Employee Experience

Strike out: what industrial action tells us about company culture

3 Mins read

Industrial action and strikes, which are costly both in financial and brand equity terms, have been all
over the news lately in both the UK and US.

The inclination is to assume industrial action is about pay – not least because a ‘pay deal’ is the
standard explanation when they end. But money is not the only thing that leads to strike action. 

Strikes aren’t usually knee-jerk reactions. Of course, pay is a key factor, especially in a time of such
economic turmoil, but industrial action usually comes on the back of cumulatively poor relationships
and a lack of trust. 

There are more negative effects beyond just the obvious operational impact – strikes result in long-
term damage to brand reputations and to customer and employee perceptions. 
It can also be an issue when media coverage doesn’t always tell the full story behind the strike
action, which affects the perception of those outside the organisation. Again, this can be tough for
employees.

Address all the factors

Organisations have to evolve, and that can sometimes require complete modernisation if they are to
remain relevant. But they need to take employees on the journey. Rapid change is a scary prospect –
especially if it is coupled with a cost-of-living crisis. 

Push people too far, too fast and for too long and there’s a very real risk of industrial action. Change
that comes as a surprise to the workforce is likely to be met negatively – especially to those who’ve
been with the organisation for longer periods and to whom the change therefore often seems more
pronounced.

The importance of clear communication around shared goals cannot be understated and is key to
ensuring transformation doesn’t end in conflict or apathy. Being open and honest, and setting a
clear direction and strategy that’s voiced to the wider business, even when the conversations are
difficult, is essential.

Why culture plays a key part

Strikes can stem from a lack of understanding of the employee base and their needs. Agreeing to
participate is very personal to each person involved – and employers don’t have to pay people while
they’re on strike, so it has to be something felt deeply to force them into such a challenging and
impactful decision.

Organisations must address areas of dissatisfaction by setting up, and acting on, feedback loops both
with the employee base generally and with the unions that represent them. Where there is a healthy
and respectful relationship with the union and employees, and an experienced and dedicated
employee relations team, all parties can work together more effectively.

industrial action 1

A company culture built upon the values of clarity, transparency and communication has a much
better chance of avoiding strike action because it avoids storing up negativity. Even difficult topics like redundancies can sometimes be managed without industrial action if the messaging is clear and
the culture is one of mutual respect, understanding and ambition.

After the strike, what then?

Once industrial action has ended, organisations will need to work quickly to re-engage people with
company strategy and purpose and rebuild trust.

That entails working through what could have been done differently and engaging with
employees so they understand the resolution. There will be employees who went on strike and
those who didn’t, and both will need to be an integral part of the process.

Communication and clarity are vital, as is understanding that organisations shouldn’t be afraid to –
delicately – talk about the good things that are happening in their business. It’s most likely they will
have a sub set of the employee body who don’t go out on strike and they still need to put effort into
making work an engaging and positive experience for them.

What will 2024 hold?

With cost-of-living pressures still very much evident, it is possible that there may be fewer long-
lasting strikes in 2024 due to the additional impact on wallets. However, this doesn’t mean
employers can afford to take people for granted if they think there’s less likelihood of a walkout.

Building a culture based on trust, listening and action is something businesses need to work hard to
get right over a long period – and all that hard work can easily be wasted if poor employer
behaviours are allowed to build up to the point where a strike becomes a realistic option. 

At the same time, a slowing jobs market is also causing more people to stay at jobs they might not
find fulfilling, which can breed low morale, contempt and even ‘resenteeism’ .

The key thing to bear in mind is that industrial action usually comes from more than one factor. It’s a
combination of malignant issues, some small and some large, that grow until workers see a strike as
the only viable option.

This is why the company culture is so important – and why leaders need to ensure they stay on top
of it. When the culture is broken, so too is the relationship between employer and employee. The
impact of that can be negative for everyone, even before strike action is on the table.

Further Reading

HR in the Metaverse – Everything You Should Know
Attracting, recruiting, and retaining millennial workforce
6 Tips to Boost Employee Engagement

1 posts

About author
Senior consultant at culture change agency United Culture
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