Getting Along With the Union

How can human resources professionals bargain and build meaningful relationships with the union during tough economic times?

In her recent presentation at Queen’s IRC’s Labour Relations Foundations program, Ontario Nurses’ Association President Linda Haslam-Stroud provided sound advice for signing off on successful collective agreements. In the following excerpts from her talk, Linda shares her top 10 tips.

1. Foster equality: remember, union and management are the team

The employer’s objective is to hold the line or to get concessions, to get as much flexibility as possible so they can operate their organization.

The union is trying to improve wages, benefits and working conditions for members. That’s their job, that’s what they’re elected to do. They are the elected voice, the bargaining agents.

So both sides are coming into this with different goals to achieve. At the outset, HR and labour relations need to appreciate where the union is coming from, where there is room for movement, and where there isn’t.

So talk to your union; HR and labour relations and the union are the team. If you can’t build relationships, you won’t be successful as a union rep or an HR leader.

Courses like IRC’s, for example, foster transparency and open dialogue between management and union representatives. Attendees leave with a tool-kit of practical ideas on fulfilling their accountabilities as HR and union representatives.

2. Find common interests and collaborate

At the ONA, we’ve had success with interest-based bargaining. IBB can be anything from a formal process where you pay someone to come in and facilitate union-management cooperation on common problems, to a more informal approach to talk about issues.

It’s often a good alternative to approaches where employers and the union sit on opposite sides of a table passing documents back and forth.

IBB is helpful for identifying common issues. For example, the ONA and employers both want to provide quality patient care; and we both want to be fiscally responsible with tax dollars.

3. Drill down toward tough issues

First come to consensus on high-level issues, and then break down into more specific issues, such as scheduling. Wages, benefits and anything financial we leave until the end of the road. You want to build up a relationship when you’re bargaining, so try to get the non-financials off the table first.

4. Sign off as you go along to build momentum

We’ve been very successful in signing off on clauses in the nonstrike sector and in the strike sector too with CCAC case managers, public health nurses and nurses in industry. We find that this builds momentum, trust and credibility. So if you have four things you’ve agreed on and then break down on a really difficult issue, that relationship that’s been built will help you successfully negotiate further.

5. Talk – don’t push papers

Even if you are in a traditional bargaining setting, instead of just passing papers back and forth, talk about the issue. If the union’s come forward to you with some bizarre proposal, don’t walk out of the room without saying, “So union, tell me why do you want this; what’s the issue here?” It might be something you can give to union members and at the same time support what you want. But you’ll never know unless you engage.

If you want to negotiate well, start talking, ask questions. Say, “We have a problem with this, here’s how we think we can solve it, have you got any suggestions, union?” You might be able to get where you need to be without aggressive concessionary language that the unions could never take back to their members.

6. Avoid package deals

Package bargaining drives me crazy – at ONA we just ignore it. You know, “We’ll give you A if you give us the employers’ BCDEF and G.”

Passing packages back and forth drives me crazy. Basically you’ve told the union you’re willing to give on that point. And we’re saying, “Okay, that’s done, so let’s get down to the other ones we need to deal with.”

I’m not a big proponent of these packages.

7. Come prepared to negotiate

This scenario happens frequently: we as the union have taken five months to get to the table, arranged with everyone’s busy schedules to be there, including nurses pulled off very busy units that are often short-staffed, and we sit down to bargain. Then the employer says, “Ok, we’ll take a look at it, and our next day for bargaining is four weeks from now.” The employer group hasn’t even met to decide what its proposals are!

Have a good idea of what the language in the current collective agreement says when you come to bargain, and what your priorities are, whether you are management or union, and facts about why you want what you want. You have to show reasons so when we go to arbitration we can share case facts. Be prepared to tell this to the other side of the table: “We need this because of X.”

8. Hone priorities and proposals continually

At ONA we bargain at two levels: centrally and provincially. So how do we make sure we are very well positioned to go to bargaining?

We do a bargaining questionnaire of our 55,000 members. We have an external firm mail it out and members mail it back. We typically get high response rates of 35% to 40%.

The information is broken down into sectors: we know first priority, second priority, and down the list. We know what age group wants what percentage of a wage increase.

We have all that information, so when we come to the table, its not just a wish-list from members from the past two years since we signed the last collective agreement. It’s solid quantitative and qualitative information.

9. Signing the collective agreement means your job has just begun

Whether you are a union rep or in HR, once the agreement is signed, the question becomes, “So how will we implement this?”

Employers sometimes send out copies of the collective agreement to all managers, or have a short meeting with HR to orient them to the new language.

This isn’t enough: it’s about the ongoing discussion with managers on how the collective agreement is applied. And on the union side, reps have a responsibility too: to tell employees what their rights are, and aren’t.

10. Hold joint meetings about implementing agreements

One of the best practices I’ve seen in 30 years of negotiating was at St. Joseph’s in Hamilton. We got together after the collective agreement was signed and talked about how to implement it. We said, “Let’s sit, union and management together, and talk about the amendments and how that’s going to be worked out.”

