Back to work doesn’t mean back to normal

When a strike ends, a manager’s job of repairing relationships begins
By Don Herald
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/05/2003

During a labour dispute ordinary people are put under remarkable pressure, sometimes responding in regrettable ways.

Verbal abuse on the picket lines is common, for example, permanently damaging some relationships. The reverberations of a strike can be felt in the home and even the schoolyard affecting partners and children. On top of this the effects of reduced wages for a long duration can sometimes be staggering.

Given these elements, managers returning to the workplace after a settlement must take on the additional role of repairing damaged relationships that infect working environments and hinder productivity.

Work group relationships are a critical factor in how quickly and effectively business gets back to normal. Employees who have experienced a great deal of emotional and physical stress will likely also have difficulty getting focused.

With pre-strike planning, return-to-work coaching and programs that address these lingering issues, returning to some semblance of order after a strike becomes a smoother, less painful process.

Issues affecting employees

Lost wages is often the greatest concern for employees who have been involved in a long labour dispute. Many employees will face large financial debts as a result of a strike and this could put a great deal of stress on family relationships.

During a lengthy strike, the family is at risk for more than financial reasons. Parents or spouses are absent for longer periods of time, and normal family patterns and routines are seriously disrupted.

Physical and emotional harm is also often an issue. It’s not uncommon for employees (as well as managers) to be physically or verbally abused from the picket lines, or even to receive threatening phone calls at home. This type of behaviour can show up in the schoolyard, where the children of those on opposite sides of the dispute harass each other. This is most common in a small community where it is almost impossible for the strike to be confined to the picket lines and the negotiating table.

No matter where the labour dispute takes place, once it is settled, all employees have to return to a workplace and work teams comprised of people who just days before were divided by a fundamental conflict. Work teams are often riddled with tension, derogatory remarks are passed and internal dynamics are very different from what they once were.

Extra work for managers

Exhaustion is one of the major concerns for managers during a labour dispute. They are generally at the work site before the picket lines are up and remain there until the lines shut down. The end result is 12- or 14-hour workdays in what is generally an extremely stressful environment.

If managers are reassigned to a different location or role, they are usually given unusual responsibilities and will often receive bonuses and overtime compensation. This can cause friction within the management team once other managers become aware of the inequities. Additionally, many personal issues experienced by managers (and employees) can be exacerbated by the strike situation, including marital stress, mental health problems and addictions. Post-strike, managers return to a “hot” workplace, where pre-existing workplace issues have been aggravated by the labour dispute. Managers must then contend with fractured relationships and conflict among work teams, as well as lowered productivity levels, diminished focus and floundering commitment.

Recommendations for HR, managers

•Pre-strike planning is certainly critical in managing a post-strike environment. Getting educated before the strike (contingency planning) can help managers more effectively address issues that arise later.

•Ensure managers have clearly defined expectations about the return to work and possible actions to take in certain situations.

•Have a first-day-back strategy. Since the first day is critical in setting the tone, managers need to make concrete and specific plans. Issues that need to be addressed include: Who will greet returning employees? If there is a remote manager, how is she to be included in the events of the day? Essential activities include holding a welcome back meeting within the first couple of hours. Managers should have scripts prepared that include themes, such as an initial welcome, followed by the establishment of ground rules about the importance of business resumption and zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour, such as harassment. While there is a need for some flexibility, the issues that do not allow for flexibility should be clearly communicated, as should the consequences involved (HR should have policies to deal with them).

•If EAP benefits are not being cut off during the strike, then take time to review EAP options with managers and employees before a strike atmosphere worsens.

•Unique support services should be implemented with both the employer and union, such as return-to-work workshops and just-in-time coaching. Crisis or trauma debriefings can also be helpful to managers before, during and after the strike. Post-settlement, trauma debriefings can help workgroups begin to heal strained relationships, ease stress and work toward business continuity.

Moving forward

While companies need to get on with business, the human issues do not go away by themselves. It can take up to four and even six weeks to return to normal working conditions, and some workplaces are never really the same.

On the other hand, pre-strike planning and positive relationship-building between managers and employees prior to the labour dispute is a step in the right direction. If you’re a manager who focuses heavily on operations, partner with someone who focuses more on people to achieve that balance. Colleagues, both at a managerial and employee level, can ask what they can do to support one another. Looking out for one another is as important as self-care. At the same time, managers often need a third party to step in and provide support. If an EAP is an option, the EAP provider needs to be non-biased and understand the needs of both management and employees — and offer support to both sides of a labour dispute. Most important, the EAP provider should not be arbitrators or mediators but facilitators of a quicker, smoother and more productive return to work.

Don Herald is senior training consultant for FGI, a worldwide provider of employee assistance programs and corporate training programs that include conflict resolution. He can be reached at dherald@fgiworld.com.

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