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
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.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?