At Work: Human Resources - HR clinic - How to deal with difficultpay claims

John Burnell, director of Personnel Solutions

Q: You can defuse a pay dispute without affecting your finances and alienating your employees. Our staff are unionised and have put in an extravagant pay claim. We have a cash crisis. How can we avoid bitterness and a strike?

A: Pay disputes in the voluntary sector are, thankfully, pretty rare - and they're not confined to charities with a strong union presence.

But they can be difficult when they arise, not least because charity employees, by and large, are dedicated people who are therefore all the more prone to disappointment when the organisation they work for doesn't come up to their expectations.

If they are being encouraged to press for a large pay rise, they could be in for a big disappointment.

Communication is key

Pay claims are unlikely to be demanded by the collective union shop.

It's more likely that a few members of the awkward squad - yes, we've all got them - or perhaps a newly appointed steward want to make their mark, so they seek to establish credibility by raising the expectations of the members and the blood pressure of the trustees.

A key for you must be good communications. Do staff know about the cash crisis? You should perhaps have told them before the pay claim came bouncing in. In any event, you need to get the message across now.

And although your union recognition agreement means you're likely to be confined to talking directly only with the stewards about the pay claim, there's nothing to stop you disseminating all the relevant management information about the state of the charity's finances, and what it can and can't afford. Indeed, you should be doing these things. They are likely to draw the sting from support for the pay claim.

Make concessions

You can ease things further by identifying matters on which you could make concessions without bankrupting yourself, such as more flexible working, better family-friendly policies and more time off.

That way, the union representatives can take something away to offer their members while your finances remain relatively intact. That's the golden rule in industrial relations - always seek a win-win solution.

And if none of that works, try cultivating a good relationship with the full-time trade union officials.

They'll know what is realistically achievable, both in the sector generally and in your charity in particular, and are likely to use their skill to impose a pragmatic solution on their local branch.

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