Acas, the employment relations service, is predicting how workplace conflicts could evolve as the UK emerges from the recession in its latest discussion paper, Riding out the storm: managing conflict in a recession and beyond

With employers and employees still facing a continued period of uncertainty, the discussion paper reviews the impact the current recession has had on employment relations and considers how workplace war could be triggered by new and different touch points in the future. It also discusses how conflicts might manifest themselves in new ways.

Key predictions include:

Unofficial action via social media:
There has been an emergence of forms of collective action that were not evident in the previous recession, namely wildcat strikes. One common factor in these actions has been the use of technology – emails, text messaging and social networking sites, enabling demonstrators to organise rapidly amongst the workforce and the local community.

Pension problems:
Pensions are likely to become even more of a hotspot for employment relations in the private and public sector. Although it is not something appearing on the collective bargaining agenda at the moment this may well change, as companies seek to close schemes to existing, as well as new, members.

The lack of official leadership in such disputes means negotiating with this group can be complex and a resolution harder to achieve.

Addressing hidden conflict
Another worrying trend to result from the recession is the growth of more hidden manifestations of conflict including bullying and harassment, stress, loss of trust, lower levels of engagement. These symptoms often escape official statistics because they are not expressed through the official channels of strike action, employment tribunals or even formal grievances.

Instead this type of discontent can fester in the workplace ultimately causing costs to employers in the form of higher absence rates, increased turnover and diverted management time. There can also be serious implications for the health and wellbeing of employees if these problems are not effectively dealt with.

Catch up time
2010 could be ‘catch up time’ for those areas of the private sector that remain highly unionised. Although this recession has been characterised with a rise in concessionary bargaining between employers, unions and employees, negotiations are becoming much tougher with employees looking to recoup the pay losses they have suffered in the past year.

Commenting on the discussion paper, Peter Harwood, Acas Chief Conciliator says

‘”As the private sector deals with the impact of the recession on its workforce, the public sector is also preparing for significant cuts. It is essential that employers, managers, and trade union representatives improve communication and engagement, so that potential issues that may cause conflict are aired and listened to and early action taken.”’

Notes to editors

Acas’ aim is to improve organisations and working life through better employment relations. It provides information, advice, training and a range of services working with employers and employees to prevent or resolve problems and improve performance. It is an independent statutory body governed by a Council consisting of the Acas Chair and employer, trade union and independent members.

Employee Engagement Summit 2010