Published on 10 December 2010 by Tony Groom

A Company Doctor and former President of the Turnaround Management Association, who seeks to save companies, and who does not work for banks, has approached a number of UK trades unions with a view to forging a collaborative approach to dealing with companies in financial difficulties.

Currently, employees are rarely involved in the decision-making when a company’s survival is threatened, but a successful business turnaround relies very much on the support of its employees.

Unlike formal insolvency procedures, turnarounds are consensual. Leadership, teamwork and communication are key to implementing change. Engaging with staff and involving them in the business introduces accountability and responsibility to a business and is crucial to its success. This is even more so with a turnaround where change is necessary.

Historically turnarounds have been co-ordinated by banks as secured creditors, or by new investors who drive change from a purely financial perspective, oriented towards achieving single stakeholder objectives.  What gets measured, gets managed.

Many stakeholders have compromised their credibility with employees by this pursuit of short-term objectives.

Why should investor shareholders care about survival after their financial engineering has repaid 100% of their acquisition investment?  Are secured creditors more interested in reducing their exposure or saving a company?  Professional managers tend to have their own attractive exit packages and new management can make a quick buck more easily if they pursue short-term objectives.

So who is really interested in the employees let alone securing their employment for the future?

The trades unions are still believed to be the true representatives of employees’ interests. It is acknowledged that the relationship between management and union representatives has in some instances become polarised. Negotiations are often characterised as confrontational, with management and unions trying to hold each other to ransom.

None of this is helpful when trying to save a fragile business. It is rather like the surgeon fighting with his medical team when a patient’s life hangs in the balance on the operating table.

This new initiative to collaborate with trades unions is based on developing a mutual respect and understanding of each other’s objectives outside the constraints of a turnaround situation.

It is intended that the respect and understanding of each other’s roles is brought to the table by involving union representatives early in the process and especially when considering turnaround options.

For example, union input can be valuable when considering the thorny problem of how to reduce staff costs, where hard choices might have to be made between cutting numbers, wages, hours, or benefits.

The great advantage of having union representatives involved in the decision making process is their commitment to helping implement the agreed measures. It helps remove fear among staff by reassuring them that their interests have been taken into account when developing the turnaround plan.

A recent turnaround was achieved with support from a union representative.

It resulted in agreement to reduce contractual hours for staff from 60 to 32.5 per week at a slightly increased rate with scope for overtime above this level when business picked up.

The union negotiator was tough but realistic and introduced some valuable initiatives that led to improved facilities for staff and an upgrade to the staff handbook.

Although largely non-financial these initiatives helped reassure the employees that they were essential to the business’s survival. The employees accepted the changes and the turnaround was a success.