Trust … a feeling that is often hard to describe in words. We all know what it feels like when we trust someone, and conversely when we feel we are trusted. It becomes more complex when we consider trust in our personal lives vs trust in our work lives. What I have learned over my career is that there should not be a difference between the two – that to be most effective in the workplace (and be trusted) we need to follow the same simple principles that we do at home. In this article, I will focus on how leaders in organizations can effectively build trust with their union leadership and representatives; from my experience in the corporate world, many management leaders struggle with how to do this effectively.
To break it down into parts, I will focus on the principles I have learned to follow when working with unions to build trust in different organizations.
- Be authentic in ALL interactions with your union representatives.
- Treat the union like employees (as a matter of fact – they are!), not like cost-incurring burdens.
- Learn with your union leaders.
- Communicate always – don’t wait until it is time to bargain to start working through problems.
1. Be Authentic
This sounds obvious, right? It isn’t. I have coached so many leaders in different organizations on how to communicate and act when dealing with their unions. Leaders often lose their authenticity because they are afraid of saying ‘too much,’ or revealing secrets the union ‘shouldn’t know.’ Being authentic doesn’t mean you have to divulge everything. It means coming across as real, and open. It means ditching the ‘Tiger Suit’ to quote my earliest career mentor Peter Edwards. From my experience, many company leaders still feel it is a big act where they have to put on the tiger suits and let out the big intimidating roars. Put away the suit and try taking the authenticity approach. Don’t just act like you care, CARE.
2. Treat the Union like Employees
Union members are (as a matter of fact) employees. So often the way union employees are talked about in companies can be very divisive and biased. The difference between union and management employees is of course the collective agreement that lays out the terms and conditions of employment, represented by the union team. When leaders make an honest effort at the very top to speak about unionized employees like they are first and foremost employees of the company, it is amazing how this can cascade down through the organization. When a union is continuously spoken about as a cost burden, it can absolutely be heard and felt by those employees in the union. It is tough to quantify the cost that is avoided when leaders can genuinely treat union members as employees first.
3. Learn WITH your Union Leaders
To help build trust and the relationship with union leadership, it can be effective to invite them to share learning experiences. I have experienced this in two different organizations, where sharing the learning you are offering to your management leaders with your union leaders in the same room, can go along way (ie: Queens University Managing Unionized Environments program). Don’t feel you have to limit this to learning events. Invite union leadership and representatives to the table more often where you otherwise wouldn’t. It does wonders for developing relationships and trust.
4. Communicate Always
Communication is the foundation to all of the above. But it is still worth a call-out on its own. I have seen many leaders avoid great opportunities to proactively communicate with union leadership for a variety of reasons. It is far more effective when it is time to bargain if management has had open communication and frequent communication with union leaders. Set up mechanisms to deal with issues as they come in hopes of resolving them early. In my experience when this has been religiously followed, trust naturally is built which makes everything easier from a business perspective. It is no different than communicating with out-of-scope employees or your family at home. Remember – when you think you have communicated clearly and enough – you haven’t.
Trust is about relationships. The biggest downfall I have seen in organizations is leaders not taking the time to want to genuinely build the relationship, which then in turn, builds trust.
About the Author
Kathy McCrum is an accomplished HR professional that has worked in a unionized environment throughout her 22-year career. She started her career working for Canadian Pacific Railway where she first was introduced to the labour relations environment. She held various management/leadership positions. Kathy moved into executive leadership when she made the industry change to heavy equipment. She became VP, HR and Safety for a Caterpillar equipment dealership in Saskatchewan. Following this opportunity, Kathy was brought to the Coop Refinery Complex (FCL) where she led the HR/LR department. She was able to get involved in bargaining for the company, as well as participate in many labour relations learning events that helped shape her approach. In 2017, Kathy moved on to become a member of the SaskPower executive team and was appointed Executive VP HR and Safety. Again, she worked closely with the different union organizations and built relationships and trust. Most recently Kathy worked very closely with the WestJet pilots union (ALPA) as well as led the airports union to their first ever labour agreement. She is passionate in her beliefs that relationships and trust drive all of it. Whether you work with a union or not, you need to know how to, and honestly be genuine in your interactions with people if you want to be successful. Currently she is the Executive VP at Trican (an oil and gas well services company).