Inform and consult your employees
If you employ people you'll need to communicate with them to exchange views and ideas, and to issue and receive instructions. In certain situations you are legally required to inform and consult employees.
Successful consultation and information-sharing between you and your employees is also critical to your business' success. Benefits of making your employees feel involved and empowered can include higher productivity and reduced recruitment costs.
This guide explains your legal requirements, such as those set out in the Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) Regulations, and the opportunities for communicating with your employees. It explains when pre-existing agreements (PEAs) may meet your requirements under the ICE regulations and how you can negotiate and implement an agreement with your employees. It also explains the 'fall-back provisions' that work when you do not already have a PEA in place or if you and your employees fail to agree an information and consultation process.
It also discusses the requirements for information and consultation through a European Works Council if you are part of a multinational company.
Lastly, this guide sets out how your business can benefit from successful communication and outlines examples of good practice.
Advantages of good employee communication
Communicating with your employees is central to managing your workforce. Poor communication can result in misunderstandings and mistrust. Introducing proper procedures for informing and consulting with your employees can take time and money but you will benefit from improved products, productivity and competitiveness.
Other benefits of effective consultation and information-sharing include:
- improved employee commitment and job satisfaction, particularly if employees understand what the business is trying to achieve and the effect of their contribution
- increased morale leading to lower turnover of employees and reduced recruitment and training costs
- better employee performance, if they understand targets and deadlines and receive proper feedback
- provision of accurate information or guidance, which helps avoid misunderstandings, eg on health and safety policies, business performance, staff changes and job structures
- improved management decision making, due in part to feedback from employees
- improved management/employee relations
- improved exchange of ideas
- consistent approach and strategy across the business
If employees are given inadequate or unclear instructions, they could act in breach of regulations without meaning to. Lack of basic information can also be a breach of workers' rights. See legal requirements for communicating with employees.
Legal requirements for communicating with employees
As an employer, you are required to inform and consult employees in certain circumstances. See consulting your employees.
You must inform employees of:
- The main terms and conditions of employment in written form - see the employment contract. This must be provided within two months of an employee commencing employment.
- Any changes in the terms and conditions of employment.
- The reason in writing for dismissing them (for employees with 12 or more months' service). This is only necessary if they request it - unless they are a woman who is dismissed while pregnant or on maternity leave, or statutory adoption leave when in these cases 12 months service is not required. It can be wise to provide this even to employees that haven't completed 12 months employment as this clarity of communication can avoid potential misunderstandings and unnecessary claims. Such consideration, even though is not required, is good practice.
- Certain matters when your business is involved, eg in the transfer of an undertaking - see responsibilities to employees if you buy or sell a business.
You must give recognised trade unions the information they require for collective bargaining. For more information on recognising trade unions and collective bargaining, see recognising and derecognising a trade union.
You are also required by law to:
- provide employees with an itemised pay slip whenever you pay them
- communicate in writing if asking shop workers or betting workers in Northern Ireland to work on a Sunday - see Sunday working and night working
- consult your employees or their representatives when considering collective redundancies, business transfer or changes to pensions
Regulations give employees of businesses and organisations employing 50 or more employees the right to be informed and consulted on issues affecting them and the business they work for. See legal requirements for informing and consulting employees.
Smaller employers should agree and create formal procedures for informing and consulting with employees, in the interests of good employment relations. See informing and consulting - ways and means and examples of good information and consultation in practice.
Consulting your employees
Consultation involves managers and business owners seeking and taking into account the views of employees before making a decision. You are required by law to consult with employees, their representatives or recognised trade unions on:
- health and safety issues
- changes to the contract of employment
- undertakings or transfers, ie the business is to be sold or part of it is to be contracted out, or the contractor is to be replaced by another
- changes to pension schemes
- training policies, progress and plans - if the Industrial Court has imposed a bargaining method in the statutory trade union recognition process - see recognising and derecognising a trade union
You must use the appropriate consultation method depending on the circumstances, eg through individual employee consultation, employee representatives, joint consultative committees/works councils, joint working parties or trade unions/collective bargaining units.
If your business or organisation employs more than 50 employees, your employees can require that you negotiate arrangements to inform or consult them on issues that may affect them and the business. See legal requirements for informing and consulting employees.
