Managing in a Union Environment

Things change when employees vote to unionize. They change for your employees and leaders because a third party is now involved, and there’s a Collective Bargaining Agreement. There are more rules, do’s and don’ts, and things taken for granted are now potential causes of conflict. For example, you ask an employee to help another employee, and he says he can’t because the other work is not in his job description, and the union contract doesn’t allow it.   

Some of the challenges your managers and supervisors face once the company unionizes include the following. 

  • Lack of flexibility. 
  • Cross-training of employees is restricted. 
  • Many communications with employees must go through a union representative.
  • When a union representative gets involved, it requires meetings that use up the valuable leader and employee time which impacts productivity.

Collective Bargaining Agreement Adds Complexity to Employee Management 

Employees are always still employees, whether or not they are union members. Your managers and frontline supervisors still need to manage employees, strive for high-level employee engagement, work towards developing and maintaining positive employee relations, maintain department productivity, and keep workforce efforts in alignment with your organization’s mission. Yet, there’s no denying the union impacts the relationship between employees and leadership, and that is the crux of the primary challenge. Communication becomes a double-edged sword. Your leaders still communicate directly with employees, but your union employees also have the union communicating with them.  

It gets even more complicated if your workforce consists of union and non-union members. In many ways, unions interfere with employee engagement in its fullness. The Society for Human Resources wrote, “Though different organizations define engagement differently, some common themes emerge. These themes include employees’ satisfaction with their work and pride in their employer, the extent to which people enjoy and believe in what they do for work, and the perception that their employer values what they bring to the table. The greater an employee’s engagement, the more likely they are to “go the extra mile” and deliver excellent on-the-job performance.” 

But now you ask a union employee to “go the extra mile,” and the answer you get is “not allowed” per the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Some of your employees joined a union because they didn’t feel personally valued or appreciated for their contributions or felt no pride in their employer for some reason. The union encouraged these feelings that impede employee engagement.  

As Projections discussed in a prior blog, there are levels of engagement: engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged. Past Gallup research found that union employees are less engaged than non-union employees. The percentage of actively disengaged employees is higher among union employees compared to non-union employees.  

Unions Have Profound Impact on the Workplace 

Actively disengaged employees are people who promote discontent and dissent in the workforce. A roundtable discussion attended by executives and managers from across industries, meeting to discuss the impact of unions on a business, mentioned the following points: 

  • Union membership contributes to an “us versus them” mentality that leads to various types of interpersonal conflict
  • Union members have a sense of security that encourages them to remain in their jobs, but that doesn’t mean there is a greater emotional attachment to their jobs. 
  • It’s more difficult to engage employees in a union environment, but engagement profoundly affects productivity for both non-union and union environments. 
  • It’s important to build strong emotional connections with unionized employees (even though challenging)  

In one meta-study, researchers tried to identify why so many studies indicate union members are less happy or engaged compared to non-union workers but less likely to quit their jobs. They learned that dissatisfied workers are the employees who are more likely to join a union. Now you are dealing with dissatisfied employees who are also union members. 

But this study found that employee dissatisfaction wasn’t due to the union; it was due to working conditions. The important implication is that your managers can engage union employees by addressing worker expectations and giving employees opportunities to express their discontent with certain job elements. This applies before and after unionization.   

Adapting Employee Engagement to the Union Environment

How do you best manage in what could become a volatile workplace setting? Following are ten guidelines gleaned from the actual experiences of roundtable executives and managers and UnionProof consultants working with various employers across industries over the past decades. These items are not the only considerations but will give you a good idea of the type of leadership training you should provide to successfully manage in a union environment.   

Sincerely engage employees in an inclusive and non-threatening manner 

Inclusion is usually discussed concerning diversity and inclusion today, but in this case, we are talking about whether union employees feel included in your employee engagement process. You probably do engagement surveys because they are an important source of employee information and open communication. 

If union employees perceive the engagement surveys as threatening, they aren’t likely to provide honest answers. If the union thinks the process has an underlying undisclosed motive, like finding reasons to harm the union, they will advise your employees not to complete the surveys. Your managers should clearly communicate the engagement-building process, in any form, is a continuous learning process to improve working conditions.  

Include union representatives in engagement processes 

Give union representatives opportunities to offer input into engagement activities. For example, collaborate with the union on the employee engagement survey or when developing a new employee engagement program. When people take ownership of something, they are more likely to be cooperative. When the union feels threatened, it will encourage members to resist your efforts. Close communication between management and the union is important.  

managing union environment

Find common ground with the union 

First, when the union is hostile to something, like a union survey or a new work process, find common ground. It could be safety or wellness, for example. By learning the union’s “talking points” on their agenda, you can find an issue of importance to your organization and the union. Then create an employee engagement process that specifically addresses that issue. Improvements that come out of this process are proof your management is sincere about the employee engagement effort and that you have an interest in some of the same things as the union.

Hold dialogue sessions that include union and non-union employees 

When devising an engagement action plan, it’s important to talk directly to union and non-union employees. All employees want a voice, and employees feeling like they have no voice is a major reason they unionize. Giving employees a chance to express their opinions strengthens their connection to the company. Projections has discussed the importance of developing the active listening skills of your leaders because they are needed to truly engage employees and learn their needs. 

Develop a variety of communication paths 

Your ideal communication process design is dependent on the structure of the workforce. If all employees work onsite, an intranet is a good option. If you have a hybrid workforce consisting of onsite and remote workers, you need a communication option that enables your managers to communicate with all employees. It could be texts or employee apps, for example. The most important point is to communicate with all employees and give them the ability to ask questions and get answers, express opinions, offer suggestions, and stay in contact with their managers and supervisors.  

