A new blog and a very interesting point of view from a former Senior Vice President of Emirates Group IT Tom Burgess.
I appreciate that introducing a Trade Union into Emirates is probably the last thing on the company’s agenda during these challenging times, but maybe it is not such a foolish idea.
Spotlights are being focussed on the Emirates Group with increasing frequency and intensity. The motives of those holding the lights vary considerably, but it is clear that the standard Emirates response (put on the sunglasses then, if that fails, smash the bulbs) no longer works. Eventually, someone will realise that it is finally time to communicate with those guiding the lights and to have a close and open minded look at what is being illuminated. Once that is done, to enable the company to survive going forward, a total shift of management ethos will be required. Most involved will feel the need to admit that “we got it wrong” will be the toughest challenge, but far greater than that will be how to open up channels of communication with those who really matter – the staff. Those staff who, for their entire careers in Emirates, have sensibly concluded that you only ever tell your manager what s/he wants to hear. Anything else is, at best, career limiting, but more likely career terminating. Historically, managers in Emirates normally have only asked staff for their opinions to check their loyalty and compliance – a test rather than a quest. Assertions of “you can trust us now” will merely be seen as a trap. Maybe an intermediary such as a Trade Union would be able to help?
During my lifetime I have gone round a few circles with my views on Trade Unions. In the UK in the 1960’s they were often ridiculed, seemingly looking for the slightest excuse to down tools. By the early 1970’s many people thought they had too much power and by the end of that decade pretty well everyone, including some members of Trade Unions, knew they had too much power. Enter Margaret Thatcher. Whilst most people recognised the need for, and applauded the result of, her strategy, they were dismayed by her methods (and the resulting social impact) and then appalled as she subsequently took steps (which thankfully failed) to ban Trade Unions in some arenas. For quite some time afterwards, the UK employment environment seemed to provide a good model for everyone involved – staff enjoyed protection, but companies were allowed to run their businesses and communication within all industries improved dramatically. However, many feel that the balance has been tipping in recent times, with workers’ protection progressively diminishing.
My own experiences with Trade Unions were mixed. I managed in all sorts of environments – non-union (by employee choice), mixed union/non-union and total union – and this gave me forever changing perspectives. As a manager, I finally concluded that, broadly, Unions were a waste of time. But this only applied in organisations where management and the HR department actually did the jobs that they were paid to do. Sadly, such organisations are becoming rare and Emirates is light years away from such a position. If a company has a weak HR function, then managers will be tempted to run riot and the company will need a Trade Union to function effectively.
When I worked in the oil industry the production side (refineries, etc.) was heavily unionised but less so the ‘white collar’ environment. The company was properly managed and the ideals of staff involvement, communication, development, retention and motivation were embedded in everyday life, not just words on recruitment material. Naturally the production side of the business enjoyed the benefits of that approach as much as the white collar areas did, but the physical environment did not generally lend itself to open discussion. Add into the mix the need for a huge focus on safety, it was imperative that a comprehensive and forceful voice could be presented to management regarding the serious issues of the day. Regardless of how professional and experienced a manager is, balancing the need to reduce costs with the imperative of maintaining safety is never going to be easy. In an environment where the impact of an operational accident is significant, there comes a time when that challenge becomes potentially impossible. So, in that industry, an independent voice and channel (via a Trade Union) for operational staff was essential. A major incident at an oil refinery can be on the same scale as an aviation disaster.
As managers, there are times when we need to be ‘saved from ourselves’. My saviours were often colleagues in HR departments and I was privileged to have worked with some excellent people over the years. (This includes two HRM’s in Emirates, though sadly both left the company some time ago). One of my favourite HR Directors used to say “Yes, I can see what you are trying to achieve . . .” and then came the word “but”! I think senior managers in Emirates would have benefitted from that word “but” many times over the years. However, this will not happen all the time Emirates HR department is seen (both by the company and by itself) solely as an administrative support function.
I cannot say that I was ever ‘saved’ by a Trade Union representative. My HR colleagues were quite frankly streets ahead of them when it came to people issues. But I did value Union counsel when seeking staff views. I had worked in open management cultures for many years, where everyone was comfortable with saying what they thought without fear of incrimination. But following company mergers, when I found myself leading teams who had previously been managed more in the Emirates style (though nowhere near as extreme), it would have been absurd to expect everyone to open up and trust me from day one. Trust takes a long time to achieve and probably becomes permanently unachievable if you ever say “you can trust me”. But staff did (rightly) trust their Union representative, so that was a useful route to find out what staff really thought about matters. And naturally, as trust was established between managers and Union representatives, that trust permeated in all directions, to the benefit of everyone involved.