The ONA has sometimes had joint meetings that include management and members to say, “This is the new collective agreement, a joint presentation of our joint collective agreement, a collective agreement that is ours and not theirs.” This goes a long way toward ensuring labour peace.”

Dealing With the Disabled: Are HR Leaders Up to the Challenge?

Increasingly, human resources practitioners are being challenged to help break down barriers to the participation of employees with disabilities. Those barriers, alas, are proving tough to overcome.

Certainly a growing percentage of people with disabilities are finding work, according to the latest Statistics Canada report Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) 2006: Labour force experience of people with disabilities in Canada. As well, an aging population means disabilities in general are on the rise. “Most of us at sometime in our lives will have a disability,” says Rosemary Lysaght, Assistant Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy at Queen’s University. These may include sight, speech, and hearing deficits, as well as mobility, mental health, intellectual, and learning disabilities.

But many impediments to tapping the talent of workers with disabilities remain. One issue is skill gaps among workers with disabilities. Lysaght’s research indicates lack of employment training programs for people with intellectual disability is a significant obstacle. Workers with late onset disabilities also often require retraining in order to qualify for jobs with lower physical or emotional demands.

A second issue, says Lysaght, are negative employer attitudes. “I don’t think HR people are really sold on the fact that people with disabilities can do a good job,” she says. Even those who do get hired are often pigeonholed in low-paying, low status, part-time jobs. This especially applies to people with mental health and intellectual disabilities, the most marginalized of all disabled populations.

For employers, getting the right support to determine how to fit people with disabilities into the workforce can be a challenge. “It’s not the knowledgebase for the average HR person,” says Lysaght. “But if there’s someone such as an occupational therapist to tell them, ‘Here’s the kind of accommodation this person needs,’ it can work really well.”

Research has demonstrated that employees with disabilities do better when there is a good fit between their strengths and the job. “If you had someone with Asperger’s syndrome, and the job involved technology, attention to detail, and focus, it could be a good match,” says the Queen’s researcher. “But depending on their skills, that person may not do well in a sales job.”

Better models need to be developed for matching a person’s skills and a job. Lysaght says” task extraction” is one possibility: she worked with one organization that helps employers identify routine tasks that are time-wasters for their employees, then takes these tasks to create a job that is a good match for someone with an intellectual disability.

“It’s brilliant, as it really maximizes the potential of your workforce,” says Lysaght. In another setting, a new job for a shipyard worker who had sustained spinal cord injury was created. “His employer figured out what office tasks needed to be done, took pieces of the workload of others, set him up on a computer, and got him a special phone with voice controls. Now they really count on him, as he’s smart, reliable and an excellent worker.”

While it may take some effort, it pays to find ways to reduce barriers to inclusive employment, says Lysaght. The benefits of accommodating and supporting people with disabilities in the workplace include:

A more stable workforce. Workers with disabilities are often the most reliable, and will show loyalty to an accommodating employer.

Diversity in the workplace. “If it’s the kind of organization where ideas matter, that’s creative, studies show it is better to have various kinds of people. So having people with disabilities could be beneficial.”

Greater cohesion and engagement. “In one study, people with intellectual disabilities, ranging from high- to low-functioning, were proactively brought in and their skills matched to jobs. Researchers interviewed the co-workers, and they were saying, ‘I love talking to them – they have given me a whole new perspective. It makes this place feel like more of a family.'”

A positive public image. “There’s some evidence of a value-add to having people with disabilities in the workplace, as it contributes to an organization’s reputation as a good corporate citizen. However employers shouldn’t do it if they are just trying to be philanthropic, just to help some poor disadvantaged person.”

HR managers have an important role in removing barriers for people with disabilities, Lysaght adds. They are well-placed to help ensure a good fit between a person’s skills and the job; to facilitate better accommodation by involving experts such as occupational therapists and other rehabilitation specialists; and to provide ongoing support once the person is in a job. “The notion of providing appropriate supports and building asocial network in the workplace, one that’s welcoming – that is huge for people with disabilities,” says Lysaght. “They need to feel welcome and respected, and that other people aren’t resenting them or afraid of them. A lot of it is trickle-down: if there is good leadership in one area, such as HR, that can get other workers on board, and ensure that supports and accommodations are there for the person with a disability.”

Smart and Soulful Language Skills for Leaders

What, you may ask, is a yawp — and what does it have to do with being able to communicate well as a leader? Senior managers who participated in a day-long Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre custom program found themselves considering this recently.

Let’s begin with an explanation of “yawp”: it means “to bark or yelp.” A “barbaric yawp” is featured in a scene from The Dead Poets Society, in which an unorthodox English professor (actor Robin Williams) gives an assignment that terrifies his shyest student. He wants each person to write a poem and then recite it in front of the class. When the shy student says he didn’t write the assigned poem, Mr. Keating writes a line from poet Walt Whitman on the blackboard — “I sound my barbaric yawp.” Then, evoking the spirit of Whitman, Keating uses leadership coaching skills to help the boy to “yawp” and move beyond his resistance to create something original.

