Managing a Unionized Workforce

You may have both union and nonunion employees. If a union is voted in by some of your employees, they are union members, not union employees — they are your employees. How to deal with them? Apply the same good management techniques you’ve always used in the past.

Approach managing all employees the same way, whether they’re represented by a union or not. Effective management applies to both — be honest, communicate well and often, listen to and resolve issues as they arise, recognize and reward good performance, and create an environment of trust and respect.

Discipline yourself to treat all employees the same — once you start to treat them differently, they will begin to look at and react to you differently.

Learn how to work with shop stewards — the first level of representation for your workers represented by a union. Work with them as though they are an extra set of eyes and ears for you: a partner helping manage your employees. A steward can be a helpful ally for the wise manager.

Resolve disputes quickly and fairly. Formal grievance procedures are standard in most union contracts, but they’re only there if you and your employee can’t resolve a disagreement first. Talk to the people in your organization who can help you — your supervisor or HR — and then work openly with your shop stewards and employees.

This can be a positive — you negotiate with a set group of people who are elected representatives of the workforce so that you can come to an agreement on changes to terms of employment relatively easily. These reps can help you pinpoint and deal with issues upsetting people and reducing performance.

Know the Rules and Contracts

The laws and rules governing unionized work are complex and vary depending on the union. The union will refer to the contract in negotiations and even during day-to-day work. So the more familiar you are with contract terms, the more effectively you’ll be able to respond to questions or challenges.

Approach the union as a business partner, not an adversary. Tell the union representative if you are having problems with a unionized employee. He or she may be able to provide assistance. Put time into establishing trust with everyone on your team, including union representatives.

Spend time with the team outside of work — consider, for example, volunteer days when everyone volunteers for a social project in the community. Share important information as soon as you reasonably can. Tell union reps about upcoming changes or breaking news early to give them a chance to brush up on the issues. That way, they’ll be prepared to answer questions from members. When you give them a heads up, it builds trust and establishes a practice of open communication.

When you have a good partnership with union representatives, you can ask for their help in solving disciplinary issues. By treating your employees with respect and creating an environment of trust, you’ll have a workforce willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, confident enough to be understanding when your business needs to be flexible, and comfortable talking with you — rather than their union representatives — about their concerns. There may be times when the truth is complicated or difficult to explain, but your employees will understand and respect you for being straight with them.

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