Last reviewed 12 December 2018

Gudrun Limbrick considers whether it is possible to carry out genuine staff consultation and involvement in company decisions without laying yourself open to a tidal wave of complaints and criticism.

Consultation with staff members can be a nerve-wracking process and one that many managers avoid for this very reason. However, if it is carried out well, it can be an important step in learning how a business really works (or doesn’t work) from the perspective of the employee and in finding ways to make improvements, both for employees and for the business as a whole.

Effective consultation is an open, two-way communication to discuss a business or particular aspects of it. It is through this sharing of views that there can be greater understanding of how issues are seen from a different perspective.

What effective consultation can bring to a company

Inclusion

Consulting with a workforce can bring greater feelings of inclusivity. Effective consultation can bring feelings of ownership and responsibility over a task, a team or a company which can help morale and commitment enormously. It also can have the impact of encouraging further engagement in the future.

Shared ideas

Looking at tasks from the perspective of those carrying them out can bring great insight and ideas into how matters can be improved. Significant ideas for improving how work is carried out have come from consultations, improving productivity for the company, easing the load on employees or enhancing the work-life balance. It is naïve of managers to assume that they are the only ones who can see how things can be improved.

Trust

Effective consultation can significantly improve trust between employees and managers. If employees know that they are being listened to, and that their perspective will be taken into account, relations between managers and their teams can be improved enormously.

What consultation is not

A shift of responsibility

Consultation is not the handing over of managerial responsibility. Consultation is a sharing of ideas; taking decisions based on those ideas while managing the projects, tasks and teams remain with the managers.

A purely listening exercise

Listening is an important part of consultation and an excellent start, but consultation cannot end there. What has been said through consultation has to be seen to be taken into account in future decisions and plans.

A list of demands

Effective consultation is a discussion and may result in some suggestions and ideas for future consideration. It is very rare in consultation that there can be agreement there and then about a change that will be made immediately. This is not a bargaining exercise with a trade union, for example, it is a discussion about perspectives.

There are instances in which employees can insist on consultation being carried out. For example, under the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations (introduced in 2005), any company with 50 or more employees can be subject to employee requests for consultation. If 10% of the employees make a request for consultation, employers must carry one out. This can be about the broader economic situation of the company, the employment prospects of the employees, or changes in work organisation. Likewise, a company must consult with employees (or their unions) about health and safety matters under the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996. Employers also have to consult with employees about potential redundancies if they involve 20 or more employees.

The dangers of having an ineffective consultation are very real. The most significant potential failure is that employees are so disheartened by the process that they lose trust in the management of the company, leaving relations much worse off than they were before the consultation took place. Once this has happened, it is not easy to get the trust back so it is important to get it right first time.

Ensuring that consultation is effective

  1. A wider communications policy

    Consultation will not be effective if it is not within a wider communications policy. If a consultation takes place in a communication vacuum, managers are likely to be inundated with long stored-up gripes and complaints. As a basic, all employees need to be aware of who they can go to should they have a problem (say, their line manager and who they can go to should the problem be with their line manager). A clear policy needs to be in place about how employees can expect the issue will be handled, complete with potential outcomes and time frames. It is also useful for employees to know who they can go to if they have a broader idea or concern. The starting point for good communication is what happens between the line manager and the team member be it within regular supervision sessions or team meetings.

  2. Deal with complaints separately

    Any consultation can raise specific complaints. For example, in discussions about effective working practices, an employee may raise a previously unknown issue of a disruptive member of staff or an unsafe piece of equipment. It is important that, within the consultation process, these complaints are recognised as such immediately and the proper process for dealing with complaints is put into place. Consultation is not the place for discussing complaints.

  3. Ensure expectations are realistic

    Consultation is not about agreeing with everything that is said. Those running the consultation will not be able to say yes to everything and nor should they. Being realistic and clear from the outset that consultation is about collecting ideas for future deliberation is of paramount importance.

  4. Keep communicating

    A consultation event is not a one-off. It is important to keep all employees informed about the future deliberations and let people know how and why some ideas have been taken up and how and why some have not. Giving people the opportunity to ask questions about this is important in furthering trust.

  5. Narrow the focus

    Any consultation does not have to cover absolutely everything. Narrow the focus down to particular areas of business, teams, topics, etc so that people know what they can bring to the table at any one time. If other topics continue to be raised, set up further consultations to cover these.

  6. Set up working parties

    There may well be issues that are raised that are intractable — either because what employees want is not possible or because it is not immediately obvious how a particular challenge (or opportunity) can be met. Setting up a working party of people who are particularly interested in the issue or who have particular expertise/experience in it means that the topic is not simply dismissed but discussions can continue. Again, it is important that the progress of the working party is reported back to consultees.

Opening a company up to employee consultation can be a scary prospect. The key to success is in planning. Use existing line management/supervision/team meeting structures to gently tease out what issues might arise to ensure that these have been thought through before the consultation itself. Likewise, ensure that the broader communications policy is comprehensive and robust and that all channels of communication are open and accessible to employees prior to the consultation in the hope that significant issues and complaints are raised prior to the consultation process starting.