Being a union rep can seriously damage your career prospects

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Trade union reps believe they are sacrificing their careers to represent their colleagues, exclusive new research has revealed.


Personnel Today and the TUC surveyed 583 HR professionals and 524 union reps to discover their views on the working relationships between employers and unions.


Almost all union reps (92%) who responded to the survey think their career prospects have been damaged by their personal involvement with unions. Four in 10 (38%) believe this is definitely the case, and 54% believe it is possibly so. Shockingly, more than one-third (36%) of HR professionals also agreed that union reps’ careers may be harmed.


One union rep said: “I am not well liked and to my face, HR is nice, but in the background, they are trying to find any way to get me out of the company.”


Another said: “I am treated with suspicion, side-tracked, and treated as a nuisance. The head of HR is usually on a mission to do us in.”


However, most HR professionals (57%) agreed that unions are an essential part of modern employer/employee relations, and that unions are a ‘force for good’ (52%). A slim majority of HR professionals said their staff would get a worse deal without their union and its reps.


Paul Nowak, national organiser at the TUC, said: “Too many union reps feel their careers are put on the line because of their representative role. Finely worded policies are not enough – managers need to demonstrate practically that employees taking on reps’ roles will not lose out when it comes to career prospects, pay or development opportunities.”


Half of union reps believed their employer valued their role as a rep, but their greater concern was reflected in the fact that only 16% believed the government valued the role.


Nowak added: “This survey shows that, while many reps feel their role is valued and understood by management, few think that the government recognises the positive contribution they make in the workplace.”


Feedback from HR



“There is no role for unions or reps in a modern workplace. Legislation has given staff the ‘protection’ that unions once believed they provided.”


Tom Randle, head of HR, Europ Assistance


“There is a healthy tension between reps and HR. But where people get into ‘tram lines’, the arguments become more difficult, and long-lasting memories are created.”



Andrew Harley, groupHR director, TelefonicaO2 Europe


“Being a rep can get you air time. An incompetent rep may blame union activity for poor progression, but it is more likely they made a fool of themselves too often.”



David Bornor, head of HR, The Children’s Mutual


What’s in a name?


In their responses to the research, union reps bemoaned the demise of the ‘personnel’ function. Many complained that the term ‘human resources’ was too impersonal.


“A resource is something to exploit, and suggests an approach that treats employees the same way as money or machinery,” one rep said.


Another added: “I would like to see the function back being called personnel they seemed more approachable.”


What do you think? Does it matter what the function is called? If you had to rename HR, what would it be? E-mail karen.dempsey@rbi.co.uk with your views.