Work with unions? How to embed an employee engagement strategy

Written by
Changeboard Team

05 Dec 2014

05 Dec 2014 • by Changeboard Team

Dealing with unionised organisations

The idea of employee engagement couldn’t be much more straightforward – we can all understand that employees will be happier and more productive if they find their work stimulating, feel motivated and valued and buy into the organisation’s purpose and direction.

In practice, however, increasing and maintaining employee engagement is complex, as organisations are multifaceted and affect employees in many ways. A comprehensive strategy for employee engagement needs to consider a number of issues, including line management, communications and branding, reward and recognition, organisational culture and leadership.

In strongly unionised organisations, there are further challenges, unique to the environment, which are worth thinking about in their own right. Roffey Park’s recent roundtable event brought together participants from a range of public and private sector organisations to discuss just this.

Working with trade unions

Figuring out how to work with trade unions to successfully embed an employee engagement strategy is of immediate as well as long-term importance.

It can also be extremely tricky, as there is the potential for a fundamental clash of ideologies. The notion of employee engagement essentially comes from a unitarist perspective, which sees management and employee interests as being similar and conflict as being due to misunderstanding or mischief.

This is a far cry from the pluralist perspective, which upholds collective bargaining and sees conflict as an inherent part of the employment relationship. In short, talking about ‘win-win’ scenarios may be nonsensical for those used to adversarial employment relations.

Below we outline key challenges that exist in promoting employee engagement in a unionised environment, and important lessons that have been learnt.

What approach to take with trade unions?

It's easy to advocate a partnership approach to employment relations as the foundation for an employee engagement strategy. Focusing on common interests and building a trustful relationship match well with the mutual gains view of employee engagement. However, it's not the only option and indeed, is not realistic in all scenarios.

This is the case not least because, even if senior management are on board with a partnership approach, trade unions may not be. Whether a union takes a more militant or moderate position and which management issues it is willing to discuss can define the scope of what is possible. As an example, employers wanting to agree on workforce flexibility alongside employment security may find that their trade union refuses to be drawn into discussions on increasing flexibility.

A need to understand trade unions

In cases where partnership is possible, the TUC has identified that a major complication is that unions often lack sufficient understanding of the business. The experience of our roundtable participants suggested that the opposite is also true: management needs to take the time to get a proper understanding of the trade unions in the organisation.

By understanding trade unions’ drivers, worries, principles and focal points, one can get a better idea of what their trigger points will be and what buttons to press to get results.

The challenge is to get underneath their skin and understand what makes individual trade unions tick. A good starting point is to understand a union’s history and general perspective, including what sets it apart from, and perhaps creates conflict with, other trade unions. This will help managers to see whether particular issues are likely to lead to confrontation or be fertile grounds for cooperation.

Similarly, employers will do well to recognise differences that may exist within a trade union. For example, in some sectors, local union reps were experienced as pragmatic and reasonable, compared to the table-thumping officials at national level; yet in other sectors it was the other way round, trade unions being more cooperative at a national level.

Support the protagonists

Despite such good practice, there often seems to be a reality gap between what we might like to see in theory and what’s achievable. A relationship based on cooperation and partnership sounds great but, for both parties, is easier said than done.

With the best will in the world, some managers seem to find it all too easy to slot into traditional adversarial roles when faced with the reality of employment relations. Part of the challenge appears to be that managers can easily feel intimidated when facing disagreement trade unions.

As well as being a precarious situation, there can be an imbalance of knowledge and skills, with union officials often being very experienced in legal matters and negotiation. Managers struggling to hold their own may find it simplest to play hardball. So, for employers who are serious about working in partnership with unions, they should make sure that managers have the skills development needed to carry this out.

Smoothing the road

It's also important to appreciate the challenges facing trade union reps. Even where there is a desire to work in greater partnership, shifting to this from negotiation is not straightforward for employee reps. Indeed, without the right skills, they can find themselves in danger of colluding in decisions that will come back to haunt them.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, employers may benefit from looking to see how they can support trade union representatives, smoothing the road as they move away from an adversarial stance.