People & Performance – June 2000 issue                                                     back to articles menu


“ERB – new skills required”

A tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted look at possible training requirements for Management and HR people caused by the Employment Relations Bill


Well, it looks like the Employment Relations Bill will go through Parliamentary Process with most of the controversial stuff still in place. The Bus is heading for a cliff-edge, the passengers know it but the Driver can’t hear the screams, doesn’t know what a cliff-edge looks like and continues in innocent ignorance (as if you could ever call politicians innocent). Let’s assume there are no changes, and that this farcical tapestry, this triumph of democratically-induced misguided revenge called the ERB becomes Law on 1st August. What will the training issues be, for our line managers and HR people?  Everything we’ve been teaching, over the last 9 years of commercial reality, now has to be reviewed.


The Skills of Duplicity:

To suggest, even for one New York Minute, that company executives are actually going to share sensitive, confidential, financial information and secret future business strategies with external Union officials not bound to any confidentiality strictures (and in any case probably not contextually qualified to understand them), and who are also meeting with every competitor company, is naïve to the max. I have no idea who wrote that particular piece of idiocy into the Bill, but he/she probably still believes in fairies at the bottom of the garden. So our Managers are going to be looking to us trainers to teach them how to present a set of information that appears to say much but in fact says nothing. The more information that says nothing, the better. Volume and mass are important here, with lots of data-show stuff in PowerPoint with audio clips and animated cartoons. We have to teach them how to make verbose vagueness look and feel like crystal-clear specifics. Actually, we could appoint the average skilled politician as a mentor to co-train.


The Skills of Aggression:

Since the Government wants us to go back to the 70’s, we’re either going to have to bring the old war-horses out of retirement and power-up their pacemakers, or teach our current managers and HR people how to be aggressive without actually being charged with assault. We have a new generation of managers and HR people who have never ‘faced off’ across a crowded negotiation table, who’ve never said, “I know where your kids go to school” and to whom the ‘F’ word means Faith (as in ‘Good’). Nine years of teaching warm fuzzies has now got to be reversed.


The Skills of Concealment:

Slightly different from Duplicity, this is the competency of actually hiding information until long after the deal has been struck, and the skill of releasing that information in timed, small pieces, to different people in different locations, so that by the time the other party puts it all together and arrives at the (possibly incorrect) conclusion, it’s time for the next round of negotiations, so it doesn’t matter anymore anyway.


The Art of Transformation:

This is the art – I think it’s an art – which some accountants have, that in the past has been seen as naughty, but now will be seen as essential. It’s the art of taking a set of real figures and presenting them in a format such that the conclusions one might draw from them is 180 degrees further round from the truth, while at the same time the concluder feels happy that they have ‘got their head around the figures’. The figures themselves are accurate and faithfully recorded. The best teachers of this skill are probably still doing time in prison, but I’m sure we can ‘spring’ them on good behaviour bonds, or go visit them and pay them to pass on the skill to us trainers.


The Skill of Doing More with Less Staff:

You can’t fire the one’s you’ve got, but you won’t want to hire any more. At least, your Directors won’t want you to. One effect of the ERB is the risk of being forced to pay out the remaining cash value of each and every employment contract in the event of a need to reduce staff. If you don’t have the cash to do that, and haven’t negotiated a redundancy agreement, then you won’t be able to reduce staff. So you carry on in the full knowledge that you are (possibly) insolvent, which is illegal and carries a jail term. Also, under the ERB, Directors cannot protect their personal assets behind the Limited Liability provisions of the Companies Act. Do we think there will be an understandable resistance to employing new staff? Damn right we do… Up until now, a Court had to find a Director knowingly negligent and reckless before it could start seizing personal assets. Not so with the ERB.  In fact, the very act of employing new staff might now in fact be a reckless act in itself. We need to teach our managers how to avoid employing any new staff – in fact, practice attrition properly, so that in the end the organization can either expand using existing staff only, or (over time) produce at current levels with no staff at all. This is the ideal state, of course. We also need to teach our Directors how to set up Family Trusts.