Until Emirates HR department becomes functional, there is huge gap to fill if management, indeed the company, is going to be saved from itself. Here are a few examples where truly independent involvement would have helped:
The overwhelming consensus is that the views expressed in the last staff survey were extremely bad, but nobody really knows how bad they were. Eventually, a very brief communication was issued which basically revealed nothing. Does anyone believe that any Trade Union would let a company get away with that? When a survey is commissioned staff will participate, tell the truth and rightly expect to be given the results. How will Emirates, in the future, obtain information that can only be obtained by a comprehensive staff survey? Who will bother? Only those who fear that non completion will result in a penalty will complete it. And if they have concluded that the survey is not confidential, they will not relay any concerns they have. A Trade Union could have saved Emirates from itself on this one. No matter how bad the results were, the impact from publishing them would have not been as negative as it has been by burying the exercise.
The ‘Truth about Emirates Airline Management’ blog has been running for what seems like an eternity. Those who initially asserted ‘ignore it, it will soon go away’ are looking rather silly now. With the existence of a Trade Union, that blog would never have been initiated. If a Trade Union were now to be introduced in Emirates, that blog would soon be taken down. With a Trade Union in place, there would never have been the need to record a meeting, as no manager would risk such behaviour if they had to account to a Trade Union. Had there been an issue between the company and an employee, a Union would have helped an appropriate and amicable way forward to be reached. Had a genuine impasse been reached regarding End of Service benefits, a Union would have assisted with a solution. The need for the ‘truth’ blog should never have arisen but, if the issues that prompted it had somehow not been picked up, a Union would have insisted that action be taken to have the blog removed. It is not only the Emirates Group that is being exposed and made a laughing stock by the ‘truth’ blog, staff members are impacted too. People want to be proud of the company they work for, not ashamed of it. And there must be many in Emirates who are concerned that they too may get a mention – though this is probably a real benefit of the blog as managers who bully will have certainly backed off in response to this particular spotlight. A Union would be able to force the advice (that most people worked out over a year ago) onto Emirates management – stop throwing bricks, go and talk to the lady with the lamp!
Major tragic events in the aviation industry in the last few years have drawn the travelling public to aviation forums and many will be alarmed at the increasing swell of concern about the fitness of flight deck crew to operate safely. It is too easy to make arguments at the ends of the scale – ‘lazy, overpaid prima donnas’ through to ‘so tired I cannot keep awake’. The same goes for the ‘over regulated’/ ‘under regulated’ arguments as well as the ‘ruthless profiteers’ versus the ‘hopelessly inefficient, but bailed out by government’ descriptions of airlines. The travelling public can only feel confident about what is a very complex equation, if they are certain that the overall framework is comprehensive and constructed with firm and independent parts. The public want to have confidence that an airline encourages and reacts to staff (at all levels) concerns, has an alternate and confidential route (such as via a Trade Union) for such communication (should individuals prefer) and is regulated by a genuinely independent official agency. A cynic can always question the competence and the true independence of all those involved, but what I have just described is a pretty robust and balanced framework. But take away the Trade Union and the structure loses its rigidity. Regardless if it is true or not, what travellers are deducing from the aviation forums at the moment is that the airlines and the regulator in the Middle East are working hand in hand and that staff views, if heard at all, are ignored. One picture currently being presented is that if a member of Emirates flight deck crew has a concern about safety, then their best chance of being listened to would be to contact either a German Trade Union or a Russian news channel. Would it not be better if s/he could talk to a Trade Union representing staff in Emirates? I am sure if that option were to be available, the public would feel more confident about flying with Emirates.
I do recognise that just to mention the words ‘Trade Union’ in Emirates could lead to serious consequences, so maybe ‘Staff Association’ would be more palatable. It would require a sea change in management attitude, but anyone who believes that a sea change in management attitude is not required in Emirates is a fool. Membership could be optional, though most companies see the benefit of a strong Union or Association, so actively encourage people to join. Individuals could then join and see if it works for them.
And if they don’t like it, they can leave!!