6 Tips to Manage Employees Better in Unionized Environments

manage unionized environment

There are countless if not thousands of articles written on the dynamics of management. Everything from Bottom Up Management, One Minute Management to Six Sigma Management. In fact, you can say there are just as many management flavors as there are ice cream flavors at Basket Robbins. However, most management forms are written for white-collar work where there is a subordinate and a manager where both can terminate the relationship without serious organizational repercussions. Unfortunately, that style and approach do not fly as well if someone is managing in a union environment. In fact, in government, according to the Labor of Statistics over one in three employees are associated with a union and yet, there are few articles addressing these management differences.  

The reason why managerial relationship varies drastically in union environments is that if the employee/employer relationships don’t happen the right way, companies can have a relentless union looking for a lawsuit. With that said, managers need to adjust their approach when considering employees associated with unions. In this short article, I have listed six different ways that managers can better succeed in environments where they don’t just have to deal with an employee, but also a union as well. Hopefully, with this information, you can find success in navigating union environments.


Tip 1: Document Everything, Even If You Think It’s Not Important

This tip is fairly common in management circles especially when an employee is under-performing and in the direction of getting fired. During anticipation of termination, managers have to document much more closely in order to make sure that there is a ‘just cause’ (the proper reason for the employee is being fired). Now where this becomes a certain is where, according to the Insurance Journal, only about 12% of employees turn around and file a claim against their employer. When employees decide to sue that are not apart of a union, they can face exuberant financial resources to hire lawyers for prolonged periods of time if there is not a ‘just cause’. Hence, employees in the private sector could feel more helpless in lawsuit situations when confronting a corporate juggernaut.

However, when an employee decides to sue an employer when they are apart of a union, they have a large degree of leverage. The employee can ask for assistance for the union on the employment lawsuit. South Carolina University professor Hoyt Wheeler also exacerbates this view by pointing out that “through collective bargaining, workers negotiate wages, health and safety issues, benefits, and working conditions with management via their union.” In other words, unions are in places for these kinds of situations. Make sure you have a ‘just cause’ to fire someone if not, you can find yourself in a lawsuit against a union.


Tip 2: Make Your Expectations Even More Explicit

More than anything, management comes down to providing clear expectations and having someone act within them. However, dealing with union workers, not only do managers need to address ensuring that someone executes their expectations, but also, within the union’s as well. Remember what the university professor said in the previous tip, in unionized environments, the group can negotiate different options such as higher pay and more benefits for an individual. As a manager, ideally, your job is to maximize the productivity of a direct report. 

With unions enforcing work and pay ratios, you need to ensure where those boundaries are so you don’t have yourself at the end of an angry union. That means, specifically work hours and your expectations of that individual during that time. The American Federation of Labor Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO) explicitly mentions how the benefit of joining a union is ensuring that “people join unions to negotiate together for work-life balance” which is exactly as a manager are pushing against. Essentially managers walk a tightrope act between what their organization wants, and the union of their direct reports.


Tip 3: Drive Employee Development Through Inquisitive Coaching

“Every mistake can be traced back to a mistake in thinking” 

When teaching someone how to perform a task, it’s important to stress how to teach them to fish, rather than catching the fish for them. While this tip is universally applicable in managerial circles it can be incredibly useful with unionized workers. Typically in management, when someone makes a mistake, the supervisor reprimands them by telling them their error and what they need to do differently. While this directive coaching is powerful in getting an immediate change of action, it missing a fundamental part- the why. Nearly every mistake can be traced back to some fault in thinking. If managers neglect why direct reports may continuously make the same mistakes causing serious productivity issues and management frustration.

That is why when someone makes a mistake, instead of telling them that they made a mistake, ask them why. At that point, hold back and wait. This would be incredibly uncomfortable for the employee knowing they probably made a mistake. If they don’t provide the why, then dig deeper with them about their thinking until you uncover the faulty thinking. By revealing the fault in thinking, the employee will know explicitly where they made the mistake in their minds which will lead to better results in their work. 

The only asterisk on this tip is making sure that this is only applied when the mistake is not time-critical.  


Tip 4: Bring the Elephant Out In The Open

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

When there is a problem in a relationship, instead of assuming that the other person is aware of these issues, bring them out into the open. That is, in a union environment, having a candid conversation with a direct report about the following: 

  • Their affiliation with the union and how that influences their work. 
  • The expectations of the union.
  • The employees’ expectations of working at the company.

Rarely do managers have conversations this straight forward and are usually these are swept under the rug and simply assumed. However, there is a lot of opportunity for managers, for instance, according to research done by Hogan Assessment, “75% of employees consider the worst part of their job, is the manager.” With this may be a startling stat to some workplace leaders, it should not come at a surprise from the rise of satire boss figures such as the comic strip Dilbert. If managers can have critical conversations about their role working in unions managers will find it easier to have more cohesive relationships in the workplace.


Tip 5: Increase Feedback Rate

I will let them know later at a better time.” – Just about everyone in conflict.

Increasing feedback has become more mainstream than previous years in management circles from books such as The One Minute Manager to Critical Conversation going mainstream But why is it more important to consider increasing feedback rate in a unionized environment than the non-unionized environment? Well, it turns out a lot of union employees work under a contract. In relation to workplace culture dynamics, if a group of people spends lots of time together for a prolonged period (unionized contracts), the culture itself can become stifled and change-averse. 

As much as that sounds far fetched, this idea can be concluded when looking at what happens in a traditional relationship. In the beginning, the relationship is pure, but over time the two within the relationship begin to have conflict, and the way to civilly solve conflict is the discussion. That discussion usually involves giving feedback about preferences. The longer a problem remains unsolved, the more emotional anguish can manifest. Hence, if difficult conversations are not brought up immediately, employees can exercise passive-aggressive tendencies that can gradually degrade workplace culture. Now imagine that happening across an entire team or department, what would be the impact? Pretty dismal right? If other people’s concerns are brought out in the open through increasing feedback, teams will find it easier to reach a consensus on difficult issues.


Tip 6. Toughen Your Skin 

Employees in unions that have ‘Protected concerted activity” (PCA) create a massive difference between unionized and non-unionized environments. On a higher level, this legal term refers to an employee’s right against employer retaliation in the United States. A few examples of PCA can be as follows according to Labor Employment Blog

  • Speaking out on behalf of co-workers.
  • Soliciting others to join in group activities, such as a class or collective action.
  • Complaining – to co-workers and even to outsiders – about the company, its managers/supervision, and its working conditions.
  • Engaging in a work stoppage, a refusal to work overtime or under unsafe working conditions and even engaging in a strike.
  • Failing/refusing to keep non-business sensitive information confidential.
  • Speaking out in favor of co-workers who have been treated adversely or unlawfully.
  • Posting negative or disparaging tweets/messages about the Company’s terms and conditions of employment or its treatment of employees.

Many people in unionized have PCA in their agreements which segways to the ‘‘toughen your skin’ tip. Turns out a lot of employees under this oath can say more verbose things and if it does not affect their productivity. If so, the company cannot fire the employee under ‘just cause’. In other words, toughen your skin this ain’t Kansas Dorthy- this is a union environment.

Jeff Butler

Jeff Butler Internationally respected speaker and consultant, Jeff Butler helps bridge generational gaps between Millennials and companies looking for their talent and patronage. Butler has quickly built his reputation as a memorable presenter with tangible solutions for attracting, retaining, and engaging Millennials as employees and customers. Within just the past three years, he has spoken at two TEDx events and multiple Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Amazon, and LinkedIn.


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