Fiona Whyte has been a PCS activist for almost the entire 35 years of her civil service career – 10 of those as a full-time rep. During a secondment in 2017-18 she worked with HR on the issue of tackling unacceptable behaviour, such as bullying and harassment, in the Welsh Government’s ESNR (Economy, Skills and Natural Resources) team.
Currently working as a senior policy advisor on animal welfare, she’s on the BEC for PCS Cardiff branch and is the equality rep. From her wealth of experience in dealing with personal cases, she talked to Activate about the PCU1 form being an invaluable tool for assessing a members’ situation and managing their expectations, even in cases not involving the legal unit.
“Personal cases is an area I have always been particularly interested in. Over the years I have dealt with some of the more complex ones.
I’ve often supported less experienced reps by talking to them about my approach and how to manage members’ expectations.
The PCU1 form is something we didn’t used to use very much. It would be a matter of a member coming in and you getting your notebook out and saying ‘okay, what’s the problem?’. Then there would be a discussion that sometimes involved them going off on a tangent.
But after reviewing how we were doing things we realised it was a really good form for capturing the information. We started using it as standard, even if the case wasn’t going anywhere near a solicitor.
Unless it is going to the legal team, we usually ask the member to fill it in. The form asks for dates and times and the nature of the problem. It focuses the member’s thoughts on the situation and on what outcomes they are expecting.
It helps both the rep and the member with that initial conversation, so it’s not just me questioning them on their circumstances or motivation for coming, and it helps categorise the type of issue it is.
Also I think some people get some kind of comfort from the fact that there is a degree of formality to it. It shows the rep is taking it seriously and there is some form of record, even if it ends up getting filed away for a while.
The PCU1 also provides a structure for having that conversation about what they expect from the process. So it’s managing their expectations and talking about the day-to-day impact on them, for example if they lodged a grievance, just so they can appreciate what it might involve.
"It also helps you to explore whether the issue is just between two people and no one else is aware of it, or whether it’s a wider issue affecting others too, that we could potentially deal with as a collective issue and organise a campaign around." [see ‘Find Out More and Take Action’ below]
And it’s beneficial to have a record of the members’ personal details, such as their home phone number. It’s often the case that by the time people come to us they are at the end of their tether, and they end up going off sick soon afterwards. If we can contact them at home we can follow up with them if needed.
So we’ve found it to be just a really good starting point, as it’s consistently capturing the same information.
Another method I use is to ask a member to go through the relevant HR policy – like the attendance management or dignity at work policy – and highlight where their manager did, or didn’t, do what they should have done. And likewise where they, the member, did or didn’t do what they were supposed to do.
It gets things clearer in their mind. Sometimes it helps to vindicate what the member is saying, and other times they realise that, while they might not have liked it, the manager was actually just following the policy.
I think it can be useful to get them to go through those policies, rather than just expect me to give them the answer.
In a lot of areas, HR are just an extension of management and they don’t act impartially. But we’ve been lucky here in that we have a good relationship – I have always believed in working closely with HR. For me it’s about engaging them as people first, in order to get the best out of them, and generally they are supportive.
We have changed the language we use and the organisation buys into that.
When people need adjustments we work together to try to make that happen.
Sometimes people are not in a position to deliver 100% but we don’t pretend otherwise – we want to work together to try to keep members in work and effective. It’s about managing everyone’s expectations and keeping it real.”
FIND OUT MORE AND TAKE ACTION:
Using personal cases for organising in the workplace: PCS has shifted its focus from just thinking about individual ‘cases’ to making our work more centred around ‘issues’. This way of approaching things improves collective organisation, union activity and engagement in our workplaces.
Branches and reps should consider the potential to resolve problems through collective action, for example by identifying issues that are cropping up frequently, and getting wider member support to negotiate improvements.
What can you do?
- Get organised: The way your branch sorts and triages members’ cases – such as in the example in this article, or via the online system we featured previously – can help you spot patterns and identify issues around which to organise and campaign.
- Sign up to a training course: learn more about using members’ issues to organise collectively. Contact your regional hub to discuss a slot.
- Handling Complex Issues (previously called Advanced Personal Cases): The next batch of 3-day courses are being held in Yorkshire & the Humber on 15, 22 and 19 July
- The Next Steps 5-day residential course, run by PCS at Northern college, has a section on how discrimination issues could be potentially resolved through campaigning and organising. The next course dates will be announced asap.
- See the full PCS Academy prospectus: Click on ‘academy course overview’ and follow the links on the left-hand navigation bar]
- Find out more about personal case and legal support