HR and unions’ relationship: Cordial relations

Union reps and their HR contacts enjoy a largely positive, professional working relationship, according to new research from Personnel Today and the TUC – though the union reps are slightly more critical of HR than vice-versa.

Personnel Today and the TUC surveyed 583 HR professionals, who have regular contact with their organisations’ trade union reps, and 524 union reps to discover their views on the working relationships between employers and unions.

On a scale of 0-10 – where 0 is completely broken down and 10 is excellent – HR professionals rate their working relationship with their main union at 6.7, while the union reps rate that same relationship at 5.6.

Tom Wilson, head of organisation and services at the TUC, says: “Contrary to the stereotypical view of embattled union/management relations, the survey shows that most managers recognise unions are a force for good that their reps are constructive, trained and understand their job and that reps provide a professional service, giving good value for employers as well as their members.”

However, there are some disagreements and underlying tensions that threaten to destabilise the relationship.

Career prospects

A great majority of union reps (92%) believe their career prospects are hampered by their personal involvement with unions. Some 38% believe this is definitely the case, and 54% believe it is possibly so.

Only 36% of HR professionals agree that union reps’ careers are hampered – just 5% say definitely so, and 31% possibly. Indeed, most HR professionals (57%) agree that unions are an essential part of modern employer/employee relations, and that unions are a ‘force for good’ (52%). And, on balance, a slim majority of HR professionals believe their organisations’ workers would get a worse deal without their trade union.

Paul Nowak, national organiser at the TUC, says: “For most union reps and their HR managers, good positive working relationships are the norm. But 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.”

Where there have been disputes, a majority of both HR professionals (62%) and union reps (51%) claim to have found a solution via compromise.


Union reps are a little less positive about HR than HR is about union reps. Some 62% of union reps say that their contacts in the HR department are pleasant/easy to deal with, compared with 69% of HR professionals who say that their contacts at the union are pleasant/easy to deal with.

This difference is more marked on questions of: professionalism (47% of union reps agree that HR is professional in its approach, while 58% of HR professionals agree that their main union is professional in its approach) openness (36% v 51%) and quality of negotiating skills (31% v 55%).

And nearly half (48%) of union reps say their view of their employer’s HR department has got worse in the past five years. Only 20% say HR is better. This compares with 33% of HR professionals expressing the view that unions have improved, and only 23% saying they have got worse.

But HR professionals do reserve some criticism for the unions. Many (43%) believe they get involved in issues that do not concern them and 37% believe employees do not get good value for money from their unions.

There is certainly scope for better communication, with a substantial number of both parties suggesting that the other uses ‘unhelpful language’.


Union reps may also harbour some bitterness towards their employers over the issue of paid time off for union duties and training, and cover for their job roles.

On average, just 53% of the time union reps spend on union duties is paid for by employers. One-fifth of respondents claim they receive pay for less than 10% of this time, while one-third are paid for all of it.

And 59% of the time union reps spend on training related to their union duties is paid for by employers. Nearly half (49%) of union reps have this training time paid in full.

However, an equal proportion of union reps (49%) report that their employer does not provide any cover for their ‘day job’ when they are away from work on union duties.

Nowak says: “Union reps need proper facilities, training and support if they are going to do a good job. Many employers recognise this but, as this survey shows, some employers still refuse reps the time off and support they need to do their job properly. This impacts negatively on reps, the people they represent and, ultimately, the organisations they work for.

“The government needs to do more to encourage employers to give reps the tools they need to do their job properly.”

While 49% of union reps believe that their employer values their role as a union rep, their greater concern is reflected in the fact that only 16% of them believe the government values that role.

Nowak continues: “While most reps feel their role is valued and understood by management, few think that the government recognises the positive contribution they make in the workplace.

“The government can use the ongoing facilities review (see box, Consultation, on page 23) to show that it understands and values the role of the union rep.”

The future

There is recognition, on both sides, that unions need to redefine themselves in today’s society. A strong majority of 68% of union reps agree that this is the case.

