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Farrer & Co | “Employee Champions”: Unions in disguise?

Like many employment lawyers, I have spent a lot of time over the last couple of years advising clients on various issues linked to the #MeToo movement, whether that is dealing with old skeletons in the cupboard, new revelations, investigations, grievances, disciplinaries and old-fashioned straightforward (in some ways) Equality Act 2010 discrimination advice. I’ve just been at a conference of international lawyers and it has been interesting to hear the similarities and differences in how other jurisdictions are dealing with the #MeToo fallout (interestingly it seems that investigations are on the rise for lawyers everywhere).

Aside from the legal issues, I am also interested in how to help create safer and better organisations more generally. Although some of this strays outside the purely legal sphere, lawyers - and particularly employment lawyers (including me!) - have a lot to say on this subject based on our years of experience of seeing what works well and what works less well in different organisations.

One point that comes up time and time again is an idea of employee champions. There are lots of different names for these initiatives but essentially the idea is to have an identified group of staff to whom other members of staff can turn to ask for advice and guidance on internal process issues. These champions will often have an inside track from HR and management on how the internal processes work and may even be given time off from their usual duties to perform this champion role, and to support and encourage staff who may be wary of speaking out because they are afraid of the “unknown” (ie internal processes and possible outcomes).

Is it just me or does this sound a lot like the role of a union rep?

I find it fascinating that so many of the organisations who have put (or are thinking about putting) these sorts of champion roles in place, have either never been unionised or have not been unionised for a long time but they seem to have identified a union-shaped gap in their workplaces.

Now, I know that a union is a lot more than just an employee champion and that union-employer relations are a lot more complicated than this (in good and bad ways). But I also know that when you have a good union rep and good union-management relations (which some of our clients do have), internal processes can work so much better and employees are genuinely supported, not via a (potentially impersonal) Employee Assistance Helpline but by a real person who knows them and their organisation.

I confess that my theory slightly broke down when a client which has good relations with their unions told me that they had also put in place employee champions (and that they had had to work with the unions to ensure the role did not undermine the union’s role). Nevertheless, I will continue to watch with interest the developments of “employee champions” and how employers engage with their workforce to improve their workplace culture - and maybe start to recreate unions for the 21st century.

If you require further information about anything covered in this blog, please contact Kathleen Heycock, or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, May 2019

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