Like cilantro, it’s an either-or kind of thing. Either your organization and unions like one another and get along palatably. Or you don’t. Many of us have had a first-hand (or maybe arm’s length) experience from one side of the fence or the other. For unionized organizations intending to introduce or raise employee engagement levels, rallying union support around engagement surveys can be like scaling an extra high wall. It’s not without its challenges.
What the numbers say
In 2016 there were 14.6 million wage and salary workers belonging to a union in the U.S.—a decline of 240,000 from the year before. In 1983, the year comparable union data was first available, there were 17.7 million union workers representing 20.1 percent of the American workforce. Today that percentage stands at 10.7 percent, nearly 50% less. Another noteworthy 2016 tidbit highlighted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is that union membership rates continue to be highest among workers aged 45 to 64. Given that unions support seniority over merit it’s not a stretch to guess what side of the fence that puts Millennials on.
By all accounts, membership is receding but that doesn’t diminish the sensitivity and perennial quest for bargaining chips that are characteristic of unions. Fortunately for some organizations, the union relationship is strong. For others, however, it’s downright cantankerous. Adversarial at best.
Why engagement surveys cause turmoil
Unions are threatened with the engagement survey process. Think about it: by engaging staff, organizations eliminate the need for a union in the first place. Plus, well-meaning employee engagement programs focus on a common interest rather than the US vs THEM attitude typically perpetuated in unionized environments. So instead of building bridges, defensive union representatives put up blockades. They obstruct employee surveys by sending out messages urging membership not to participate – saying surveys aren’t confidential and managers will be able to tell who says what; beware the consequences.
Where to be watchful
Bringing union representatives into the engagement survey process is essential. It’s also essential to set ground rules. Make it clear they’re the same as everyone else, especially around confidentiality (because like everyone else, they’ll want to see results with the intention of identifying certain members). Yes, to a union/non-union break-out of results. But no, an absolute NO, to looking at individual responses. Not up for debate. Convey questions specific to union or department special interests won’t be happening either, though there may be a question asking people how they feel about labor relations in general.
Remember too, unions will want to use the information that comes out of an engagement survey for negotiations. They’ll participate in the process, then turn around and say, “oh, look how unhappy our members are about … this, that and the other…”. Being mindful of these challenges and staying true to the principles of employee engagement can help diffuse confrontational situations.
What you can do to create a united front
Quite often unions (possibly within your own organization), have programs and services in place that help with professional development, health and well-being. They’re already contributing to employee engagement, unwittingly. Including unions in the engagement survey process is KEY to higher and honest participation rates. This starts with survey design right through to post-survey actioning. Getting that buy-in can be difficult, particularly if the union doesn’t trust management.
- Give assurances, repeatedly if need be, that your organization has no intention of undermining the union and its responsibilities to members. Absolutely none. Be transparent. Honest. Communicative.
- If your union tends to be mercurial open the engagement survey dialogue by finding common grounds. The issue of safety is a safe choice for starters.
- Distance survey timing as much as possible from any bargaining or arbitration, after a strike or strenuous negotiation. If a collective bargaining agreement has recently been ratified, you’ll get a euphoric kind of response that will lift engagement – but that’s temporary.
- Be wary of side agendas. Create a level playing field that makes for a more relaxed environment. If a 3rd party survey vendor is in the room at the outset, they can help circumvent tense situations by making it clear the union has a representative role. There are no special privileges. Union reps must play by the same rules as management, the same rules as rank and file employees, the same rules as everyone at the table.
- Be upfront about how you don’t want post-survey action planning to be part of union bargaining but that you do want union participation in the planning and implementation process. Some organizations say they’ve de-escalated union bargaining issues by including unions in the engagement action planning piece. At Saskatchewan Polytechnic, they had representation from the public sector union as well as the Faculty Association – and all collaborated quite well.
A little something from a passionate advocate of employee engagement surveys and outcomes to wrap this all up: “If your organization isn’t organized, employee engagement can be a preventative measure; it can ward off unionization if managed well. Conversely, if your organization is organized, employee engagement tends to make the relationship with your union a lot better.” – Norm Baillie-David, Senior Vice President of Engagement, TalentMap.
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