Good industrial relations, while a recognizable and legitimate objective for an organization, are difficult to define since a good system of industrial relations involves complex relationships between:

(a) Workers (and their informal and formal groups, i. e. trade union, organizations and their representatives);

(b) Employers (and their managers and formal organizations like trade and professional associations);

(c) The government and legislation and government agencies and 'independent' agencies like the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

Oversimplified, work is a matter of managers giving instructions and workers following them - but (and even under slavery we recognize that different 'managing' produces very different results) the variety of 'forms' which have evolved to regulate the conduct of parties (i.e. laws, custom and practice, observances, agreements) makes the giving and receipt of instructions far from simple. Two types of 'rule' have evolved:

  • 'Substantive', determining basic pay and conditions of service (what rewards workers should receive);
  • 'Procedural,' determining how workers should be treated and methods and procedures.

Determining these rules are many common sense matters like:

  • Financial, policy and market constraints on the parties (e.g. some unions do not have the finance to support industrial action, some have policies not to strike, some employers are more vulnerable than others to industrial action, some will not make changes unless worker agreement is made first, and rewards always ultimately reflect what the market will bear);
  • The technology of production (the effect of a strike in newspaper production is immediate -it may be months before becoming effective in shipbuilding);
  • The distribution of power within the community - that tends to vary over time and with economic conditions workers (or unions) dominating in times of full employment and employers in times of recession.

Broadly in the Western style economies the parties (workers and employers) are free to make their own agreements and rules. This is called 'voluntarism'. But it does not mean there is total noninterference by the government. That is necessary to:

  • Protect the weak (hence minimum wage);
  • Outlaw discrimination (race or sex);
  • Determine minimum standards of safety, health, hygiene and even important conditions of service;
  • To try to prevent the abuse of power by either party.
HR managers responsibilities

The personnel manager's involvement in the system of industrial relations varies from organization to organization, but normally he or she is required to provide seven identifiable functions, thus:

  1. To keep abreast of industrial law (legislation and precedents) and to advise managers about their responsibilities e.g. to observe requirements in respect of employing disabled persons, not to discriminate, not to disclose 'spent' convictions of employees, to observe codes of practice etc. in relation to discipline and redundancy, and similarly to determine organizational policies (in conjunction with other managers) relevant to legal and moral requirements (see also 4.).
  2. To conduct (or assist in the conduct) of either local negotiations (within the plant) or similarly to act as the employer's representative in national negotiations. This could be as a critic or advisor in respect of trade etc. association policies or as a member of a trade association negotiating team. Agreements could be in respect of substantive or procedural matters. Even if not directly involved the personnel manager will advise other managers and administrators of the outcome of negotiations.
  3. To ensure that agreements reached are interpreted so as to make sense to those who must operate them at the appropriate level within the organization (this can involve a lot of new learning at supervisory level and new pay procedures and new recording requirements in administration and even the teaching of new employment concepts – like stagger systems of work - at management level).
  4. To monitor the observance of agreements and to produce policies that ensure that agreements are followed within the organization. An example would be the policy to be followed on the appointment of a new but experienced recruit in relation to the offered salary where there is a choice of increments to be given for experience, ability or qualification.
  5. To correct the situations which go wrong. 'Face' is of some importance in most organizations and operating at a 'remote' staff level personnel managers can correct industrial relations errors made at local level without occasioning any loss of dignity (face) at the working level. 'Human resource management' and the obscurity of its reasoning can be blamed for matters which go wrong at plant level and for unwelcome changes, variations of comfortable 'arrangements' and practices and unpopular interpretation of agreements.
  6. To provide the impetus (and often devise the machinery) for the introduction of joint consultation and worker participation in decision-making in the organization. Formal agreement in respect of working conditions and behavior could never cover every situation likely to arise. Moreover the more demanding the task (in terms of the mental contribution by the worker to its completion) the more highly–educated the workers need to be and the more they will want to be consulted about and involved in the details of work life. Matters like the rules for a flexitime system or for determining the correction of absenteeism and the contents of jobs are three examples of the sort of matters that may be solely decided by management in some organizations but a matter for joint consultation (not negotiation) in others with a more twenty-first-century outlook and philosophy. Human resource management is very involved in promoting and originating ideas in this field.
  7. To provide statistics and information about workforce numbers, costs, skills etc. as relevant to negotiations (i.e. the cost of pay rises or compromise proposals, effect on differentials and possible recruitment/retention consequences of this or whether agreement needs to be known instantly); to maintain personnel records of training, experience, achievements, qualifications, awards and possibly pension and other records; to produce data of interest to management in respect of personnel matters like absentee figures and costs, statistics of sickness absence, costs of welfare and other employee services, statements about development in policies by other organizations, ideas for innovations; to advise upon or operate directly, grievance, redundancy, disciplinary and other procedures.