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Proven ways to keep unions onside during reform

By Nicola Vass - 31st May 2018  |  Government , HR Director

One of the most challenging roles an HR professional can undertake is dealing with unions. Without the right approach, the process can quickly break down or become combative, leaving you and your team feeling frustrated and ineffective. Sophia Symeou, CEO of INS, shares her proven strategies for keeping unions onside during reform – and giving you the best chance of a great outcome.

Put yourself in the unions’ shoes.

One of the biggest vulnerabilities experienced by today’s unions is dwindling trust and, occasionally, outright disdain from the business community. “Just as we no longer have an inherent trust of doctors, we no longer have an inherent belief that the unions are there for the right reasons. On top of this, union membership has dropped dramatically over the last ten years. So, unions are struggling to find their relevance. It’s important to understand that they are under enormous pressure to prove themselves. Empathy goes a long way towards keeping your cool and building a good relationship.”

How unions view the role of HR.

“In my experience, unions view HR as a vehicle for management,” says Sophia. “Whilst HR treads the line of trying to care for the workforce, develop organisational policy and make sure legal obligations are met, they will often need to choose between an individual and the organisation. The fact of the matter is that HR usually takes the organisation’s line and it means there’s no one speaking for the individual. Unions are important because there needs to be a voice purely for employees.”

Involve the union early in the reform process.

When it comes to any sort of reform, unions hate to be the last to know. Sophia points to a growing management tendency to completely design a reform, get everything underway, and then bring the unions in at the very last minute. “They then wonder why the unions are obstructive. Involve them early on in the process. And if the industrial agreement says you must provide a certain amount of notice and time for unions to consider reforms, make sure you are aware of it and comply with it.”

Talk to your staff!

Dialogue needs to happen, not just with unions, but also with staff. “Unions will jump up and down if your staff are unhappy. If you get your staff on side, you can mitigate that risk. When you’re doing the right thing, you very rarely end up at the Commission or with a dispute on your hands. If what you’re doing is fairly extreme, however, then it genuinely is the union’s role to get involved.”

A positive attitude goes a long way.

According to Sophia, attitude can play a huge role with regard to outcomes. “It’s helpful to approach talks with genuine positivity. If you appear like you’re being dragged, kicking and screaming, to the table, you won’t get the best result. On the other hand, if you take the agenda in both hands and understand that part of doing business means communicating with your staff and unions, things will go far more smoothly. People deserve to have issues explained and justified to them. More than anything, it’s the right thing to do.”

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

If you’ve already decided on one approach to achieving an outcome, and you are not open to any other options, Sophia strongly advises against giving staff the impression they have a say in things. “In these circumstances, I make absolutely sure not to use the word ‘consult’ because people can become justifiably angry at the pretence.”

Sophia also believes that many organisations have hijacked the word ‘reform’ to mean restructure or downsizing. “I believe that organisations go to restructure or downsizing too quickly. They think it’s easier or they see that their workforce isn’t giving them what they want. But, very rarely is it the answer. We often think new people will fix the problem but if you give the new people the same set of systems and processes to work with, chances are you’ll get exactly the same issues.”

Check what’s happening in the political landscape.

During the consultation process with unions, Sophia believes you are wise to take into account the possibility of a broader social or industrial issue. “Also, is there something happening in the union that you haven’t considered enough, like upcoming elections or an internal dispute? You might think the reform you’re negotiating isn’t a big matter but it might affect something else in the wider scheme of things. It’s always worth doing an environmental scan to see if anything else is happening that might impact negotiations. Unions are not beyond using your local reform to push a broader agenda.”

Don’t be combative; be thorough.

Sophia has decades of experience working as a conduit between unions and the public sector. This includes working on the merger of ICT groups of Rail Infrastructure Corporation to form Railcorp. “The communications from the management team were true and open but, as sometimes happens, the union had a whole lot of wider agendas and the merger got tied up with a broader dispute. The union accused us of having had no communications with them on a particular issue. But I had two lever arch folders filled with documentation to prove that we had. When I tendered these to the Commission, the judge dropped the matter on the spot. Don’t be frightened of ending up down at the Commission. Just make sure you’ve complied with the agreements and have the documentation.”

According to Sophia, it is very important to never make assumptions about what the other party will do or think. “Be as prepared with the data and information as you can. Be clear about what information you can and can’t share. And finally, don’t act on an assumption until you’ve had it confirmed.”

Want to know more about achieving great outcomes with unions? Get in touch with INS, today.

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