KPN Telecom, the Netherlands: Training and development, flexible working practices, changing attitudes, exit policies
KPN Telecom is the partial and privatised successor to the former public post and telecommunications office, PTT. The PTT was divided into a postal company (PTT Post, which later merged into TNT Post Groep, TPG) and a telecommunications company (KPN Telecom). Currently, KPN employs about 18,500 people, 76.5% of whom are men. In 2003, the average employee age was 41.8 years; 20.5% were aged over 50 years and 26.9% were aged under 35 years. The average length of employment is 16.8 years. Almost 35% carry out lower level, skilled and unskilled manual work.
The human resources (HR) policy is strongly affected by past and projected workforce reductions. The workforce has been reduced by 15,000 since 1995 and another reduction of 8,000 workers is planned for the next five years.
In the past, the workforce was reduced mainly by the exit of older workers and by internal mobility. With fewer internal mobility options remaining, KPN aims at a more proactive exit policy. The company is broadening the concept of age-related policies to reflect a general concern for employment conditions and employability. Its policy on attitudes towards older workers includes a protocol on age-aware HR issues.
Social dialogue is highly institutionalised and includes frequent consultation with the trade unions and the central works council. The HR director consults regularly and informally with the works council.
Summary of the original initiative
Age-aware HR policies at KPN included training and development, flexible working practices and exit policies.
- Training and development policies aimed at enhancing workers’ education and updating their experience, to keep up with changes in telecommunications technology. Although upgrading from vocational school level to secondary technical school level was successful, upgrading to higher professional levels has been more difficult.
- Flexible working practices for all employees aged over 55 years included adjustments to working hours, with any financial consequences being phased in gradually, being assigned less demanding work and more holidays.
- Exit policies dealt mainly with financial packages, for example, compensated early release for those with jobs that were very physically demanding and early retirement pension arrangements.
These policies were implemented in the context of the technical and economic changes that required the company to reduce the workforce. However, the resulting reductions in staff numbers meant that there were less resources available to allow for time spent on training and flexible working practices.
Tight economic conditions, and the impression that investment in the internal employability of (especially older) workers would not pay, led KPN to implement what appear to be rather imbalanced HR policies. These focused on the exit of older workers rather than developing measures for mobility and employability. However, this has changed recently. Good practice today recognises that the systematic exit of older workers is both expensive and unproductive. The emphasis is no longer on exit but on the internal and external mobility of both younger and older workers.
Good practice today
Because it needed to reduce its workforce, KPN’s former policies were not aimed at maintaining the employability of older workers. Furthermore, it expects to cut around 8,000 more jobs in the next five years. However, the continuing workforce reductions and government policies concerning early retirement make the exit approach much more expensive and the company now emphasises employability. Nevertheless, workforce reductions are unavoidable so policies focus on external rather than internal employability.
KPN’s exit policies are set out in a protocol on age-aware HR policies and a protocol on employability (both part of the KPN Collective Labour Agreement of July 2002) and in the Mobility Agreement (Mobiliteitsakkoord) made on 24 January 2005 between KPN, the central works council and the trade unions. The Mobility Agreement supplements existing provisions for workers who are declared redundant. Policies include:
- early communication of HR planning;
- support in making career choices;
- temporary wage supplements when workers move to lower paid employment;
- education budgets;
- Recognition of Acquired Skills Validation (EVC, Erkenning van Verworven Competenties);
- a programme to assess each worker to determine suitability for continued employment at KPN.
The company also amended its flexible working practices so that age is no longer the only reason for adjusting working hours or labour conditions. Instead, supervisors consider the suitability of tasks for employees’ capacities. Rather than making adjustments to certain tasks for particular age groups, line managers must now discuss job demands and requirements with each worker.
This is in accordance with new policies aimed at changing attitudes, which also include a communications campaign to correct the idea that older workers are less productive than younger ones. The company’s publications convey this changed attitude. The campaign promotes wider acceptance of older workers and tries to reverse the idea that exit from KPN into compensatory financial arrangements is the best option at the age of 50 years.
The policies aim to shift the emphasis from compensatory measures for older workers towards employability and external mobility for both older and younger workers. With KPN continuing to cut its workforce, it needs age-aware policies and general HR policies that prepare employees for external mobility. This need is formulated in the various bipartite agreements and, therefore, supported by both the company and the worker representatives.
The Mobility Agreement reflects an awareness that room for internal mobility at KPN is limited, because workforce reductions are projected to continue. The Recognition of Acquired Skills Validation facilitates employees’ external mobility, enabling them to get additional formal qualifications, not primarily based on education but on work experience. A pilot study among about 30 KPN employees, who were educated at local vocational technical school level, showed that work experience had upgraded 30% of them to technical secondary school level. This will improve their chances if they are made redundant.
The Mobility Agreement measures are too recent for their impact to be quantified but worker representatives in the central works council are critical of how individual assessments of worker quality are applied. They believe that age rather than quality determines whether workers are declared fit for continued employment at KPN. If this imbalance is the case, it is still unclear whether it reflects the previous unfavourable attitude towards older workers or shows the inadequacy of the new policies. In general, the works council supports the Mobility Agreement.
KPN now focuses less on a life-course approach to employee development than on one that emphasises employability and facilitates external mobility for all age groups. This approach is suitable for companies that must reduce their workforce because of technological or other environmental conditions that affect operations. However, the approach poses a problem: when reducing the workforce, it appears most efficient to invest in the internal mobility of only those employees who have enough years of employment ahead to make the investment pay. Therefore, external mobility policies require strong support policies of changing attitudes, aimed not only at workers but also at the managers who decide which employees are fit for their jobs and which should go.
Contact: R.A. van Nieuwenhoven, director of personnel affairs
I. Penninga, advisor labour conditions and social policy
Cor de Jongh, chair of KPN Mobile central works council
Nico van Ommen, member KPN central works council
KPN Jaarverslag 2004
Press release on Mobility Accord available at: http://www.kpn.com/kpn/show/id=796410/contentid=9159/sc=58c079 (accessed 15 June 2005)
KPN Mobiliteitsakkoord, 24 January 2005
KPN Collective Labour Agreement + appendices, July 2002 (includes protocols)