Your business may benefit from consulting employees on a regular basis and making staff aware of ways they can contribute ideas and raise concerns. You do not need to have complex structures for consultation - often ad hoc groups can work better. See legal requirements for consulting and informing employees.
For effective consultation, you should consider:
- seeking and considering the views of affected employees
- explaining final decisions - particularly when employees' views are rejected
- giving credit and recognition to those who provide information which improves a decision
- ensuring that the issues for consultation are relevant to the group of employees discussing them
- making the outcome of the meeting or decisions available to everyone
Effective consultation can help avoid minor issues and petty grievances. It is also good for employee morale and their role commitment and dedication to the business aims.
The Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005
Under the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005, if you have 50 or more employees, your employees can request that you set up arrangements to inform and consult them. When a valid employee request is made, you are obliged to negotiate the details of an information and consultation (I&C) agreement with representatives of your employees, unless there is a valid pre-existing agreement in place and you have held a ballot for which employees have supported the pre-existing agreement.
For more information, see legal requirements for communicating with employees.
What is a valid employee request?
If 10 per cent of your employees request that you set up an I&C agreement, you are obliged to do so. That 10 per cent is subject to a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 2,500 employees.
To calculate the size of your workforce, you should calculate the average number of employees in your business over the past 12 months. You can count part-time employees working under a contract of 75 hours or less a month as half of one employee for this calculation.
For an employee request to be valid, it must:
- be in writing
- be dated
- state the names of the employees making the request
If your employees wish to remain anonymous, they may submit a request to the Industrial Court who will inform you that a valid request has been received.
It is possible for a valid request to be made up of a number of requests from different employees over a rolling six-month period - if this achieves the 10 per cent threshold.
Negotiating an I&C agreement
If you receive a valid employee request, you will need to make arrangements to begin negotiating an I&C agreement as soon as is reasonably practicable. You will need to arrange for your employees to elect or appoint a body of representatives to negotiate the agreement with you.
The names of the negotiating representatives must be set out in writing once this has been done.
You will have six months to negotiate the agreement, starting three months from the date that you received the employee request. If you and the employees' representatives agree, you can extend this period indefinitely.
A negotiated agreement must cover all of the employees in the undertaking, so it is advisable to word the agreement in such a way that new employees would be automatically covered. It is also advisable to include a provision stating how a restructuring will be dealt with, for example in terms of any changes to the number and identity of employee representatives.
If you fail to reach an agreement, or do not start negotiations, the fall-back provisions will apply. For more information, see ICE Regulations: pre-existing agreements and fall-back provisions.
You can decide, in agreement with your employees' representatives, the terms of a negotiated agreement. It should set out what you will discuss, when you will discuss it and how often the discussion will take place. The areas on which you inform and consult are for you and your employees' representatives to agree on.
You can also agree with your employees' representatives whether I&C will take place through employee representatives, directly with your workforce or with both. If you opt to use representatives, then you should make provision for your employees to elect or appoint them. They do not have to be the same representatives as those that negotiated the agreement. Whilst trade union representatives do not have any special rights to act as an I&C representative, your employees may decide to elect or appoint a trade union representative as an I&C representative.
ICE Regulations: pre-existing agreements and fall-back provisions
Under the ICE Regulations your employees have the right to request that you create an information and consultation (I&C) agreement. If you already have an I&C agreement in place, you may not need to negotiate a new one. A pre-existing agreement (PEA) may cover more than one undertaking or may have different provisions for different parts of your workforce, or be made up of several different agreements.
To be valid, a PEA must:
- be in writing
- cover all the employees in the undertaking
- set out how the employer will inform and consult the employees or their representatives
- be approved by the employees
If you have a PEA but 40 per cent or more of your workforce has put in a valid request, you must negotiate a new agreement. However, if the number of employees making the request is 10 per cent or more of the workforce but less than 40 per cent, you can ballot the workforce to decide whether it endorses the request for a new agreement.
If you intend to hold a ballot you must inform your employees of this in writing. You must then wait 21 days before you hold the ballot to allow your employees to challenge the validity of the PEA.