The most important point is to communicate with all employees and give them the ability to ask questions and get answers, offer suggestions, and stay in contact with their leaders. #communication #union  

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Maintain employer rights defined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement  

The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is a legally enforceable contract between management and its union employees. It’s usually a big document because it defines in detail all the conditions of employment, from wages and benefits to dispute resolutions.  

The CBA will have a Management Rights clause that protects your company from unreasonable union interference when you’re managing the business. You can hire employees, direct work, set work hours and schedules, enforce rules of conduct, discipline employees, and so on. In a unionized business, there is a grievance and arbitration process, which is a contract-related dispute. The grievance process involves the employee, manager or supervisor, and the shop steward or union representative. It’s important to maintain your management rights. However, the best plan is to ensure your managers and supervisors address performance issues consistently, fairly, and promptly. 

Develop a good working relationship with the shop stewards or union stewards 

Shop stewards are employees but are elected to represent their union coworkers. They are the link between the union and employees and will participate in events like grievance hearings, investigations, and negotiations. Union representatives are not employees, but they have the right to manage grievances and discussions with stewards.  

As mentioned, grievances are contract-related disputes between the union and management. The union files a grievance for the employee. It’s a formal process involving the employee, supervisor, and the shop steward or union representative and will become an issue for higher-level management, who must ensure the CBA rules are followed. If the grievance can’t be resolved, it moves to arbitration.

Employees have Weingarten Rights, established in an NLRB case in 1975. It says employees covered by the CBA have a right to have a shop steward or union representative present at any employee meeting with a supervisor that could lead to disciplinary actions. Your managers must protect these rights. Developing a good working relationship with the union steward can deflect many issues that would get inflated into formal grievances.  

Supervisors should regularly talk to the shop stewards and gain their trust, and it’s the best path to avoiding formal grievances that add negativity to the workplace. Gaining trust is important because the shop steward will greatly influence employee attitudes and perspectives toward your supervisors and management in general. Maintain good transparent communication 

communicating with a union

Recognize the tensions created by the CBA and the union organizing campaign  

Tension is common whether the entire workforce or a segment of the workforce is unionized. The union organizing campaign and union voting process are always emotionally charged, and there may be tension: 

  • Between union and non-union workers due to the union organizing process that created a divide in the workforce 
  • Between union members and management 
  • Due to union employees who were not in full support of the union but chose to vote for unionization with an attitude of “let’s see what the union can do.” 
  • Union members who consistently challenge managers and supervisors because the contract protects them from getting fired for anything except the most grievous behaviors 
  • Non-union members who resent losing out on promotions because of seniority clauses in the contract that lead to less qualified union members being promoted 

Regular communication between employees and management is crucial. You don’t want to leave tensions simmering because eventually, they will become serious impediments to your efforts to develop positive employee relations. As an employer, you need to know your rights that are conveyed by labor laws and the collective bargaining contract to ensure your communication with employees is based on facts and employee and employer rights.  

Your employees are still your employees. If your frontline employees are afraid to talk to their employees, offer them more leadership training. They need a willingness to fully fulfill their job responsibilities and to work with shop stewards. Establishing a good relationship with the shop stewards can ease tensions and become a source of information as to the cause of tensions among employees.  

Respect the union and don’t assume an ongoing adversarial management position 

This goes full circle. When your employees vote for a union, they have real or believe they have real issues with management or working conditions. If you assume a perspective that says the union is the “enemy,” it will impact leadership communication and productivity. Respect the union at all times and don’t overreact when an employee brings the CBA into a discussion on work responsibilities or promotions, or anything else. Instead, find a way to respond factually and with respect for the union employee’s rights. Leaders who lose their cool are causing trouble that could be avoided.  

Develop an employee coaching process as an element of disciplining 

You have the right to discipline employees for just cause. However, it’s imperative to coach the employee to help the person improve their performance or change unacceptable work behaviors. Your leaders need to know how to coach employees. If they don’t understand the coaching process, then your leaders need coaching!   

Your leaders need to know how to coach employees. If they don’t understand the coaching process, or aren't confident coaching others, then your leaders need coaching!   

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Many employers don’t have a specific coaching process, but you need one whether or not your workplace is unionized. Considering that, the coaching process is not only the right thing to do when disciplining employees; it also serves as proof you are doing what you can to help the employee improve. That can make a big difference in a dispute over a union employee’s performance and job expectations. Always make sure the entire disciplinary and coaching processes are carefully documented in great detail.  

Review Your Human Resources Processes 

When employees unionize, it impacts your Human Resources policies and procedures. For example, you need to ensure your frontline supervisors meet periodically with shop stewards; your promotion and compensation policies adhere to the CBA; the disciplinary procedures must meet CBA requirements, etc. Who will be in charge of fact-finding during a grievance procedure? How will you ensure employees get responses to their feedback? What process is in place to make sure employees with disciplinary problems are properly coached? What is the disciplinary process? 

At the heart of managing in a union environment is knowledge of labor laws and the Collective Bargaining Agreement coupled with high-quality communication between employees and management. Keep developing positive employee relations because they are possible in a unionized workplace. The long-term result may be your union employees realize they don’t need a union any longer and vote to decertify the union

At Projections, we are happy to offer in-depth, comprehensive training on managing in a union environment because this kind of training is imperative. Manager and supervisor training can prevent unintentional damage to employee engagement and serious and expensive union-related challenges to employee management actions perceived as violating the Collecting Bargaining Agreement.  

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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