Is it relevant to talk about the Information and Consultation Process in times where businesses are booming and collective dismissals become rare? Definitely!
Reorganisations, mergers and restructurings remain a constant in companies, hence the obligation to Inform and Consult the Works Council.
CEOs are aware of such obligation and will turn to HR to lead the transformation. It will appeal to all HR roles as identified by Dave Ulrich: Strategic Partner, Change Agent, Administrative Expert and Employee Champion.
A transformation and hence also the Information and Consultation process will inevitably put pressure on different HR functions and employee relations and eventually create uncertainty within the company. However, when properly addressed, the process can become a building block to a more sustainable social dialogue, which, in turn, benefits the company.
This article focuses on ten practical tips and hints gained from extensive experience as a company HR Lawyer. I trust that my insider views are a rich complement to other views you may gain from external lawfirms.
Tip 1: Think ‘Works Council’ at the root of the process
Works Councils should be informed and consulted upfront, i.e. before any decision has been taken, and as soon as possible.
Before Information and Consultation you will likely have a study phase, during which the company will reflect on the route it intends to take.
All the work done during this phase will be key during the Information and Consultation period. All energy invested during your preparation process will be a solid basis and time-saver during the Information and Consultation.
Tip 2: Information and Consultation – no decision
The purpose of this process is that social partners can form an informed opinion about your intentions. This means that the Works Council first needs to be informed about your intention, on which it will express its views. As an employer, you can then take this input into account when making your decision.
Bear in mind not to talk about a “decision” in this phase, but rather about an “intention” or a “plan”. You can also reflect this in your wording when addressing your Works Council by choosing words such as as “should”, “would”, etc
Tip 3: If you have the luxury – get your timing right
A restructuring may come suddenly, or forced. However, should that not be the case, pick your timing wisely:
- During the Information and Consultation period, the focus of the social relations will be on the restructuring. Even if the social bodies are different for negotiating a company convention (Works Council versus Union Delegation), it will be difficult to conclude during the same period a company convention on a different topic. Hence, plan to conclude any convention before kicking off the Information and Consultation.
- The same is true for employees’ or Management’s attention. If you want to kick off a major initiative, think to do it before or after the process.
- Restructuring during social elections times may trigger an increase in the number of candidates and hence protected employees. For sure, the social partners will profile themselves around the topic and there will likely be no serene social climate.
Tip 4: Address the right social body in an international context
An international restructuring will make your process more complex and likely longer. Make sure the right social body is involved:
- The domestic Works Councils of the countries where there is an impact should be first addressed. You may also decide to inform other domestic Works Councils in a non-binding way, to keep the social climate optimal in such circumstances.
- When there is a European Works Council, check your regulations to evaluate the need to address the matter at European level. This is normally the case when minimum two European countries are involved, or even for just one country in case of “strategic” topics.
- In some countries, the Health and Safety Committee also needs to be involved – often this is happening at a later stage when social partners feel there is an impact on employees’ wellbeing.
Tip 5: Work with a robust project team
In my experience, the most successful Information and Consultation (and transformation) is accomplished when a multidisciplinary team works together.
Think of a good mix: business leader, country director, finance representative, communnications person, …
- Define clear roles and responsibilities for each team contributor;
- Be explicit about the way to operate, dealines, etc
- Consider having everyone sign a confidentiality clause.
Tip 6: Get a mandate
Make sure that you know upfront which (social) measures HR will be able to decide upon alone and for which you will need to seek executive approval.
Tip 7: What about the budget?
An Information and Consultation will always have a cost. Foresee budget for:
- Legal fees – certainly when dealing with an international restructuring, you will likely need to be assisted by an external lawfirm.
- Some countries provide that social partners can appeal to experts to assist them – these are to be paid by the company.
- Translation costs – domestic works councils will require documents (presentations, memos etc) to be drafted in the country’s national language(s).
- Renting external meeting rooms for large discussion meetings, should internal space not meet the need.
Tip 8: Be ready for contingency
You never know how things evolve – make sure that in these times your contingency plans are up-to-date.
Tip 9: Communicate – internally and externally
When you have informed your Works Council, you may want to agree with your unions that they provide you with their own communications about the topic upfront.
Address employees and management. Make sure your Internal Communications person is part of the project team at the very start, to create consistency of message throughout all layers of management, and provide line managers with all the support they could need: Q&A, Lines To take, etc.
External communicatiion will be mandatory in case of a collective dismissal but even outside these obligations, you might think of pro-active communications to:
- The Employer federation of your sector – they know you, they have expertise, are familiar with similar scenarios, and know the reactions of social partners
- Joint Committees
- External partners you work with (lawfirms, payroll agency, providers …)
- The press
- Your clients
Tip 10: HR, don’t forget to take care of yourself
These are difficult times, the company’s leadership is turning to you for your expertise. You will be coach, advisor, …There will be tensions, and things can go wrong.
Make sure you take care of yourself during this process to keep it going. Reserve time in your busy agenda for an early morning run, meditation, some quality time with family or friends or whatever suits you best to effectively manage the stress.
It is my experience that when getting prepared professionally, social partners and employees appreciate a professional social dialogue, which leads to enhanced employee relations and even a more sustainable HR.
This will eventually also reflect on employee engagement post-event, as well as on the credibility of the organisation, its HR functions and its Management.
Karen holds a degree in Law and Social Law from the KUL and ULB. She started her career at Becton Dickinson as HR Trainee. She then moved to JP Morgan as HR Lawyer specialising in Labour Law, Employee Relations and Employee Benefits. At Euroclear she was HR Business Partner and later worked on the HR side of international restructurings and transformation projects. Recently Karen has launched a new activity as an HR Interim Manager.