The Skill of How to form a Union:

We need to start thinking about how to teach staff to form their own Union, and how to run it. The legalities are fairly simple – about $1000 in legal fees to set up your Incorporated Society, with it’s Constitution (just grab an existing one – the Cosi club’s one will do – and change the words to suit), and have a minimum of 2 people to start it off. Actually, if we get the Managers into the same Union, then everyone around the negotiating table will be a Union member. That’s quite tidy, to my mind, you could all go out on strike together and it would make for a uniformity of thought such as would make a Stalin smile.


The Skill of Making Sense of Non-Sense

Since the ERB is going to apply only three tests to determine whether the Contractor is a Contractor or an Employee, yet the IRD in its own Act uses seven and even then has trouble, one can only assume that the writers of the ERB know far more about Taxation than the IRD does. I would love to see their credentials. We will need to teach managers how to deal with two conflicting Acts of Parliament and at the same time stay sane. I guess Stress Management may come in here too.  That electrician you use on-site who calls herself Zap & Frizzle Electrical Ltd, who gives you an Invoice each month, and because of the shoddy state of your machinery is there almost all day four days a week (may even have her own workbench) is probably an employee under the ERB. But not under IRD. So under the ERB you should be paying ‘wages’ and ‘holiday pay’, but under the IRD rules you shouldn’t. We also need to teach our managers how to conduct performance reviews with these contractor/employees, and how to use the disciplinary and termination process applicable to all their workers – since these will now apply to the Contractor/employee as well. We will need to do workshops on ‘working with confusion’.


The Skills of working with Jargon:

One of the critical mainstays, dare I say the foundation-piece of the ERB, is that the word Contract will be expunged, obliterated, done away with. On our way back to a Welfare State, the word ‘contract’ is far to commercial and will be replaced by the new word ‘Agreement’. We will have Collective Agreements and, where the Union hasn’t got around to visiting your site yet, Individual Agreements.

The word ‘Reasonable’ will need to be torn to pieces in court and may, after a reasonable time, be determined as to it’s meaning. Since any Union, perhaps 50 of them, can all (if they want) turn up at the gates, at the same time, without warning but at a ‘reasonable’ time, and demand to have ‘access’ to your workers for the purposes of recruiting, you can see that production might be adversely affected. It took five years for the Employment Court to get around to determining what ‘recognise’ meant, so it could be an interesting ride. The same will apply to the expression ‘Education Leave’. When you consider how hard the IRD works to determine what ‘entertainment’ means, one can only wonder at the interpretation of ‘education’.  In the interim, we need to teach our managers how to list all the possible meanings of any particular word (but particularly those listed above), rank them in order of preference to suit the particular argument, then argue down from the top as necessary.


The Skills of Divide and Rule

The ERB will allow a Union representing workers on one site to recruit members on several other sites and negotiate one Collective Agreement (not ‘contract’ remember, although it is in fact a Contract) with each of the Employers. Therefore the clerical workers at Telstra could unite with Telecom and Clear clerical workers and have one Union negotiate a single Collective Agreement covering all union members at each of those competitor sites, nationally. Since Employers are now prevented from calling in non-Union labour to replace those on strike, you can see that effectively the Union can take strike action in Auckland, and because the membership is National, the whole country is called out on strike. This is not to be confused with a 70’s - style National Award Strike that Labour has said won’t happen. It is instead called ‘multi-enterprise bargaining’, so of course it’s OK then. In answer to this threat, we will need to teach our managers the black art of Divide and Rule, which effectively means doing whatever you have to, to make the workers on one site actively dislike workers on all other sites, and want their own separate Union. Which you can then set up for them, of course.


There remains one question. What do we teach our Union officials – many of whom are of the new generation too? The answer is quite simple. We need to teach them to counter all of the skills mentioned above. After all, having a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent is hardly cricket. That’s what Labour means by ‘Good Faith Bargaining’.

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand. email:
© Steve Punter 2000 All rights reserved by the author                                                                                                                                                                                   back to articles menu