There is no common structure for employee representation in the UK and in many workplaces it does not exist. Unions are the most common way that employees are represented.
When can I be represented?
All workers have the right to be accompanied in a formal grievance or disciplinary hearing by:
An official who is employed by a union
A trade union workplace representative who has been certified by the union as being competent to accompany individuals
A colleague (please note a colleague does not have the same rights as a trade union official or workplace representative)
The choice of accompanying person is that of the worker.
This right is contained in Section 10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 and is supported by the ACAS Code of Practice.
The law does not require a union representative to accompany an individual who asks to be accompanied. A member should not pressurise a union representative to attend a meeting.
When does the right to be accompanied apply?
The right to be accompanied applies to any disciplinary hearing, including a capability hearing, which could result in:
A formal warning being issued
Any other disciplinary action being taken, including a dismissal
An appeal meeting relating to a warning or other disciplinary action.
There is no right to be accompanied in investigation meetings or informal disciplinary meetings. However, employers need to be careful to ensure that such meetings do not lead to disciplinary action being taken as this would deprive workers of their right to be accompanied.
The right to be accompanied applies to any grievance hearing where an employee is complaining about a legal duty which their employers owes them, for example a contractual or a statutory right.
In many workplaces, unions have negotiated the right for unions to represent members fully in grievance and disciplinary matters.
When does the right to be accompanied not apply?
The right does not apply where a worker asks for a pay rise, unless their contract provides a right to an annual increase.
It also does not apply where an individual is requesting a discretionary car parking space, unless the employee is disabled and can prove that failure to provide a car parking space would amount to disability discrimination.
Good practice for employers in grievance and disciplinary procedures
Workers should be informed in writing of their right be accompanied.
All meetings, including appeals, should be arranged at a time that is convenient for the individual and their representative.
All grievance meetings should take place in private and arrangements should be made to accommodate the needs of disabled workers and migrant workers, including allowing facilitators or translators to attend meetings.
What happens if a union representative is not available?
The ACAS Guide on Discipline and Grievances at Work suggests that where possible the employer should allow a companion, including a union representative, to have a say in the date and time of a hearing. If a union representative cannot attend at the time that an employer has proposed for a meeting, the worker can suggest an alternative time and date, so long as it is reasonable and is not more than five days after the original date.
Local representatives are important because they are the backbone of their union. Without representation at workplace level there would be no-one to act as the link between members, the employer and the union and no-one to organise, represent and negotiate on behalf of people in the workplace.
Here are some of the things union reps get involved in:
Recruiting members into the union and organising them around workplace issues
Talking to members about workplace issues, advise them and keep them informed of the latest developments
Representing members who have problems
Work in the branch and the wider union
Negotiations with the employer.
Are there different workplace representatives?
Depending on the nature of workplace and branch organisation not all union representatives necessarily have the same roles within the union team.
Not every rep gets involved in workplace disciplinary problems, although all would be interested in the outcome of individual representation cases.
All union reps will talk to supervisors and managers as a matter of routine but not all union reps will be involved directly face-to-face negotiations over key issues.
Why become a union representative?
There are all sorts of reasons people become union representatives;
Because they are good communicators and their work colleagues think that they would be good in the role
Some feel strongly about issues and want to change things for the better
Some are dissatisfied with something at work and want to have the rights of a representative to influence members and management
Some are persuaded to have a go by other union reps looking for strengthen the union team
Some are pleased with the outcome of a personal case that was handled by the union and want to give something back
In other cases they are the only one to do the job because nobody else will try.
The way a union rep is chosen depends on the rules of their union, in the BFAWU this is outlined in our rule book.
Different representatives, different roles
There are several types of union representative, with separate roles, although sometimes different names are used to describe them:
Shop Steward – has statutory rights to represent members in the workplace and carry out other workplace duties.
Health and safety representative – has statutory rights to cover many aspects of health, safety and welfare in the workplace and attends health and safety committee meetings. In our union the shop steward and the health and safety representative are two separate positions.
Union learning representative – has statutory rights for promoting and organising education and training in their own workplace.
Equality representative – covers all aspects of promoting, organising and negotiating equality and fairness at work, the BFAWU currently doesn’t have equality representatives
Green representative – Union environmental or green reps play a key role in raising awareness and ensuring that environmental issues are included in the bargaining agenda with employers.
Senior steward or convenor – is a union representative with a lot of experience of dealing with workplace issues and will represent the workforce at meetings with management to negotiate pay or changes in working conditions.
Union full-time officer – can be elected or appointed according to the union rule book. This officer works full-time for the union and supports all regional union activities and representatives. Their main function is to become involved in members’ cases when they reach a higher level with management. Some unions also employ fulltime organisers to support branches.
What about non-members?
Well, unions are membership organisations funded almost entirely from members’ contributions. As a representative you should take every opportunity to encourage people to join the union. However, it must be noted that most people do come to the union in times of trouble or if they have a grievance. They will not normally be able to get assistance for things that happened before they became a member.
What if there is a complaint against another member?
It may well happen that a rep takes up an issue for a union member against another person who is also a member of the same union. That member is entitled to representation too although not through the same union rep. There is a need to careful, to be fair and to ensure that confidential information is not shared. Advice should be sought from the union to try and make sure the right approach is being taken.
What if a union rep feels they cannot help?
Although union representatives should always try to assist members, in some cases they may feel unable to help because they:
Are too close to the issue and cannot be unbiased
Know the member(s) involved too well
Feel out of their depth and without the relevant experience to take a case forward, e.g. the case is too complex
Fear that winning a case could adversely affect others’ terms and conditions
Have been advised by the union that the case is not likely to succeed
Are concerned that a member has refused to take the advice of a representative on how to pursue a case.
In any of these circumstances, another rep should take up the case or a union full-time official, particularly if the case is complex.
Even when a member has contributed fully to the circumstances they are in, a representative can play an important role in ensuring that any disciplinary action taken against that member takes into account extenuating circumstances, is appropriate to the case and not inconsistent with other previous disciplinary decisions by the employer.
Sometimes, after pursuing a case through the available procedures, it may be that the workplace union feels the case has reached the end of the line and no further progress can be made. Our union reps would normally take advice on this.
Legal advice or legal representation is not generally appropriate or necessary. Our reps should avoid giving interpretations of the law or promising success in a case. Every effort should be put into resolving employment relations problems at workplace level. If that is not done it is likely be the first issue picked up if the case gets as far as an employment tribunal hearing.