If a ballot is held and 40 per cent of the workforce, and a majority of those who vote, endorse the employee request, you must negotiate a new agreement. Where less than 40 per cent of the workforce, or a minority of those voting, endorses the employee request, you do not have to negotiate a new agreement.
If your employees do not support the request for a new agreement then they cannot put in another request for three years.
If you do not make the necessary arrangements to negotiate an I&C agreement, or negotiations fail, an agreement will be set up according to the standard 'fall-back' provisions. These are set out in the regulations and result in a more rigid and standardised agreement.
You have up to six months after negotiations have failed to arrange the election of I&C representatives. Under the fall-back provisions, you must arrange for the election of one representative per 50 employees or part thereof, with a minimum of two representatives and a maximum of 25.
Under the fall-back provisions you must inform and consult the representatives on issues as follows:
- inform on: recent and probable development of the organisation's activities and economic situation
- inform and consult on: the situation, structure and probable development of employment within the organisation and, in particular, on any anticipatory measures envisaged where there is a threat to employment
- inform and consult with a view to reaching agreement on: decisions likely to lead to substantial changes in work organisation or in contractual relations
ICE Regulations: enforcement, protections and confidential information
You and your employees are subject to a number of rights and responsibilities under the Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) Regulations. The Industrial Court is responsible for ensuring that most of these are adhered to.
Enforcement of negotiated agreements and the fall-back provisions
You can be penalised if there is no negotiated agreement by the end of the required six-month negotiating period, and no ballot has been arranged to elect information and consultation (I&C) representatives.
If you fail to abide by the terms of a negotiated I&C agreement or the fall-back provisions, your employees or their representatives can raise a complaint with the Industrial Court. If the Industrial Court upholds the complaint they may issue a compliance notice that will set out the steps you must take in order to meet your obligations and the date by which you must take them.
If the Industrial Court does find that you have not adhered to the terms of a negotiated agreement or the fall-back provisions, then your employees or their representatives may be able to apply to the High Court to request that they make you pay a penalty of up to £75,000. The level of the penalty is based on the severity and impact of the failure.
Enforcement of pre-existing agreements (PEAs)
PEAs are only enforceable by measures that are included in the PEA itself. The Industrial Court has no authority to hear complaints that a party has not adhered to the terms of a PEA.
If you have a negotiated agreement or you are subject to the fall-back provisions, then you should try to share as much information as possible with your employees or their representatives. However, you can justifiably restrict or withhold certain information on the grounds that if it came out, it could harm your business.
If you withhold a piece of information that your employees believe they should be allowed to see, they can appeal to the Industrial Court who will judge whether you are right to withhold it.
Rights and protections for representatives and employees
Your employees who act as representatives either during negotiations or as part of an I&C agreement have the right to take reasonable paid time off to fulfil their duties. You cannot dismiss or subject to detriment any of your employees as a result of their involvement in I&C activity, unless they are found to be passing on confidential information. If you do not respect your employees' rights, they may be able to take you to an industrial tribunal.
Transnational Information and Consultation of Employees (TICE) Regulations 1999
The Transnational Information and Consultation of Employees (TICE) Regulations apply to multinational businesses operating in the European Economic Area. They establish the procedures to set up a European Works Council (EWC) to inform and consult on issues which concern the company as a whole. The EWC is made up of representatives from all European member states in which the company has operations.
To set up an EWC, a request must be made in writing by at least 100 of your employees or their representatives in two or more member states. Alternatively, management can decide to set one up on its own initiative.
A special negotiating body (a body comprised of employee representatives) must be set up to negotiate the terms of the EWC agreement with management. The EWC must be set up in accordance with the 'statutory model', if:
- negotiations do not start within six months of receiving a request, or if the parties fail to reach agreement within three years following the commencement of negotiations
- you refuse to negotiate within six months of receiving an agreement request, or if you fail to come to an agreement within three years
For more details, see European Works Councils.
You must also inform and consult your employees:
- where you are proposing 20 or more redundancies in a 90-day period
- if you are planning on selling your business or buying a new one
- if you are planning certain changes to an occupational or personal pension scheme
European Works Councils
If your business is part of a multinational organisation that operates in at least two countries in the European Economic Area (EEA), you may be subject to the legislation on transnational information and consultation (I&C).