Okay, that brings us to the connection between barbaric yawping and leadership communications. The scene I have just described was one of four clips that Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre trainers played for senior managers who were participating in the custom communications program. Each clip focused on one of the four key responsibilities of good leader/communicators: to ignite peoples’ imagination; to invite them to participate in the enterprise; to inform them of the issues and facts; and to involve people by soliciting input and breaking imaginary barriers (the yawp example). In short, the four I’s.

In a very dramatic way, the clips clarified the critical role that leaders play in getting messages across and bringing about change. Participants were energized, setting the stage for two afternoon sessions to help them improve their leadership communications skills — a writing workshop and a presenting workshop.

During the afternoon writing session, I was surprised to notice some participants seemed to be back to where they had been at the beginning of the program: with doubts about the importance of leadership communications. When I began to talk about ways that good writing skills can support leaders in each of their four key roles, referring back to the film clips they’d seen earlier, one participant said: “Yes, that’s fine when you are encouraging someone to yawp, or leading an army, but what has this really got to do with me in sewage services?”

We all had a good laugh: it was comical to picture Robin Williams using his over-the-top coaching technique to help staff members to find a new way to achieve productivity gains in municipal waste services. Okay, I said, you may not be saving the world. But you are doing something important, something that adds value to our society, and the principles of good communications are the same for you as they are for any other leader. If you can say it or write it well – clearly and in a compelling way – people are more likely to hear your message, and be influenced. We may not receive Academy Awards, but we can learn a lot from these leadership examples, extracting useful ideas about how to communicate better in everyday life.

Leaders don’t always seem to realize that the way they communicate makes a huge difference: both to their ability to lead and to the lives of the people who work for them. It is as though we get so task-focused and pragmatic that we forget all about the strategic, visionary aspect of leadership communications. Yet words are capable of influencing change, and are a potent strategic tool for taking control of communications, instead of just reacting.

Good leader/communicators have great power to:

  • Help to focus people on what’s important
  • Minimize speculation
  • Create a sense of community
  • Foster acceptance and ownership, and
  • Keep people moving forward toward common goals.

There is a lot of untapped leadership communications potential out there. That’s why in upcoming columns, we plan to apply the principle of the barbaric yawp to break some boundaries and help unleash some of it. Just as Mr. Keating evoked the spirit of Walt Whitman, we plan to summon the powers of good storytelling, poetry, and figurative language to help you improve your skill as leader-communicators.

Communications techniques are changing, reflecting today’s greater emphasis on authenticity, self-awareness and relationships in business environments. We want to show you how the smart and soulful use of language will help you win your employees’ minds and hearts, and make you a leading force for positive change within your organization.

But for now, we’ll sign off with a thought-provoking Yawp for the Day:

The mass of people, within our society or within our corporations, are not primarily motivated by what is rational. It is the emotional, the appeal to self-esteem, the spirit that is the prime mover. — Lawrence Miller, American Spirit: Visions of New Corporate Culture

Sidebar: Timed Writing Exercises

Let’s try a quick “timed writing.” Like exercising or playing musical scales, timed writings build your abilities when done regularly: they will help you write more quickly, and with more ease and focus.

  • Get a pen and paper. Make sure you won’t be interrupted for 10 minutes. Now think for a moment about the writing you do in your job. How do you feel about your writing skills? Are you comfortable when preparing memos or other materials, or not particularly? What are some specific challenges you face relating to written communications in your job? (Perhaps you felt unable to convey your message clearly or in an interesting way – or even elated because you could.) How would you like to improve your writing skills?
  • Now take five minutes to write down how you feel about writing in your job and what you’d like to be able to do better — without stopping to think or taking your pen from the paper to edit. Feel free to go anywhere you want with this: even if you end up writing about how you feel as you are doing the exercise, or veer totally off track – wherever you end up is fine. There is no right answer. What’s important is that you don’t stop writing for the full five minutes.

As an easy way to improve your skills, make timed writings a habit for writing you do in your job. Here’s how:

  • Choose whatever length of time you feel is appropriate to your writing task (perhaps five or ten minutes). For example, I chose five minutes to write the first draft of this exercise. You can use timed writings as a way to get down a first draft of short materials such as memos, or even to map out a structure for long reports.
  • Get a pen and paper, and make sure you won’t be interrupted during your writing time. Close your door; call forward your phone — whatever it takes.
  • Now think a few moments about your topic, and your audience. When you are ready, check the clock, and begin writing. Put down whatever comes into your mind. Don’t take your pen from the paper, and never stop to edit. This will be surprisingly hard to do at first, but just keep going. If need be, even write down negative thoughts that come up – I can’t spell, this is a silly exercise, whatever – just keep writing until your time is up.
  • Now you have something to work with, something creative and unhindered by thoughts about how the audience might react, or your atrocious spelling. Invite your inner editor to join at the next stage: input what you like from your timed writing into your computer, and revise it from there.

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