Let’s kick this post off with a group exercise. Finish this sentence:

                           Unions are…

We’re going to go out on a limb and suggest you might have used some of the following: scary, intimidating, restrictive, difficult to deal with…

If not – great news – you’re on the same page as us. Because, although the reputation of unions may not always be rosy, we think a reasonable working relationship is critical to ongoing business success. And this starts with attitude.

The battle line between Australian unions and businesses has been raked into the dirt for decades, fuelled by mutual distrust and disrespect, on occasion, spilling onto the street and the front of the paper. And like some employers we have come across, if your business is rooted in a heavily unionised industry, you might have your own accounts of being in the trenches ‘fighting’ the unions.

But we think this mindset needs to change and, just to be clear, that’s the stance we will take if you come to us for professional HR advice. Because the role of good HR people is to encourage employers to build smart, strategic relationships with their union. It doesn’t have to be warfare, because unions are not the enemy.

The role of unions has certainly changed over the decades, and the rise of internal Human Resources Management has led people to question in  recent years – are unions even necessary?  Most organisations now recognise the need to treat their people fairly, pay them well and look out for their wellbeing. Australian businesses also spend a great deal of time and money in developing new age, funky policies, pay schemes and branding to help them attract and retain the best people.

However, unions still represent around 18% of our workforce (1.8 million Australians), which means they have a job to do and are a necessary part of certain industries. Therefore we believe the way forward is to cultivate meaningful partnerships, built on productive conversations and positive outcomes. In other words, less talk about your differences and more talk about your similarities – or ways to find mutual gain.

Taking the following suggestions onboard would be a great place to start:

  1. Play nice – be as respectful and polite as you would be to any other client group, don’t go in looking for a fight and never match aggressive or intimidating behaviour
  2. Don’t play games – be honest and open at all times, you shouldn’t have anything to hide if you are doing things properly
  3. Ask the right questions – find out what outcome your union rep is seeking and be honest about what you can and can’t concede
  4. Look for the win/win – be ready to cooperate and compromise to get the best result
  5. Be human – lay the foundations for a long-term relationship built on a professional respect and rapport
  6. Have an open door policy – never attempt to stop a union rep from entering your work place, they have a legal right to do so if they have the paperwork done.

We appreciate some readers might view this as somewhat idealistic advice – and we’re not suggesting you become BFFs with your union rep and start inviting him to family barbecues – but we are asking you to think about what your business stands to gain from a healthy, productive union relationship.

We would love to hear from any members of our community who have a positive union story to tell, or perhaps from business owners or HR folks with any tips or suggestions for our readers. Remember, we know working with unions can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be war. Try adjusting your mindset and start working with your union rep to get the best outcome. In most cases, we think you’ll find they are just a normal person like you, trying to do a job.

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