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Down tools and everybody out - planning for strikes

Blog post   •   Feb 12, 2016 16:45 GMT

I have my own opinions on the current junior doctor strikes in the UK, but I will keep them to myself! For many of us, strikes are not a large part of our work experience as we were not in post during the 70’s and 80’s.

As the economy picks up I think we are more likely to experience strike action due to pent up demand for better wages and work conditions, which have been suppressed for several years due to the poor economic climate.

As business continuity people, I think we have been getting better at looking at scenarios concerning loss of staff. The possibility of a global pandemic a few years ago prompted many of us to look more closely at how we would operate with a reduced number of staff. The flu pandemic when it came, a bit like the ‘millennium bug’, was not as bad as the doom-mongers prophesised. In response to the threat there was a lot of good work done, which helped organisations to understand the loss of staff. Plans were developed for how organisations would cope with some planning for a worst case of 50% loss of staff. The Ebola crisis, although never a global threat, reminded people of the threat of loss of staff.

A strike is slightly different in terms of people planning. A virus or pandemic will cause people to randomly be off work, however, it is unlikely that a whole department will not be available to work. During a strike you can lose a whole department or section of your workforce and the strikers’ intention is to stop your processes and show their importance to the organisation. You hope that their intention is not to damage the organisation beyond repair so that the organisation fails. Often strikes, such as the junior doctors’ one, are in the public sector so the organisation will not be allowed to fail.

One of the difficulties of being a business continuity manager is that of ‘whose side are you on?’ Your role is to protect the organisation and to plan for, and mitigate, the impact of any incident which could cause a major impact on the organisation, strike action being one of the many threats. Those who could possibly go on strike could be the people who you have to work with on a daily basis, you rely on them to be your business continuity coordinators and they play a very important role in the development of the organisations’ business continuity. You place yourself in a very difficult position if you are seen as part of the management’s plan to break or mitigate the effects of a strike. This is not an easy role to play and you personally have to think through how best to approach it.

Some of the more usual strategies for dealing with loss of staff will not work in the case of a strike. It may not be possible to bring in temporary staff, redeploy staff from other areas or rely on mutual aid. Staff may not be prepared to cross the picket line or bringing in additional staff may be inappropriate and make the relationship with the strikers worse.

In response to the doctors’ strike, perhaps you should do a threat analysis against the possibility of strike in your own organisation. You might also want to extend this to your key suppliers and look at the likelihood of which groups of staff could go on strike and the impact of strikes over different timescales. An advantage of the present legislation on strikes in the UK is that there has to be plenty of warning of strike action. Therefore it is very unlikely for there to be a ‘down tools everybody out’ situation. There are also rules on secondary picketing so that you are less likely to get caught up in someone else’s dispute. Although the Gate Gourmet strike in 2005, which had a major impact on the operations of British Airways, shows that in spite of current laws this still can happen.

So strikes are just one more thing for the business continuity manager to think about!

Charlie Maclean-Bristol is a Fellow of the Business Continuity Institute, Director at PlanB Consulting and Director of Training at Business Continuity Training.

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