What is said in European Works Councils stays there. Confidentiality and how to cope with it

Publication Date07 Oct 2019
AuthorLise Meylemans,Stan De Spiegelaere
SubjectHr & organizational behaviour,Industrial/labour relations,Employment law
What is said in European Works
Councils stays there
Confidentiality and how to cope with it
Lise Meylemans
Hoger Instituut voor de Arbeid, Leuven, Belgium, and
Stan De Spiegelaere
European Trade Union Institute, Brussels, Belgium;
Catholic University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium and
Department of HRM and Organisational Behavior,
Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to study how employee representatives in European Works Councils
(EWCs) treat confidential information and how such strategies might improve the EWC functioning.
Design/methodology/approach Building on interviews of several case studies of EWCs, this paper
brings together insights from industrial relations and occupational psychology literature.
Findings The results show that through actively challenging the management, an EWC can reduce the
amount of information labelled as confidential and become freer to communicate with their rank and file.
Actively challenging management, however, does not seem to impact the openness of the management to give
early and complete information.
Research limitations/implications The paper is based on several case studies, which limits the
generalisability of the findings. The results, however, indicate that research is required on how challenging
confidentiality can incite managements to provide earlier information.
Practical implications The research show clearly the potential but also limitations for employee
representatives in actively challenging the management over what information is confidential.
Social implications This study studies a universally difficult topic for employee representatives: how
to handle confidential information. The findings show that EWCs have little levers to force management to
provide early information. For this, more structural change is needed.
Originality/value This study is the first to focus exclusively on the issue of confidentiality in EWCs.
This is a central concern for employee representatives, but research, until now, has not given much insight in
which strategies work.
Keywords Confidentiality, European Works Councils, Workersrepresentatives,
Information and consultation, Multinationals
Paper type Research paper
Employee representatives do not have the easiest task on their hands. Their job is to
represent and defend the interests of the employees in a company. In order to fulfil their role
as a representative of the workforce, they need the most up-to-date information about the
firms affairs, such as (probable future) decisions, strategic plans and business operations.
However, such information is often sensitive and could damage the interests of the company
if made public. This kind of information could also cause (possibly unnecessary) unrest
amongst the employees; it is therefore often defined as confidential. To continue getting this
kind of confidential information, the employee representatives thus need to show
management they can be trusted and discreet. However, this requisite conflicts with
their responsibility to represent the views of the employees. To fulfil this role, they need to
discuss these issues with the employees, report back on debates and ask for input.
This communication with the workforce is needed in order to give management a
universally agreed response.
Employee Relations: The
International Journal
Vol. 41 No. 6, 2019
pp. 1398-1418
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/ER-05-2018-0148
Received 30 May 2018
Revised 1 March 2019
27 May 2019
Accepted 28 May 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Employee representatives are thus confronted with conflicting roles and tasks when it
comes to confidential information. Even though reporting back to the employees is
one of the most important duties of a representative, they are often restricted by the
confidentialitylabel. Communicating with the rank and file and respecting confidentiality
to ensure that management provides sufficient information and, early enough, is a delicate
balancing act. In order to do their work properly, confidentiality rules therefore need to be
bent or broken (Hannah and Robertson, 2015).
Virtually all employee representatives face this problem, but in this paper, the focus will be
on employee representatives in European Works Councils (EWCs). These transnational
institutions of employee information and consultation bring together employee representatives
from different countries with the top management of a multinational company to discuss
transnational issues such as the companys strategy, employment forecasts, cross-border
restructuring, etc. (De Spiegelaere and Jagodziński, 2015). The EWC is, in theory, kept informed
about the general company strategy, large merger cases or strategic investments sensitive
issues which, if made public, might seriously damage the company and its employees. For the
employee representatives in these EWCs, this confidentiality issue can be even more difficult as
the EWC brings together representatives from very different industrial relationstraditions that
might have divergent opinions on what is confidential and how information should be treated.
A 2016 survey commissioned by the European Commission in 37 EWCs showed that
15 per cent of all employers strongly agreed with the statement that the information and
consultation process in the EWC led to breaches of confidentiality. In contrast, only
2 per cent of the employees surveyed were of the same opinion (ICF, 2016). Earlier research
also showed that real breaches in confidentiality were exceptional (GHK, 2007). But while
these breachesmight be the exception rather than the rule, the topic is still one that raises
concerns. For companies listed on the stock exchange in particular, detailed planning is
needed on some issues like mergers, acquisitions or major restructurings (Pulignano and
Turk, 2016, p. 29). Based on these and other insights, the European Trade Union
Confederation (ETUC, 2017) included a demand to clarify confidentiality rules in its position
paper on the future of EWCs.
The literature and evidence on practice clearly show that confidentiality is an issue for
employee representatives in EWCs (Hoffmann, 2006). In some case studies, the subject is
touched upon, but rarely developed in detail (De Spiegelaere and Jagodziński, 2016; Steiert,
2001; Telljohann, 2011). De Spiegelaere and Jagodziński (2016), for example, state that the
use and misuse of confidentiality requirements in EWCs can conflict with the employee
representativesright and obligation to report back to the workforce. In the case studies of
Telljohann (2011), researchers looked into the inner lifeof EWCs. Their objective was to
attain a broader view of the interaction processes and operations of different EWCs.
Unsurprisingly, they also ran into the same confidentiality issues with which employee
representatives were confronted, but did not discuss these issues in detail in the paper.
Previous research thus notes confidentiality as an important point of attention concerning
the goal to make EWCs a proper functioning instrument of social dialogue. However, none
of these studies goes into depth on this topic, which is why an in-depth look at
confidentiality in EWCs will be the aim of this study.
In general, little is known about how EWC representatives treat confidential information,
why they do what they do, and how it affects their EWC and them as individuals. These will
be the central questions of this paper, which will make use of insights from three explorative
case studies on EWCs and base its analysis on EWC and industrial psychology literature.
Literature review
According to Fitzgerald and Stirling (2004) there are three Cs which prevent EWCs from
realising their full potential: consultation, co-determination and confidentiality. Focussing on

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