Human Resources Professionals: What You Need to Know When Working with a Unionized Workforce

HR Consulting

Professionals delivering Human Resources (HR) related services to a unionized organization often have questions relating to how to best do their jobs within such complex environments. These questions can go unanswered, leaving HR professionals in the dark. Gaining a deeper understanding of key challenges will aid in getting insights into how to operate successfully with both unions and unionized employees.

What Makes Operating in Unionized Work Environments More Complex?

From managing employee grievances to bargaining and understanding payroll and beyond, the Human Resources professional’s job in a unionized organization requires extensive knowledge and the ability wear many hats. The very role that HR plays within the multifaceted world of unions is often undefined and the challenge often lies in deciding what is HR’s responsibility and what is not.

For example more often than not the HR department will be called upon to have labor law expertise they were never trained on. HR generalists will not have the educational background to also act a labor law specialists who can handle employee relations (such as managing employee surveys and recognition programs and more) within the framework of the unions’ labor laws. The question then becomes should HR team members be trained on labor law? Or is this the legal team’s job?

Payroll is another element which muddies the waters of HR management for a unionized workforce. Most, if not all, labor union contracts call for dues checkoff (which entails deducting union dues straight from employees’ paychecks for forwarding to the union). In addition to processing this payroll deduction, whether or not the HR department takes on the responsibility of this task can be blurry.

The evolving and undefined role of the HR team in an unionized workforce is why calling upon the expertise of Human Capital Management (HCM) specialists is not only helpful, but crucial. An experienced human capital management team will help HR navigate through the many different pieces which make up the whole of working within and with unions. From payroll to workforce management to compliance a HCM team will partner with you to see you through the tricky terrain of unionized workforces.

Top 3 Challenges HR Can Expect

Union Contracts

When working with union contacts HR must expect unique challenges which affect how they operate and what decisions they take. HR will have to contend with the fact that that union contracts add a layer of complexity, beyond what standard state or provincial employment laws dictate. Operating within organizations which must adhere to union contacts is vastly different than working in a company which only needs to stay compliant with standard employment laws as laid out by the state or provincial government. Union contacts give unions the ability and right to negotiate with the employer on behalf of employees with the aim of protecting workers’ rights. These protective negotiation measures also affect the HR generalist’s role significantly.

Typically the relationship between employer and employee is managed by HR, however in this scenario HR partially gives up this role to the union and has to reconceptualize its role with the employee. In a non-union work environment HR is mandated to initiate promotions, pay scale changes  and schedule time shifts as per the employer’s wishes. However in a unionized workforce union contract considerations regarding seniority, skills and schedules must be taken into account. For example whether a unionized employee is promoted will be dependent on his/her seniority/time spent in the position and organization, the comparative seniority of his/her colleagues etc. instead of only performance/employer’s decision.

It’s important to note that working with unions means staying compliant to the union itself. An HR team will need to know what type of data and items need to be captured and reported to the unions. A Human Capital Management team is key here. A team like Covalence Inc. will build this element of compliance into an organization’s system, reducing hassle and the risk of being non-compliant with the union,

These are only some of the considerations implicit in working with union contracts. As such specialized expertise (or training) will be required to understand and work within the framework of these contracts. A human capital management team is crucial in providing advisory and training services and for configuring your software to stay compliant with union contracts.

Change Management

Initiating and implementing HR related change within a unionized organization can be a challenge. A culture of change is hard to facilitate in both non-union and union work environments and any changes suggested by HR can cause fear of job loss. Yet it is often HR’s role to champion change which will positively affect productivity and performance and more. Added to this are unions’ protective stance in regards to employee rights. This obligation and desire to protect employees rights and jobs can lead unions to look at very closely at any employer initiated change which affects workers and respond with resistance. Beyond this buy in from the workforce can be hard to attain when change is not the norm and when there is comfort level with the current processes in place.

To counter this HR must involve unions throughout the change management process. Union representatives must be aware and informed of the proposed changes and also briefed on why these changes are wanted by HR or upper management. With a more transparent and detailed explanation of the benefits and positives of the desired change communicated clearly to union representatives chances for resistance is minimized. In addition to this unions can help speed up organizational or HR change plans by explaining their details to the workforce. Communications from unions can allay fears of job reductions or perceived process changes amongst employees as union representatives are trusted sources of information.

