How business can work well with unions

What’s more: Americans support it. According to a 2022 Gallup poll, 71% of Americans favor unions—the highest percentage since 1965.

A central focus of my work as a consultant at Spectacular at Work is helping companies’ management teams become great leaders. In 2023, that means helping executives navigate several new realities and lead an increasingly unionized workforce. It is essential that business leaders have a plan for how to work with their employees in this new work environment.

If you’re a business leader, here’s what to consider when leading your workforce when you have both represented and unrepresented employees.

Communicate directly

Communication problems are the main reason many relationships break up. Better communication between employers and employees helps build a more positive workplace for everyone, and that means making no distinction between how you communicate with employees who are unionized and those who are not.

One of my clients, whose workforce has a significant union population, told me that opening the lines of communication has helped her company’s relationship with both its union and non-union workers. Previously, the management team went through union leaders to communicate with represented employees, allowing the union to talk to those employees instead of communicating directly with them.

Now they use events like town hall meetings to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.

Think empathically

As a business psychologist, I know that empathy is critical to creating positive relationships with employees. Empathetic leaders know that the success and well-being of those who work for them is critical to the success of the business.

By joining a union, represented employees make it clear that they want protection that guarantees certain treatment from their employer. But what is legally required should not be where you draw the line. Consider what needs all of your employees have, regardless of representation. And in union negotiations, empathize with why your employees might want certain benefits—and consider whether they should be extended to non-union employees.

One of the most common reasons people leave jobs now is the desire for more flexibility. Some leaders find success by listening carefully to the needs of their employees and finding creative ways to offer hybrid or remote work options.

Develop a partnership

When leadership teams and employees work together effectively, it should resemble a partnership, not a dictatorship. This means understanding that work is only one important aspect of a person’s life, and employees are no longer ready to sacrifice anything and everything for work. Leaders need to adjust their expectations for the relationships they have with employees.

This can be a more challenging dynamic to achieve with unionized employees because often company-union relations can become fraught and adversarial. In reality, you and all of your employees—union or not—must be united in the goal of helping the company succeed. If you approach all employee interactions with a partnership mindset rather than a transactional mindset, you will create an environment for greater collaboration.

The pandemic has sparked a wave of unionization across industries that shows no signs of slowing down, and business leaders cannot ignore this trend. To make sure your company doesn’t make headlines with strained relationships with union employees, understand that unions are here to stay—and how you manage with them can set your organization up for success.

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