’t want to trip us up. They want a strong economy, employers who treat their employees well and long-term employment opportunities.”

Serco’s own commitments to employee wellbeing and prosperity are providing peaceful common ground in which to engage and collaborate openly and transparently:

“We’re working more closely and proactively with TUs, focusing on areas of mutual interest and ambition, such as health and wellbeing, employee voice and diversity and inclusion. We want to make it as easy as possible for them to work with us and see what we’re striving to achieve for our people.”

When Serco took over a number of Carillion health contracts in 2018, totaling about 1,600 employees, the trade unions involved were very supportive.

“They trusted us because of our relationships with them and our track record of looking after our employees. It helped massively in bringing on board those contracts and all those people.”

For David, good relations with TUs depend on good people management:

“A manager’s relationship with their team is the most important thing. The TUs say the same. If managers engage with their teams, look after their needs, encourage their feedback and – most importantly – manage it locally and in an informal, supportive and timely fashion, all is well.

“If an issue is allowed to take root, and an employee picks up the phone to their TU rep, what may be a relatively minor issue at first can escalate. The trade unions want to avoid this as much as we do, in that local management is more likely to understand the issue and be able to resolve it quickly through good dialogue.”

Encouraging employees to express themselves to management openly and constructively is a key area of focus for Serco. Employee voice has never been so well provided for, from the ongoing investment in strong employee networks to the launch of Colleague ConneXions, improving engagement between the Board and the workforce, and a new approach to frequent, meaningful manager-employee dialogue, MyCatch-up.

Meanwhile, David is working to build management confidence and capability in dealing with TUs:

“Partly it’s about making sure they’re fully informed about each TU: what’s the history and the politics, who’s who in the leadership, what’s on their mind right now, and so on.

“We’ve also developed a virtual classroom and roleplay training course, which ran six times in 2020 and was very well received. Now that it’s embedded in our UK management training, we’re looking at replicating it appropriately in other unionised environments across the globe.”

The most important factor in the evolution of ER at Serco is a new generation of business leaders who want to take ownership:

“They recognise the risks and opportunities and they want to engage. They want to understand everything that can impact their business, and how best to manage it. They’re looking at the bigger picture too, lifting their heads up to see how everything connects beyond their area of the business. It’s very smart and extremely positive.”

Serco’s new, ER-savvy leadership is setting a firm example for their management teams, mirroring the example already set for them by Serco Group Chief Executive, Rupert Soames:

“Rupert is the first Group CEO I've ever known to engage with the Trades Union Congress (TUC). After the collapse of Carillion in 2018, Rupert campaigned openly on the future of public service outsourcing, taking a position that was very much in line with that of the TUC. He was one of only a few in the FTSE 250 to do that. It had a profound impact on our relationship with the TUC and sent a very clear message to the business.”

The TUs have responded positively to the advances in TU engagement at Serco. Julie Hallam, National Officer for UNISON, commented:

“For years, UNISON has worked with Serco to support and look after our members in the workplace. We have developed a good working relationship at a national level, through which issues can be raised, by either side, and resolved speedily through negotiation.

“Working together in this way supports employee wellbeing and makes good business sense. Wherever local representatives feel they can approach managers to discuss any issues, potential problems can be resolved quickly and effectively. We recognise we don’t always get it right, but if the channels of communication are open, and there is a willingness on both sides to work together, then there is every chance of finding a solution.

“In addition to working with Serco on commonplace ER matters, our equality and diversity experts have assisted Serco with their policy development. We are always happy to give guidance and support to employers who value their workforce and are keen to improve in these areas.”