This gives employees in multinational undertakings with at least 1,000 employees the right to be represented on a European Works Council (EWC).
The EEA is made up of the 28 European Union member states plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. People employed in the UK will no longer be able to ask their employer to set up an EWC after Brexit. However, if a request to set up an EWC was submitted before the UK left the EU it will be allowed to complete.
Current representative still may be able to be involved with your business's EWC after Brexit if your business agrees. The government will make sure the enforcement framework, rights and protections for employees in UK EWCs are still available as far as possible. See GOV.UK guidance on asking your employer to set up an EWC.
An EWC is an I&C forum that is designed to allow for employees in different EEA nations to be informed and consulted about transnational issues that affect their employer.
Some large multinational organisations have set up EWCs following a request from their employees. However, businesses can start the process of negotiating an EWC agreement themselves.
The transnational I&C legislation applies differently to EWCs:
- established before 15 December 1999
- established on or after 15 December 1999 and where the agreement was signed or revised in the two years before 5 June 2011
- established between 16 December 1999 and 5 June 2011 that have not been revised in the two years before 5 June 2011
- that are yet to be established or were established on or after 5 June 2011
The following guidance applies to these last two categories of EWC.
Transnational I&C requirements
If your business has 1,000 or more employees, and has at least 150 employees in each of two or more EEA states, your employees can request that an EWC is set up. For a request to be valid, it must be:
- made by either at least 100 employees in at least two undertakings in two or more EEA countries, or representatives representing that many employees
- in writing and dated
- sent to your business' central or local management
Agency workers do not count towards the number of people in the business in which they are placed. However, they do count towards the number of people employed by the employment agency business providing them.
Once you have received a valid request, you must make the necessary arrangements for your employees to elect or appoint representatives of a special negotiating body (SNB).
You'll have six months to set up the SNB and start negotiations. Otherwise fall-back provisions will apply.
The SNB should be made up of employees' representatives from each EEA country where your business has employees. Its role is to negotiate with your central management over the composition and terms of the EWC.
Once an SNB has been set up, the parties have up to three years to negotiate an EWC agreement in order to determine - among other things - exactly how the EWC will be set up, what it will discuss, how often it will meet and what it should be provided with to help it function.
A negotiated EWC agreement must set out:
- what parts of the undertaking will be covered by the agreement
- the composition of the EWC and how long its members will serve
- the functions of the EWC
- the way I&C will take place
- how central management will disclose information
- the venue, frequency and duration of EWC meetings
- how the consultation dialogue with the EWC should link to I&C at the national level
- the financial and material resources that will be available to the EWC
- how long the EWC will last
- how the EWC agreement will be renegotiated
- if a select committee should be set up and, if so, how it will operate
An EWC agreement will need to meet the requirements of the fall-back provisions if:
- the parties decide not to negotiate
- an agreement cannot be reached
- the management and the SNB decide it is so
The fall-back provisions are much more prescriptive about what the employer must consult over and when.
While your central management should try to be as open as possible with your EWC, you can withhold certain information if its disclosure would seriously harm the functioning of the business.
Enforcement of the EWC legislation
The enforcement provisions of the EWC legislation are shared between the Industrial Court and the High Court.
Informing and consulting - good practice
Depending on your business' size, nature and structure, the type of information you are sharing and the input you hope to get, there are a variety of ways to communicate and consult with employees and/or their representatives.
Where you have an information and consultation or European Works Council agreement, a pre-existing agreement or where you are legally required to inform and consult with employees on other matters (such as health and safety regulations or when considering redundancies), any consulting and informing you do must comply with the terms of that agreement or other legal requirements.
To communicate individually, you could use:
- one-to-one meetings - for issues specific to the individual
- telephone calls - for home workers and other offsite employees
- email - employees can respond at their convenience
A record should be appropriately kept of such communications. You must comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Failure to consult your staff is a regular Tribunal complaint by employees.
