Labour relations profession changing: Survey

Soft skills critical as collaboration, partnerships replace negotiation, collective bargaining
By Danielle Harder
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/05/2012

Many labour relations professionals across Canada feel they lack the expertise to meet the future demands of their changing profession, according to a survey.

That future will see a greater focus on collaboration and partnerships, rather than more traditional negotiation and
collective bargaining, according to the report from the Industrial Relations Centre (IRC) at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. The November 2011 study looked at responses from 184 Canadian professionals.

This means labour relations professionals will need to acquire soft skills, said Karla Thorpe, director of leadership and human resources research at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.

“It means more active listening, communicating, being able to collaborate with others to find solutions,” she said. “A lot of it is about developing trust by doing things between negotiations, like getting together just to talk.”

More than 80 per cent of respondents listed active listening, relationship-building and communication as essential to their day-to-day work, followed by collective agreement interpretation (60 per cent) and coaching and consulting (52 per cent).

When asked to rate their level of skill in these areas, most ranked the top three as about four out of five, with five being “expert.” But they gave themselves lower marks — between three and four — in areas such as dispute resolution, negotiation and conflict analysis.

Some of the lack of confidence may stem from the changing role of labour relations at organizations, said Thorpe.

Traditionally, it was subsumed in the human resources function and it is only just becoming its own function with a greater strategic role, especially in more heavily unionized environments, she said.

“There are more challenging and complex issues for LR (labour relations) to deal with,” said Thorpe. “They also have to deal with more departments in-house, such as occupational health and safety and human resources.”

Labour relations issues are more complicated than they used to be, and that calls for a different skill set, said Paul Juniper, director of the IRC and one of the study’s co-authors. The centre uses facilitator-led learning to teach softer skills, such as active listening, he said.

Education itself may also be a contributing factor, according to Derek February, a labour relations advisor at Canadian
LabourRelations.com.

In Canada, unlike the United States and some other countries, few universities offer specialized post-graduate degrees in labour relations.

“Their qualifications and training are more HR-centred rather than LR-centred,” said February.

“Many LR professionals have HR academic qualifications, with some LR courses being part of their degree, but HR is the dominant course of study.”

Juniper was recently at a meeting with six labour relations professionals who had received, in total, about 13 weeks’ worth of labour relations training, he said, noting some provinces do not require students in HR to take a course specific to labour relations.

“There used to be a requirement for labour economics but that was more about the history,” said Juniper. “Overall, the market may not be as big as it once was.”

With unionization rates shrinking in some provinces and the private sector, it could be difficult for educational
institutions to make the case for creating labour relations-focused programs, he said.

Even in the workplace, job postings for labour relations managers often list duties that include HR functions.

“I guess two-for-the-price-of-one may make sense to some companies, but that may lead to under-utilizing their LR expertise,” said February.

That could prove costly for employers, according to Juniper.

“A major mistake on a labour relations contract should make employers cautious to have someone with the right qualifications,” he said. “If there’s a misunderstanding on cost-of-living allowance, for example, that costs a lot.”

While labour relations professionals have a desire to improve their skills, many also have had heavier workloads since the economic downturn, found the survey.

Globalization is also putting pressure on labour relations professionals to develop expertise outside of Canada, said February.

“There is a need for LR professionals to be skilled not only in Canadian labour relations but also knowledgeable in how global trends in labour relations can impact on how labour relations in Canada are conducted.”

Succession planning will also demand more of seasoned labour relations professionals as they train the next generation while still doing their own jobs, said Thorpe.

“A lot of those skills and competencies are learned over long periods of time, after being exposed to different situations,” she said. “Even after 20 or 30 years, they’ll come across things they haven’t seen before.”

The study has also exposed a missing piece in the profession, said Thorpe: Professional networks, such as forums, organizations, courses or certification processes where professionals can enhance their education, experience and connections.

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