Evidence-based labour relations

Supporting the search for common ground




Labour relations practitioners — whether they work for employers or unions — have long relied on evidence to support their bargaining positions. But what they do with that evidence is changing.

In the past, evidence was often used as a tool to strengthen adversarial positions. Now, evidence is being used by both sides to help find common ground where collaboration can grow for the benefit of the organization.

Both parties are working to adapt to technological change and social media to engage younger workers. And both unions and employers are expressing an interest in partnering on initiatives to tackle challenges related to health and safety, precarious work and marginalized groups.

Multiple sources of evidence

Labour relations metrics are a critical subset of HR metrics that can provide evidence to support collaborative initiatives. Of course, internal HR metrics don’t stand alone — they need to be integrated with complementary sources of evidence such as: additional organizational evidence from finance and operations; the judgment of experienced practitioners; the perspectives of internal and external stakeholders; and relevant external findings from independent sources, including government, academic or scientific research.

As employers and unions become more strategic in their use of HR data, they are looking for evidence in several core areas.

Total rewards: As they prepare to negotiate collective agreements, employers and unions look for the latest forecasts for wages, benefits and the length of collective agreements.

Workplace change: Both parties are also interested in how other organizations are negotiating around workplace disruptions, such as automation, digital and technological change, legislative change, flexible workplaces, and organizational design changes that affect scheduling and outsourcing.

The structure of HR: Employers often compare the size and structure of labour relations teams.

Grievances: Organizations can learn from analyzing grievance processes and outcomes.

Counting adversarial disputes

The number of grievances as a percentage of headcount is a basic indicator of a confrontational work climate at an organization. Comparing the number of new grievances during the quarter with the number still ongoing gives a more nuanced picture of the proportion of grievances that are taking time to settle.

Segmenting grievance data by permanent and non-permanent union headcounts, and by business unit or by geographic region, allows an organization to focus on groups with more disputes. From there, targeted strategies can be identified to resolve issues.

Here are some grievance-specific metrics:

• grievances as a percentage of unionized headcount

• grievances — time to first contact

• new grievances as a percentage of unionized headcount

• arbitrated grievances as a percentage of grievances open

• percentage of grievances closed.

How effectively grievances are handled can be a better indicator of the level of collaboration at an organization. A majority of managers were satisfied or very satisfied with their current dispute-resolution processes, found a 2015 report by the Conference Board of Canada, but only a quarter of labour representatives felt the same way. However, both sides agreed arbitration was “a cumbersome, unpredictable process,” and delays were frustrating.

The time-to-first-contact for grievances metric averages the number of days it takes for labour relations staff to sit down with the union and respond to grievances. This can be a telling metric. If one assumes that the faster the two parties get together to talk, the more likely the grievance will have a better outcome, this metric can be an indicator of how well processes are working.

Even more useful would be metrics that benchmark issues that never reach the grievances or arbitration stage. The benefits of mediating disputes before they get into the grievance process, or of coaching union and management teams on how to better communicate and resolve conflicts on their own, seems obvious, according to one conflict-resolution advisor from the federal government.

However, it is difficult to quantify the resulting financial and productivity savings.

Without quantifiable metrics, measures and external benchmarks that compare work environments that include coaching, communications and mediation with work environments that lack these features, building a solid business case for mediation services becomes very challenging. This is an emerging area of metrics, but the signs are encouraging that both management and unions are more interested in collecting data that will support collaborative approaches like this than they were in the past.

Through consistent, large-scale data collection and statistical analysis, benchmarking exercises have the potential to provide accurate evidence to support employers and unions as they transition from hard adversarial stances to a more nuanced, co-operative outlook.

Both at the Conference Board of Canada, Jane Cooper is a research associate and Shannon Jackson is an associate director. Lisa Irish is director of the HR Metrics Service. For more information, visit www.conferenceboard.ca or www.


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