Both sides need to consider their diversity and representation. The average HR professional responding to the survey was female (69%) and 40 years old. The average union rep respondent was male (75%) and 46 years old.

Nowak says: “Unions understand the need to do more to ensure that our reps are truly representative. We have made great strides in this direction already – in 1998, just 35% of union representatives were women, but by 2004 this had risen to 44%.

“We know there is no room for complacency – and this is one reason why the TUC and unions have developed new types of reps roles, such as the Union Learning Rep role. We believe there is scope for developing this work by, for example, developing new reps roles focused on equality and environmental issues,” he adds.

With new roles for unions in hot HR areas such as these, this is sure to bring the two groups closer together.


The research comes hot on the heels of a government consultation document about the facilities and support available to workplace reps.

Workplace Representatives: A review of their facilities and facility time was published on 4 January, and the consultation period runs until 20 March 2007. The government intends to conclude the review by the summer.

The document is available on the Department of Trade and Industry’s website.

Tom Wilson, head of organisation and services at the TUC, says: “This report highlights the important benefits that union reps can potentially bring to the workplace and society more generally, and estimates that workplace reps are worth between £476m and £1.13bn net to the UK economy, while their impact on productivity is potentially worth between £3.4bn and £10.2bn.”

Sectoral analysis

  • HR in local government claims to have the best relationship with its employees’ unions, scoring it at7 out of 10.

  • Union reps in the education and manufacturing sectors are happiest with their relationships with HR, scoring it at 6 and 5.9 respectively.

  • HR in central government has the most difficult relationship with its employees’ unions, scoring it at 6.2.

  • This is borne out by the union reps’ own ratings – those working in central government score their relationship with HR at 4.8. They are the only group to rate the relationship below 5 out of 10.

  • The HR/union relationship in the retail sector is the next most difficult – HR scores it 6.3, and the union reps 5.3.

What HR thinks of unions: respondents’ quotes


  • Our effective relationship with local representatives is crucial to delivering the HR strategy.

  • They are an important way of ensuring that employees and their views are represented.

  • The union reps I deal with are professional, thorough and give good service to their members.


  • Unions are a good safety net for employees, but they can create problems and cause delays over minor issues.

  • It really does depend on the union rep – some are more constructive than others.

  • They have some influence, but they are hampered by bureaucracy and political correctness.


  • They are more interested in attracting new members than providing sound advice to existing members.

  • The unions are becoming more militant, which is hindering the partnership approach to working.

  • Our shop steward doesn’t have the skills necessary to carry out the role effectively.

What unions think of HR: respondents’ quotes


  • I feel fortunate to work in an organisation with a very supportive HR lead.

  • I have a good, robust and, when necessary, a close working relationship with the HR manager and her department.

  • We work in an atmosphere of mutual co-operation for the benefit of the employees.


  • Getting better, but under a lot of pressure to save money.

  • HR departments are often understaffed, so cannot be as helpful to staff as they ought to be.

  • More professional than in the past, but still looking after the interest of employers, not staff.


  • A management tool, run and staffed by overpaid incompetent fools. A complete shambles.

  • The HR manager seems to believe he has more power than God.

  • I think they have forgotten what the H in HR stands for.

Source: Personnel Today/TUC research, December 2006

Survey results

Chart 1: Do you believe union reps’ career prospects are hampered by their involvement with unions?

Chart 2: Has your view of the unions/HR departments got better or worse over the past five years? 

Chart 3: My employer values the role of union reps

Chart 4: Unions are generally a force for good

Chart 5: Contacts in the union/HR are generally pleasant/easy to deal with

Chart 6: The union/HR is professional in its approach

Chart 7: The union/HR approaches meetings in an open/constructive manner

Chart 8: The union/HR is a good negotiator

Chart 9: The language of the union/HR is unhelpful

Chart 10: The HR department is scared of industrial action

Chart 11: Staff get a better deal because of the union

Chart 12: Our union/HR department gives in to HR too easily

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