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  • A collaborative approach to engaging unionised employees

A collaborative approach to engaging unionised employees

30 November 2018

The fortunes of management and labour are intimately intertwined, and both parties need each other in order to get the most out of their employment relationship.

Historically, especially in South Africa, this has been an adversarial relationship. It is common for the parties to entrench themselves in their positions and to shift only reluctantly after a stand-off, with significant implications for both sides.

In this context, greater employee engagement is an ideal pursued by many modern organisations. It is accepted that employees feel more engaged in their workplace when they feel their work is meaningful; they feel valued and trusted; and they are secure and self-confident.

However, the complexities of the employment relationship with unionised employees make engagement a more elusive ideal. Not much research has been done in the area and no unique framework for engaging employees in a unionised environment exists.

Evidence indicates that unionised employees tend to be less engaged and less satisfied with their jobs than their non-unionised counterparts – all the more reason for organisations to understand how to increase the engagement levels of unionised employees.

This is especially important as unionised employees can transfer their unhappiness to the entire workforce. In a competitive business environment, ignoring low levels of engagement amongst unionised employees is no longer an option for organisations.

Engaging unionised employees presents different challenges to engaging non-unionised employees. There may be an element of distrust on the part of both staff and management, a legacy of the adversarial politics of the past, but there are also potential advantages to dealing with a unionised workforce.

The unique nature of a union’s relationship with its members offers opportunities to employers seeking to engage unionised employees. Unions care about the welfare of their members and also have a loyal, aligned membership.

If union leadership believe a company’s engagement effort has tangible benefits for their members, they will be strong advocates for the programme. If an organisation can get their sector or workplace union’s buy-in to such a policy, they have a powerful ally in fostering engagement, boosting morale and improving productivity.

The initial consultations may need to be broader, and may take longer, as unions are by nature more deliberative. Elected union structures at enterprise level allow ordinary union members to participate in engagement efforts, as these are decisions affecting their job and their workplace. However, once agreement has been reached, and union engagement achieved, employee engagement will soon follow suit.

Replacing the traditional adversarial approach with new management strategies has the most chance of raising engagement levels in a unionised context. These strategies might include forging a collaborative partnership with the union, voice, integrity, trust, pluralistic people practices, leadership and line manager’s behaviour.

It is also clear, though, that engagement needs to be considered within a wider political, socio-economic and organisational context – particularly in South Africa.

Many organisations with a trade union presence appreciate the importance of aligning their industrial relations with engagement strategies.

Organisations that have succeeded in getting unions on board in engagement policies tend to be those that have moved beyond the old doctrine of strategy, structure, and systems to a softer model constructed on the development of purpose, process, and people. Here, employee engagement presents an alternative participation model.

No one framework fits across all antecedents and different organisations should create engagement in different ways, using organisation-specific strategies and methods. A one-size fits all approach to employee engagement might not be viable. Using a matrix of engagement methods, organisations will be better able to manage engagement and ultimately foster positive business outcomes.

A viable and integrated approach to employee engagement will consist of practices that may help to enhance engagement, supported by strong evidence-based research. • Jaco Nel is director of People and Business Solutions at BDO, and co-author, with Bennie Linde of the book The Art of Engaging Unionised employees.