Ann Brown: Consultation and trust ease the path of change

Change is an inevitable part of all our working lives, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. An ageing population and the impact of legislation, such as the Pensions Act 2004, make it essential for all organisations to review their pension arrangements. You only have to look at media coverage of the strike at Grangemouth oil refinery to realise how emotive changes to final salary pensions can be and the difficulties change can cause.

When it comes to delivering regrettable news, which we faced when we closed our defined benefit scheme this year, having the trust of staff and their representatives is one of the most important factors. Dealing with change has taught us that treating people as individuals, behaving with integrity, honouring commitments and managing effective people processes is the best route to establishing trust.

Consultation is nothing without trust on both sides. Employers should communicate with all staff in an open and collaborative way, and make efforts to engage with those affected. In our case, a focus group including representatives from the National Works Council, the UK Forums and union members from Amicus, and Public and Commercial Services (PCS), met management to discuss the firm’s plan to make the changes to the scheme. This involved a high level of trust from the business in respect of a confidentiality agreement. With commitment to that, we could be open with information, and discuss ideas and options that gave those with a stake in the changes a say in how they were done. It was also important that the focus group received professional, independent advice, and so funding was provided for an independent pensions actuary, selected and engaged by the group.

As HR professionals, we must never forget our dual responsibilities to both the business and the workforce. Our staff representative focus group provided valuable, yet unforeseen, challenges to our proposals and encouraged us to re-examine certain options. This directly influenced the transition plans and helped shape a money purchase scheme. More importantly, it helped ensure morale and retention remained high. In times of change, the first change to be considered should be whether consultation can be improved.

Ann Brown, HR director, shared services at CapGemini