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7 ways to manage employees who are represented by a union

5 min read


This guest post is by Arte Nathan, a veteran human resources professional with more than 30 years of practicing HR, most of it as chief human resources officer for Golden Nugget and its successor companies, Mirage Resorts and Wynn Resorts. He lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., where he consults, writes and teaches. Follow him on Twitter at @arte88.

This post is part of a three-part blog series exploring how to effectively manage issues related to having and managing unions in the workplace. Read yesterday’s post about the 365-day campaign. The first post reviewing the history of U.S. labor unions is also available.

The third part of this week’s blog is intended to be a basic instructional guide on managing employees who are represented by a union. This will help you to better understand how to do this effectively and/or de-mystify this if you’ve never in done that before.

For the purpose of this blog, I am assuming that if a union exists in your company, you have both union and non-union employees. Again, if a union is voted in by some of your employees, those employees are then “union members,” not “union employees” — they still are YOUR employees. If you’re a manager or supervisor where this is the case, remember to apply the same good management techniques you’ve always used in the past.

Here are seven helpful ideas to think about:

  1. Approach managing all employees the same way, whether they’re represented by a union or not because effective management applies to both: being honest, communicating well and often, listening to and resolving issues as they arise, recognizing and rewarding good performance, and creating an environment of trust and respect. Discipline yourself to treat all employees the same — because once you start to treat them differently then they will begin to look at and react to you differently.
  2. Learn how to work with shop stewards — the first level of representation for your employees represented by a union. The shop steward may come to you first to resolve a situation, or they may be on hand with an employee to make sure that the employee understands his/her rights. The best practice is to work with them as though they are an extra set of eyes and ears for you — like a partner helping to manage your employees. Utilized effectively, they can be a helpful ally to you.
  3. Resolve disputes quickly and fairly. Formal grievance procedures are standard in most union contracts, but they’re there only 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 — then work openly with your shop stewards and your employees.
  4. Know what you want because you’ll have to put it in writing. Contracts replace handbooks and they are “hard and fast” rules that govern your relationship with these employees. Research best practices and language in other contracts so you better understand all your options before you agree to anything. You may want to consider putting language in your union contract that creates a process to update contract rules and policies if there are changes that would be warranted. You’ll have to get approval from the union, but that’s better than waiting until the next round of negotiations when the contract expires.
  5. Review your non-union policies and procedures to make sure that you’ve got similarity between what you give each group. Again, you don’t want to create a situation where what you give employees represented by a union might be perceived as being better than what you give to non-union employees. Review your policies regularly to make sure they still make sense. Try not to attempt giving one group something that is intended to compensate for what you may have separately given to the other — that usually becomes one of those slippery slopes.
  6. Treat  your employees with respect and create an environment of trust. If you have that, you’ll probably have employees (union and non-union) who are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, confident enough to be understanding when your business needs to be flexible, and comfortable talking to you, rather than their union representative, 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.
  7. The time to freak out is not when you have active organizing going on, or when you have employees who are represented by a union, because by then it’s too late. If you want to remain union-free, create an environment where employees have no reason to want a third party to protect them. In the end, do your job well and you should have good employee and labor relations.

Of course this is only one HR guy’s opinion. Let Nathan know what you think via e-mail or in the comments.