Face-to-face methods of communication include:
- group or team briefings - discussion and feedback on issues directly related to the group
- quality circles - groups that meet regularly to solve problems and improve quality
- large-scale meetings - to present the business' performance and long-term objectives to employees or exchange of views
- cascade networks - briefing small groups of people who tell others the same information, to get information across quickly without having to call a meeting
- inter-departmental briefings - to promote a unified approach within larger businesses
Written methods include:
- company handbooks - combines company and job-related information
- company newsletters - present information about the business and its people, in print or through email
- employee information notes - reports the business' activities and performance
- departmental bulletins - informs on a sectional, departmental or wider basis
- notice boards - encourages communication between employees
- intranets - stores company information in a structured way for employee access
- email - communicates with employees in different or isolated locations
Consultation methods include:
- joint consultative councils/works councils - regular meetings of managers and employee representatives
- joint working parties - resolves specific issues and includes managers and employees
- trade unions - aim to improve terms and conditions for their members
- informal emails - promote a feedback forum for employees to consider and put forward ideas at times convenient to them
- annual staff survey or questionnaire - allows for giving frank views if employees can reply anonymously
How to achieve good communication between employer and employees
Be clear about what you are trying to achieve and explain to employees, or their representatives or both, whether you are informing, consulting or negotiating with them.
You should encourage a two-way flow of information between employees and managers. Consider:
- holding regular meetings
- using language your employees understand - not jargon
- keeping discussions focused, relevant, local and timely
- using open-ended questions to draw out ideas from employees
- ensuring your communications reach every employee, ie don't forget part-time workers, home workers and absent workers (for example, those on statutory leave and those absent due to sickness)
- using social events to break down barriers and build up trust
When you need to communicate controversial or sensitive issues, eg poor company results, you should do this face-to-face. It's usually better to have a senior manager discussing such important matters. The advantage of spoken, face-to-face communication is that it's a direct and effective way to get across facts. It can't be relied upon completely because misunderstandings and rumours can arise - you may wish to reinforce it with written confirmation, see managing conflict.
You may also want written information available for employees to refer to.
Make sure that whoever talks to the employees is fully briefed, and provide an opportunity for employees to ask questions:
- if you are asked a question you don't know the answer to, say so. You could advise that you would have needed notice of that question as you don't currently have the information to hand for an immediate response. Explain that you will get back to them with an answer in due course. In order for all employees to be informed you could email all staff once you have an answer to a query that affects them all.
- if there is no answer, explain why
- if you can get an answer by a given deadline, tell them this
Effective written communication is typically accurate, brief and clear. It's good practice to have copies of all business policies and information in one place which employees have access to, eg an intranet. Employees can look up procedures, duties and contract terms at their convenience or when they need clarification.
Examples of good information and consultation in practice
A communications policy is an effective way of defining who is responsible for information and consultation (I&C), the channels along which information passes and the way it is communicated.
If your business is not affected by the legal requirements you should still consult with your employees to establish an I&C agreement.
A good I&C policy clearly describes who is responsible for communication at each level and the methods used for communication. It also outlines the arrangements for consultation and for training employees and managers.
Consider involving trade union representatives or other employee representatives when you draw up the policy, and throughout the communications and consultation process. You should involve senior managers and get them to take the lead. Make provisions to include your workers in different sites, isolated areas, or those working from home.
Make sure that your communications and consultations are systematic and regular. You should frequently review the policy and be willing to modify it. Tailor your consultative arrangements to your business.
Small companies typically have more informal arrangements, but you may need a more formal arrangement so that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities. This is important where consultation is a legal obligation.
Be genuine about your commitment to communication and consider employees' views before making a decision.
Advantages of communications and consultation training in successful business
Training managers and employees in communications skills and techniques can improve communications and consultation practice within your business.
Employees can benefit from understanding the information they are given and it can encourage them to take a more active role in the communications and consultation process. Training can help trade union representatives take a fuller part in communications and consultation.
Courses can help encourage employee involvement in your business. They can also help you communicate information to employees on a range of issues that relate to their employment. Communication training for managers and employees can help break down any barriers between them.
Training can help managers to:
- understand the importance of good communications and of having a consultation policy
- understand their roles
- encourage those employees who have problems communicating
- understand and meet their legal obligations for informing and consulting
For more information, see skills and training for directors and owners.
Useful courses for your employees and managers may cover:
- joint working methods
- effective meetings
- presentation skills
- listening skills
- effective business writing
- interviewing techniques
As with any training, it is a good idea to periodically evaluate the effectiveness of the training course.