Unite chair: Lancaster University should aim to be a “beacon employer”

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The Lancaster University branch chair of the Unite Union has welcomed the largely positive results of the 2014 staff survey, but has challenged the University to build on the results in order to become one of the best employers in the region. Speaking to SCAN, Haydn Morris, who is also the Chief Technician in the division of biomedical and life sciences, said that Lancaster should use the survey as a “launchpad” and aim to become a “beacon employer.”

“Lancaster University isn’t ambitious enough,” Morris said. “We have a strategic plan and a staff plan where we want to be in the top 10 [UK universities]. I think we should aim to be one of the top 10 of employers in the area.”

The results of the 2014 staff survey were released on Thursday Week 4 with largely positive headline results. Of the 63 per cent of staff who took the survey, 89 percent said that Lancaster University is a good place to work, while 90 per cent of respondents said that they would recommend Lancaster University to others as an employer.

Morris, who as branch chair of the Unite Union represents many of the technician, cleaning and security staff on campus amongst others, told SCAN that the largely positive survey results should not be a cause for complacency. “We should use this [the staff survey] as a launchpad: we should be a beacon employer here,” Morris said, arguing that the University should commit to having directly employed staff and a provision of the living wage for its employees. Morris said that the University should also “take pride in the fact that we’ve got good terms and conditions of employment, we recognise the workers’ independent voice and that should be our aim for the future.

“I think [the survey] is a good start but we’ve got much more work to do, and rather than pat ourselves on the back on this we should try to improve matters and try to be the best employer in the region, if not one of the best employers in the sector.”

Morris’ sentiment appeared to be echoed by some within the University. In an email to staff accompanying the results of the survey, the University’s Director of Human Resources, Paul Boustead, said: “We should take some time to celebrate the results which, overall, show Lancaster as a great place to work. Having said that, we cannot afford to be complacent and we always have room for improvement.”

Morris also said that the results of the survey indicated the growing benefit of the “trade union effect.” “From our point of view as a trade union representative, I think what we’re really seeing is some of the benefit of the trade union effect as it has been observed in other places, particularly with regard to safety,” Morris told SCAN. “There have been a number of studies showing that there are less accidents in places where the trade unions are well organised and there are trade union representatives.

“Credit also has to go to the University for working with the trade unions in this respect, but I think it’s an often overlooked factor that we have a number of dedicated volunteers here working on behalf of their fellow workers and working with the University to ensure that we have fairness.”

Not all of the staff survey was positive, however, with communication appearing to have the starkest negative results. Of those who completed the survey, only 38 per cent believed that different parts of the University currently communicate effectively with each other, while only 51 per cent agreed that communication between senior management and staff was effective. This lack of communication was something Morris believed could be improved. “The closer the manager is to the worker, often the communication is much better. There always seems to be a gap higher up you go into the management.”

However, Morris also said that blaming a particular issue on poor communication does not always get to the root of the problem. “Sometimes real issues like the way people are treated or grievances are put down to poor communication when in fact it may be poor procedures; it may be poor management practices; it may be poor working practices,” Morris told SCAN. “I think the real issue is not so much communication as whether are people’s views are listened to seriously, taken into account and people feel heard.”

Morris’ scepticism extends to the use of surveys to gauge staff opinion. “I think the difficulty with any of these types of surveys – and I have been involved in several over the years – is that they don’t get down amongst the detail, and that’s where the real issues lie for people,” Morris said, arguing that the way the questions are asked let to too reductive a conclusion. “Just because I’m happy with my job doesn’t mean that our working conditions at Lancaster cannot be improved.”

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