There is No Cookie Cutter Approach to Labour Relations

There is No Cookie Cutter Approach to Labour Relations
Labour Relations

As an HR professional or senior leader, you spend years mastering the labour relations fundamentals. Not the textbook fundamentals, but the behaviours, the actions, communication styles–the way you handle sensitive situations. You log numerous failures, like the time you told the union that the grievance was invalid because they used red ink, the time you were new and mistook a seasoned union employee for a manager and accidentally told them your grievance strategy, and the time(s) you said “sure, we can do that” at the Labour/Management table when you really should have said “let me look into that.” 

You learn. Your teachers are your HR superiors, your management teams and your unions. Yes. Let the unions teach you too. And be open to their wisdom. Because when it comes to positive labour relations there is no cookie cutter approach.

Let’s let “HR Novice” show us how his style grew with his experience…

In a grievance discussion at a manufacturing plant, the union executive speak in loud accusatory tones toward management. Management frequently does not follow through on the tabled issues and communication is very disjointed. The social norm for front line management is to avoid union discussions and rule with a heavy hand. There is very little collaboration. The largely uneducated and non-English-speaking employees do as they are told, fearful of reprisals. Modelling his behaviour from upper management, the HR Novice acts in a similar fashion and soon is regarded as aloof and “just another white hat.” The business of the day, however, is booming and upper management use this as the only success indicator. The union executive predominantly ignore HR Novice and instead form their own hierarchy and culture to deal with issues in the workplace.  When HR Novice does seek to assert himself, often in the form of shouting, he is met with dissonance and soft laughter. Unknowingly and still with the backing of the senior managers, HR Novice thinks he is a successful communicator with the union and inwardly, is proud of his accomplishments.

Two years later, HR Novice moves on in his career to another unionized manufacturing plant with the majority of employees holding high school education. This assembly plant is cleaner, has solid practices in place and is piloting the lead hand model. Having found such success with his labour relations style, HR Novice presents himself as a strong force with little flexibility.  Management is initially pleased with the support but start to feel the ripples of union discontent. Employees quickly realize their opinion is neither solicited nor valued. The lead hands who essentially bridge management and front line staff begin to step down from their roles. After about a year, HR Novice receives some great coaching from a mentoring manager.  In time HR Novice co-facilitates, with his mentor, a new strategy of transparency and informed messaging. The intent behind the strategy is to seek to inform the union of the reasons behind management’s decisions. The practice of shouting at employees thankfully diminishes. Unfortunately, very little consultation or collaboration is sought of employees, but advance notice and statistics act as commercials for future changes. The management misinterpret the union’s woe as lack of information. Missing its mark, union relations improve only modestly by the time HR Novice moves on in 3 years’ time.

HR Novice (well, let’s call him “HR Intermediate” now) chooses a unionized chain of hotels as his next career jump. The staff are educated, multilingual and service driven. There are very few issues with respect to labour-management. The autonomous staff give leaders the luxury to spend the bulk of their time on special projects instead of day-to-day supervision.

HR Intermediate is new to the industry and seeks to learn from the management team. He brings with him his toolkit of HR knowledge which now has his collaborative style as well as his authoritarian style.  He sways between the two styles and second-guesses a lot of his decisions, at times feeling overwhelmed. One day, while waiting in the hallway for a meeting to start he overhears some union stewards discussing a recent decision he made. They ponder aloud HR Intermediate’s reasoning and chalk up the poor decision to his inexperience with the hospitality industry.  A remark is made, “I wonder why he never shadowed us or asked us about our job functions before restructuring the scheduling program. It doesn’t work for us.” The unintended feedback resonates with HR Intermediate and he seeks to add yet another tool to his kit. The tool of “all of your training doesn’t have to come from management.”

You are not weak if you ask employees to show you their duties, and learn their trade. Not unlike any professional, union personnel take great pride in their work and often bring years of savvy seniority to the business – something that HR Intermediate had previously overlooked. He continues to seek first to understand, before making decisions or informing senior management tables.  HR Intermediate continues his learning path for the next 5 years, coaching the leaders on his newfound style.

HR Intermediate now joins the world of retail. A chain of houseware stores claims his attention for the next 6 years. His array of HR skills is growing. He now understands that you don’t need to pick a style and stick with it. He knows that the style is specific to the situation or the strategy at play, and that even more than one strategy can be used at once. He finds Zen by being collaborative to an extent and then on other occasions, just informs and implements, sometimes without consultation, if the situation warrants.

More importantly, HR Intermediate understands that there aren’t two sides in opposition to each other in the workplace. And there is no winner when it comes to employee relations. Employees all expect respect, a diplomatic approach and informed decision-making. No singular style fits every workplace or is fulsome enough to span a whole career. Workplaces are not cookies cut from the same gingerbread mold.  The industry, the organization’s mission and the people that work there are the key to making HR successful.

Remember who our teachers are.  We don’t get “this HR thing” right for years, just ask HR Novice.


About the Author

Leanne Gray

Leanne Gray, CHRL, is currently the Director of People Services for the Toronto Central Community Care Access Centre (CCAC) where she leads the Human Resources department in performing their front-line functions to support community health care.  Prior to that, Leanne worked in intensely unionized local government in both small and large municipal sectors for 11+ years. Leanne has been trained and certified in Advanced Dispute Resolution and is a qualified mediator. Leanne’s career has allowed her to participate regularly in grievance hearings, mediations, arbitrations and act as the Management Chair for collective bargaining. Her experience has included union certification drives, decertification of a union, strikes, lockouts and interest arbitrations.

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