In the case of implementation of new HR technology or software it is very important to present the new technology has a driver for positive change for employees as well as HR. Providing adequate training on the new software is key as well. Also consider that working with a knowledgeable HCM team means that you and your employees have a partner who you can call on for troubleshooting or assistance when learning the new technology.

Workforce Management

Rigorous workforce management is key to ensuring you abide by the rules and regulations which unions stipulate. The complexity of the workforce management details which exist when unions (and union contracts) must be considered should not be overlooked. Workforce management encompasses the activities needed to maintain productivity in a workforce. This can include human resources, performance and training, scheduling and more. Specialized workforce management tools and software support a variety of roles from upper management to on-site supervisors and more across most industries including manufacturing, distribution, transportation etc.

For HR working within unions it is important to note that union contracts have provisions that relate to what may seem like small details. However overlooking these details can mean your organization is not compliant and could expose you to penalties. For example if an employee on your factory floor is only certified on machine A which pays them $10 per hour, asking them to work on machine B for which the rate  under union rules to $20 per hour, means you must pay them at the $20 rate for that time. This is even if they only work on machine B for a short amount of time in the context of helping their supervisor. In a union environment elements such as job seniority are very important and HR may not always have the extensive and specific workforce management expertise it takes to ensure the organization stays compliant. Again a Human Capital Management team that has workforce management knowledge is key in navigating the minutiae of administering and managing unionized employees.

Top 3 Tips for Human Resources for Unions

When in Doubt Follow Procedure

It is key to follow procedure when operating in a union environment. From hiring to promotions down to managing productivity, unions outline detailed procedures for all these areas and more. For example unions usually prize seniority over merit when it comes to promotions. As such HR could face being reprimanded if an employee who has been working for the organization for a shorter time is promoted over one who has been employed for longer. Another example where procedure matters would be dispute resolution between employees. The unionized employees’ rights as laid out by their collective bargaining agreement and/or other procedural documents can include having union reps at any investigatory meetings and giving the employees in question prior notice of any disciplinary decision made etc. These are only some of the instances in which following procedure is the best practice for human resources teams,

Have Your HR Strategy Ready

Having a defined strategy from the outset that takes into account that your team is operating within a unionized environment is key. Taking a reactionary approach can result in ad-hoc decisions which do not form a uniform approach. Your HR team will have to recognize and adjust to the fact that working with unions means that some freedoms will not be possible (due to procedures etc). But this does mean that you cannot have a cohesive strategy for dealing with both the employer and the union.

Take into account what makes operating within a unionized environment different and identify the challenges your team is likely to face. After talking with the employer to understand their expectations for HR and overviewing the collective bargaining agreement, union rules and any other procedural documents, create a plan which has some of your own procedures in it. What will you do when their is a dispute? Who will you notify first if there is a strike action about to be taken? How often will you meet with union reps to facilitate two-way communications? What rules will need to be considered when looking at workforce management and payroll? These are the types of questions to have answers ready for when writing out or brainstorming your plan. Defining the HR team’s role and understanding responsibilities and limitations from the outset will put you on the path for streamlined HR operations in the union context.

Get Training and Be Informed

Operating with unions means that specialized training is a must-have. Go beyond simply understanding basic employment law to get training that is union specific such as union contract interpretation, conflict resolution etc. No doubt should a complicated situation arise you will probably have to work with a lawyer who has specialized knowledge or call on your in-house legal team. However you as the HR group should also understand the basic principles of the do’s and don’ts of working in a unionized environment. Also ensure that those in your organization who have day-to-day contact with workers such as factory supervisors or direct-line managers etc also participate in training which equips them with the knowledge to know what they can and can’t do with unionized employees. This will help prevent issues from arising as well as check off HR’s responsibility to accurately inform staff of proper procedure etc.

Working with unions and unionized employees is both challenging and rewarding. Approaching the whole job of operating within unions by understanding the challenges you will face is key to continued success. For HCM services related to workforce management or payroll or more in a unionized environment contact Covalence Inc.