Morale-booster or minefield?

Union expectation of fairness can bring some recognition programs asunder

From the perspective of a human resource department, a good recognition program can raise morale, reward employees for desired behaviour and reinforce performance that supports business goals.

In a unionized environment, however, a recognition program may only invite trouble. Some unions oppose it so vehemently, on grounds so intrinsic to the purpose of recognition, that there’s little point in discussing the what, when and how.

A good example is a 1999 dispute between Toronto Hydro and Local 1 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which ended up in arbitration. In 1999, shortly after the merger of six Toronto-area utilities into the current Toronto Hydro, management approached the union about building a recognition program.

The program would eventually comprise of three levels of recognition, Acknowledgement, Appreciation and Achievement. Prizes for the first level would include gift certificates, extra breaks, paid lunch for a team — all up to $75 in value.

At the next level, rewards would range from $75 to $150 in value and include framed prints, pen and pencil sets or gift certificates. The top level of recognition would range from $150 to $300 and include video cameras or disc players as prizes.

The program barely got off the ground because of union resistance. When asked to participate in a committee to further develop the program, CUPE declined to send a representative.

The union also turned down an opportunity to comment on the draft and, a year later, when the program was rolled out, filed two instant grievances.

Bruno Silano, president of CUPE Local 1, told Canadian HR Reporter that the union’s problems with the program boiled down to the inherent subjectiveness of the program.

Such programs are usually set up to reward people for “going above and beyond,” but how this is interpreted is subjective, he added.

“As human beings, what is above and beyond the call of duty to you is different from what it is to me. That subjectivity can lead to a lot of animosity in the workplace, when you have one set of workers receiving a gift and another group across the hall doesn’t. They feel they’ve been doing a good job too and yet they don’t receive anything.”

And if managers equate “going above and beyond” with carrying a larger than normal workload — by journalists covering an election or a group of nurses working through SARS, for example — paying for overtime is how they can reward workers, said Silano.

In arbitration, CUPE Local 1 succeeded in getting the recognition program thrown out on the grounds that it was undermining the union’s exclusive right to bargain on behalf of employees.

The arbitrator also found that “the monitoring and assessment of the work performance of employees outside of the protocol and mechanisms of the performance appraisal provisions of the collective agreement is also in breach of the collective agreement.”

The lesson learned, said Bernie Oldham, director of labour relations at Toronto Hydro, is employers “need to negotiate the recognition program. You need to convince the bargaining unit to get them to agree to the recognition.”

But even when union involvement is secured, success in rolling out recognition isn’t guaranteed.

Mike Semeniuk, business manager for the Edmonton-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 348, said recognition programs too often contain biases that effectively exclude certain people through no fault of their own.

To take an example, Semeniuk points to recognition programs for attendance. “If someone is blessed with good health, why should somebody else who has bad health be treated differently?”

As for performance-based recognition programs, Semeniuk said he would want to know whether everybody had the same training and the same opportunities to do the stellar work.

Semeniuk tells of a management initiative back in 1990, when the local represented workers at Alberta Government Telephones, the predecessor of Telus today. The company was promoting long-distance gift certificates and, as an incentive for employees to sell them, offered a chance for employees reaching a certain number of sales to qualify for a draw. The prize was a $200 wrist-watch.

IBEW Local 348 objected to the program and lost in arbitration. As a result, said Semeniuk, both sides set up a joint labour-management committee to flesh out the terms of the recognition.

“We tried to set out what the protocols would be, what the awards would be and what would be measurable levels of performance. It took us over a year. Certain criteria applied in one department but didn’t make sense in another, and there were different modifications that had to be made,” said Semeniuk.

“Eventually it went by the wayside. It was just too much of a hassle.”

Both Semeniuk and Silano noted that recognition programs can often be abused. Silano is particularly opposed to awards linked to health and safety. If a gift is dangled in front of a department to reach X number of days without an injury, the first person to hurt himself could be pressed to cover up the injury so that his peers qualify for the award.

And when Alberta Government Telephones introduced another, similar recognition program to push a phone service, one unintended consequence was it encouraged some people “to go through the phone book and write down people’s names so they could get their recognition,” said Semeniuk. “And the customer would have to phone back and say, ‘Hey I never asked for this option to be put on my line.’ And management wouldn’t be aware of it until some time down the road.”

But not all unions are opposed to recognition. Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, which represents 7,500 members at Capital Health (see Page 14), said she generally encourages employers to recognize workers for the work they do.

The only caveat is, the recognition should neither violate the collective agreement nor cause any unfair treatment of another worker.

For example, “if a worker is paid a certain hourly rate, and the employer says ‘We’ll bring it up to this amount if you do this and that,’ that would violate the collective agreement,” said Jessome.

If, to take another example, in giving an employee a Friday off, the employer has to deny someone else his regular day off, the union would view that as an instance of unfair treatment.

“But in general, if someone finishes a project on time or under budget, we would certainly encourage the employer to give that person a gift certificate or take the person out to lunch or tell the person to take the Friday off or anything like that. People can be creative with how they do things. It helps build morale.”

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