Union relationships: How to create good industrial relations

There is an old saying in industrial relations: “You get the union rep you deserve.” If managers want reps who are reasonable and prepared to listen, then they have to do the same. If, on the other hand, managers come to the table with hidden agendas and see each meeting as a conflict session, union reps will respond in kind.

You can have the most sophisticated industrial relations structures, follow all the rules and negotiate ad infinitum, but you will get nowhere if your relationships with staff and their union reps aren’t based on trust.

This was abundantly clear during the recent civil service industrial action and the narrowly averted strike at British Airways (BA). We see this time and again. An organisation might call us in because itcan’t get an agreement signed off, or the process has become too uncomfortable for both sides. What we frequently find when we get there is a climate of mistrust, entrenched ideas, and even outright hostility between union and management, employer and worker.

Ask how it got this way, and neither side really knows. Some even cite incidents that happened years ago, before any of the current negotiators were around. But when we drill down further, we almost always find that it is not the item on the table – the changing working practices or the pay offer – that is the issue it’s the way managers or staff, or both, have approached the negotiation.

This is not to say that in large organisations, such as BA and the Civil Service, all union relations will be on a knife edge. In both cases, there are some very effective relationships. But it is the more dysfunctional ones that make the headlines and, in the process, risk souring the organisation’s reputation with the rest of the workforce.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Look at Co-operative Financial Services, where we recently facilitated a management/union agreement over outsourcing – one of the most sensitive industrial relations issues over the past five years. Similarly at Gillette where, faced with redundancies, the business consulted with employees at the earliest opportunity and asked the staff representatives for alternative proposals, how to approach the situation and what the final redundancy package should contain. Larger, more complex organisations can learn from these successes.

There are a number of common factors that cause industrial relations to break down. Foremost is communication. It’s a mistake to approach any change to working practices without knowing how you will communicate this change. If managers handle these early stages badly, they risk bouncing unions into a position they have to defend.

Consultation can be another flashpoint. Businesses often confuse consultation with negotiation, but the two are very different. Consultation is a management process managers own it and are under no obligation to come to an agreement as a result. However, it is the opportunity to explain to the workforce what changes you are trying to make and why. And it is a chance for workers to give their feedback and be heard. If done well, both sides will know what to expect when they reach the negotiating table, and there will be fewer surprises to derail the process.

The current round of industrial action shows that HR downgrades the importance of good industrial relations at its peril. Twenty to 30 years ago, industrial relations skills were central to any successful personnel department. But in migrating from personnel to HR, we seem almost to have forgotten them.

Union members have to be at the end of their patience to vote for industrial action – it means losing pay and possibly damaging relationships with friends and colleagues who do not share their view.

HR managers facing industrial action have to ask themselves how it got this far. Was it really the issue on the table, or was it the relationship? And, whichever it was, what could HR have done differently?

By Paul Cronin, industrial relations consultant, The Work Foundation

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