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What a good relationship between HR and unions looks like

The relationship between unions and the internal HR team can be tense - so how can you make sure it works in employee's best interests? David Liddle offers some tips.

The modern triumvirate

Unions, HR and managers need to create transformational culture hubs, where they can work together on shifting the organisation away from reactive and remedial approaches to managing disputes towards predictive and proactive solutions. The key is to be sitting in a room talking before an issue occurs, rather than waiting until a situation has escalated, and relationships have been damaged beyond repair.


Determine the rules of engagement

As with any business partnership, it is important to define the rules of engagement up front.  What is the common purpose? How will the parties work together to deliver stakeholder value? What is the procedure for managing disputes? What are the rules for escalation if this becomes necessary?  Building trust and respect between all parties is key to establishing a collaborative, constructive relationship.


Revisit the policy framework

HR needs to think deeply about the kind of structure and culture that will allow the organisation to understand and meet employees’ needs, ensure workers have a voice, and provide a solid foundation on which to negotiate fairly and constructively with unions around workers’ rights, pay and rewards. 

Many of the organisations that TCM works with are replacing their traditional performance, disciplinary and grievance procedures with an over-arching Resolution Framework. A framework which is evidence-based, people-centred, and encourages key stakeholders to work together to reach resolution.


Train people to resolve issues collaboratively

There are numerous examples of where small niggling issues, which could be sorted out by straightforward adult to adult dialogue, have been allowed to escalate to the point where they trigger a wildcat strike or a large industrial dispute.

To ‘build back better’ following the pandemic, HR needs to invest in building conflict resolution skills among both its management and union population, so that issues can be nipped in the bud informally and resolved swiftly and easily at a local level.


View litigation as the last resort

If an organisation is treating its workers badly, then of course unions need to reserve the right to hold the business to account and to take formal action. However, industrial action and litigation should always be the last resort, rather than the first move

If we can create a culture of collaborative practice between HR, management and unions, we will be able to remove the animosity and acrimony that is damaging workplace relationships and will act as a distraction and a barrier to progress. That’s the essence of a truly transformational culture.


David Liddle is CEO of mediation and resolution consultancy The TCM Group.


This is an excerpt of HR magazine's March/April 2021 cover story. Read the main story here. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.