Attracting, engaging young workers (Toughest HR Question)

How unionized workplaces can appeal to the younger demographics
By Yaseen Hemeda
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/11/2015

Question: As a unionized workplace, how can we better attract, engage and retain young workers?

Answer: Union density rates have been slowly but steadily declining in Canada over the past few decades, particularly in the private sector. A number of experts in organized labour have lamented the fact union membership does not seem to appeal to many young workers in this day and age. 

This has implications not only for unions themselves, but for unionized employers when it comes to recruiting, engaging and retaining young workers.

Some experts believe youth are no longer interested in joining unions, that they do not see themselves fitting into the unionized culture or they are becoming more entrepreneurial and, therefore, less likely to want to join an organization they see as bureaucratic, rule-bound and inflexible. 

But these interpretations are questionable. While it is difficult to organize young workers who frequently change jobs, it does not mean they aren’t interested in stable employment with a unionized organization. 

Rather, research conducted in the United Kingdom — such as the 2002 study “Unions Fit forYoung Workers?” in the Industrial Relations Journal — provides useful insights that not only explain the relatively low union density among young workers, but also what employers, HR professionals and labour organizations can do to attract, engage and retain young workers in unionized environments. 

The issue appears to be strongly correlated with employer opposition to unions and union membership and general union inefficiencies, which employers, HR professionals and union leaders should address collectively.

Too much bureaucracy

A dilemma facing employers and unions is workplace environments that are too bureaucratic, with too many rules on how employees are “supposed” to communicate and collaborate with others within a unionized workplace, whether dealing with a grievance, deciding who does what or simply asking a question. 

To engage young workers, HR needs to improve labour-management relations by encouraging them to work more closely together in an environment that is more of a partnership. Rules around communication and allocation of work should be relaxed to remove the tension young workers perceive.

Adversarial relationships

Part of this problem is rooted in the adversarial nature of the relationship between employers and unions, where there is some degree of scepticism and discontent. 

Historically, labour conditions for workers were poor, to say the least, and when unions began forming in the mid-19th century, the relationship between the two sides became understandably adversarial. However, this model  negatively affects employee engagement with respect to young workers, who want to work more collaboratively in more of a team environment. 

HR has a big role to play in changing young workers’ perceptions by encouraging greater collaboration and promoting the benefits of joining unionized workplaces that have positive and healthy union-management relations. 

Employer attitudes

While HR has a duty to work in the interests of management and the employer, part of its mandate is to work with unions — particularly with respect to issues surrounding recruitment, retention and engagement. HR also has an important role to play in resolving conflict and acting as a mediator between management and labour. HR professionals should be encouraging senior executives and board members to avoid taking a hard-line approach in dealing with union certification, collective bargaining and grievance arbitration. 

Employers might benefit from promoting the advantages of working in a unionized environment such as above-average pay and benefits, enhanced job security, having a forum for employees’ issues and concerns to be dealt with fairly and impartially, and a feeling of camaraderie.

Union inefficiencies

HR also has a role to play in helping unions to connect with and understand the concerns affecting young workers. Unfortunately, real and perceived union inefficiencies are not making it desirable for young workers to become actively engaged.

These include many unions’ attachment to seniority clauses that are not meeting the needs of today’s youth, who have shorter tenure in organizations than older workers and are therefore less likely to benefit from seniority clauses.

HR professionals should be playing a larger role in collective bargaining and contract administration by presenting evidence of the negative impacts of seniority clauses on younger workers. These clauses affect every aspect of a young worker’s employment, from when they can take vacations to who is eligible for transfers, promotions and pay increases. 

Like employers, young workers want equal advancement opportunities that enable the most talented individuals to get the job. 

By not reforming outdated practices based on traditional union principles and ideals, unionized workplaces risk further alienating young workers. HR can become a true business partner by bringing an evidence-based approach to union-management relations. In this sense, HR can help to create an organizational culture that is friendly to younger workers. 

Ignoring such issues could lead to poor morale, engagement and retention among younger employees. It could also become more difficult to attract young talent, making succession planning more difficult.

HR must redefine its role within unionized organizations as a business partner that works with both sides of the table to create an environment where young workers are actively engaged in organizations that truly care about their interests.

Yaseen Hemeda is a product developer at Carswell in Toronto and co-author of HR Manager’s Guide to Succession Planning (to be published in January 2016). He can be reached at For more information, visit

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