My Biggest MistaKe: John Hougham

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John Hougham, 56, is chairman of ACAS, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service set up by an Act of Parliament in 1975 to provide facilities and services for avoiding and resolving industrial disputes. Since graduating from university in 1960, Mr Hougham's entire career has been in industrial relations, 30 years of it with Ford. He has held several senior executive positions including Director of Industrial Relations (Manufacturing), Ford Europe, ending up as Director of Personnel, and executive board director for Ford UK. He was appointed to head ACAS last February.

MY BIGGEST mistake was failing to argue as firmly as I should against the introduction in our Ford UK plants of a formalised programme of employee involvement that had been successful in the United States. All my experience told me that it wouldn't work here.

Here's why: when I joined Ford in the 1960s, the job of a personnel officer in the UK motor industry was akin to fire-fighting. When disputes flared up, we had to damp them down. Preferably we stopped them breaking out in the first place. Right through the 1970s, labour relations remained confrontational; there seemed little prospect of change.

But by the early 1980s, there was dawning recognition on both sides that in an increasingly competitive world, things couldn't go on as before. National negotiations broke away from being concerned mainly with wages, and moved towards genuine bargaining. Wage increases were conceded in return for substantial changes in the way work was organised, such as flexible working arrangements and the breaking down of strict job demarcation.

In parallel, we began looking at ways of involving employees more in the business. It was felt the programme that had worked so well in the US would help in what we were trying to do here.

My remit then covered Belgium, France, Germany and Spain as well as UK, but my natural concern was about the effect of introducing such a programme in the UK, given the industrial relations attitudes that prevailed here. The basic belief of our trade unions at national level was that such formalised programmes of employee involvement were thinly disguised attempts to work around the trade union arrangements by dealing with the workers direct.

I knew that was the reaction we would get, and I gave my opinion that the only practical way of achieving our objective was through the existing negotiating machinery. But the consultants who had developed the programmes in the US and had been invited over to share their experience with us, found this hard to accept. My attempts to explain the strange beast called British labour relations began to paint me as obstructive and negative. So there came a point when resistance ceased and the consultants moved in.

There was some real success with the salaried staff unions and both sides worked very hard to make the process work, but the formal arrangements fell through.

On the hourly unions side, though, the National Negotiating Committee was unyieldingly opposed.

In the end, by concentrating on the basics of sound employee relations, involving employees in the requirements of the company's business plan and building trust by working together on matters of mutual interest such as education, training and quality, we arrived at the point where today Ford has a much higher level of employee involvement than any formal structured programme could ever deliver.

We did learn something from those early but ultimately unsuccessful attempts, such as techniques of listening to each other and not imposing personal opinions. But the bigger lesson was that what works in one culture doesn't necessarily work in another.

(Photograph omitted)