Last month’s post described the reasons for proactively establishing an Information and Consultation Forum (ICF) in a business – as well as the benefits that can flow from having an ICF in the workplace.
But to get to that point we now need to look at the mechanics of setting up an ICF and also what to look out for in order to ensure a forum that is fit for purpose – a forum that facilitates management disseminating information and that facilitates management and employee representatives being able to genuinely and effectively consult on the issues that concern them (both). If the ICF is set up correctly, then its chances of genuine success are increased.
The Act itself is quite prescriptive on the setting up of an ICF. The process to set up an ICF can be initiated in one of 3 ways:
- By a request by employees to management
- By a request by employees to the Labour Court
- By management
Once the process has been initiated, the employer is then responsible for the election or appointment of employee representatives. To assist with this process the employer should appoint a returning officer. The Act requires that the Returning Office be appointed “in consultation with existing employees”. Consultation between employer and employees is advisable during this phase as disputes over issues such as how many representatives or how many constituencies there are to be can be referred to the Labour Court.
Once the employee representatives are in place an agreement on information and consultation is required. Negotiations on this agreement are allowed to go on for upwards of 6 months – and can be extended if there is mutual agreement between the employer and the employee representatives to do so. There will be one of 3 outcomes:
- An agreement to apply the so-called “Standard Rules”
- Negotiated agreement
- Failure to agree – in which case the standard rules will apply
To help these negotiations, and indeed to help the ICF do its work, it is a good idea for management members of the ICF to be empowered and willing to make decisions. Otherwise there is a risk that employee representatives will question management’s commitment.
These standard rules detail the size and structure of the forum, its scope, its practical arrangements and also how expenses are to be handled. It is better however for employers to come to a negotiated agreement. Firstly, if the standard rules apply, the employer loses a lot of flexibility. For example, it is desirable for the ICF to have proportional representation from the different elements of the organisation. Secondly, all workplaces are different, so customisation can help ensure that the ICF is appropriate for its unique workplace.
Indeed, the more complex an organisation’s structure, the more difficult it is to ensure that an ICF is adequately representative. For example, there are a host of organisations that deliver services to the Irish public on behalf of the HSE. One such organisation is the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies which delivers services to people with intellectual disability on behalf of the HSE. In order for the Federation to feel confident that its HR personnel are fully informed on HR-related matters, it plans during 2014 to nominate representatives to the HSE’s ICF. The HSE needs to deal appropriately with such nominations as well as ensuring that its own direct employees are adequately represented.
So there is a challenge in ensuring that the ICF is representative. But that challenge co-exists with the need for the ICF to not become unwieldy! There is a balance to be struck.
It is important also for the agreement to list the areas that an ICF can cover and, perhaps more importantly, the areas that an ICF should not concern itself with. One important demarcation line is between issues that affect the workforce in general and issues concerning an individual. The ICF should constrain itself to deal only with issues affecting the workforce in general. Correspondingly, the ICF is not the place to deal with issues such as the following:
- Bullying allegations
- Harassment allegations
- Sexual harassment allegations
- Individual grievances
- Disciplinary issues
This demarcation could be made clear by the ICF simply having a rule of not discussing individual cases. Such ICF rules and procedures may be best captured in a Constitution. It should be noted that the ICF can adopt its own rules of procedure, though if standard rules apply there are some specific requirements. Having a Constitution for an ICF may sound like excessive bureaucracy but it need not be. It can be succinct and, if written well, can provide clarity and direction for all ICF members and indeed the entire workforce. For example, the Constitution could have a section in it titled Purpose and Scope that could include : “Individual cases may not be discussed”. Any Constitution should of course be able to be changed as circumstances change – so it should include a clear definition of its own change process.
Another challenge in setting up an ICF is to ensure that the people filling the various roles are adequately trained for their work in the ICF. Again it is not a case of one size fitting all. For example, individual contributors who are members of the ICF will quite possibly need training that is not required for managerial members. This is because the managerial members will tend to have more experience and skills in areas such as presentation skills, interpreting financial data, conducting meetings, drawing up reports, allocating resources and negotiating. Appropriate and targeted training will level that playing field – as well as sending the signal to employees that the employer wants the ICF to function well. Of course there may also be joint training needs for management and employee representatives – and such training can foster a sense of teamwork between the two groups.
This is a new and complex area and it is important to get skilled advice if considering the setting up of an ICF – be that as a result of an employer initiative or in reaction to a request from employees. To get expert guidance in the area, call Mary Cullen, Patrick Foley or Liam Barton on 056 770 1060 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.