October 2019 saw the publication of the latest in a series of Acas research papers. This research, conducted by Richard Saundry, University of Sheffield, Virginia Fisher, University of West England, and Sue Kinsey, University of Plymouth, looks at the evolving nature of the HR function and its implications for workplace conflict.
Their report is based both on a review of the academic literature and on data from thirty-one in-depth interviews with HR practitioners used to explore their attitudes to workplace conflict, the role they play in handling difficult employment relations issues and how different HR structures influence organisational approaches to conflict management.
The researchers found that, although HR in smaller organisations continues to adopt a generalist approach, with the management of conflict seen as a core HR activity, in most large organisations there is a clear separation between specialist services, operational HR advisors and ‘strategic’ HR business partners. Significantly, even in smaller organisations HR practitioners have a clear ambition to be more ‘strategic’. The researchers saw this as ‘…inextricably linked to the devolution of people management responsibilities to line managers’.
For those interviewed, conflict management and employee relations were not seen as ‘strategic’, but as ‘operational’ and secondary to the overarching role of the business partner, which was reflected in the status and influence of employment relations advisors.
What is more, such expertise was not seen as a path to career success for most HR practitioners, with progression associated with leaving such work behind – ‘In short employment relations has become counter-aspirational’. As a result, the researchers considered that such attitudes made early resolution of conflict less likely, with responses to conflict becoming ‘…reactive, late and focused on the management of risk’.
This as timely and telling piece of research which accords with our perception of the changing priorities of HR. It confirms our view that, in their ambition to become more ‘strategic’, HR professionals may sometimes be failing to appreciate the critical and continuing importance of employee relations and conflict-handling. Without these skills, HR is unable to work effectively in partnership with line managers in tackling the people problems they inevitably face.