Rewarding unionized staff

Breaking the vicious cycle of suspicion between union and management

Connecting with people — that’s precisely why most unions oppose management-driven recognition programs. Fundamentally, unions don’t want the employer to have a relationship with “their” people. But management needs to realize that employees are not “their” people, they are “your” people.

This is troubling because the heart of any successful endeavour, whether it is a marriage, a family or a business, is relationships. But in some unionized companies, management’s relationship with its employees is often far from healthy, and is sometimes not functioning at all.

What’s all this got to do with employee recognition? Everything. Recognition is a powerful relationship facilitator. If relationships are the gears that make industry turn, then recognition is the oil on the cogs.

A recognition program is not a tonic that will cure all union ailments. It should be a natural expression of existing corporate and HR strategies. Consequently, the acceptance or resistance by the union of recognition initiatives is usually a reflection of the current management-union relationship.

The key is to break the vicious cycle of suspicion between the two sides and convince union leaders that recognition programs can be good for everyone, not just the organization.

There are three keys to effective recognition in a unionized setting:

Co-operation: An effective recognition program must be developed in co-operation with the union. Labour leaders must understand the benefits for the union first, the individual worker second, and finally the company. Unions are most likely to accept individual recognition for tenure, safety and teamwork since these are important values to the union.

On the other hand, recognizing employees for pure performance could be a harder sell, especially if it requires workers to go above and beyond what is in the collective agreement. But even that can be achieved if the union clearly understands how the program could benefit the workers. However, don’t ever put the program in the collective agreement because then it becomes an entitlement won by the union, not granted by the employer.

Relationships: Be sincere. Recognition is not just about receiving a pat-on-the-back and some token reward. It is about relationships. If the approach is, “Here’s your toaster, now get back to work,” the company is missing out on an opportunity to nourish the relationship between worker and management.

In fact, poorly executed recognition opportunities, with insincere expressions of appreciation, create deep-rooted cynicism in the hearts of many workers.

Whether it’s recognition for reaching a service anniversary, appreciation of an exceptional effort, acknowledgement of improved results or recognition for special achievements, the objective of the recognition experience should be to capture the worker’s heart. Remember, more than any achievement, recognition is first and foremost a celebration of the individual.

Values and behaviours: A recognition program should be considered a tool to help direct and align employees’ attitudes, behaviours and activities to the values, strategies and business objectives of the organization.

Many people believe that is precisely why unions are resistant to these programs. But don’t forget that, despite being a union member, most people want to do a good job. These people will respond to recognition and will direct most of their energy and effort to work activities in which they find personal incentives and benefits.

Once unionized employees get a “taste” of a true recognition experience, their desire to work toward enjoying that experience again will increase. Use recognition skilfully and you will have a workforce that willingly responds to having its work habits better aligned to the corporate values, strategies and objectives.

Gordon Green is executive vice-president, recognition and reward strategy, for Rideau Recognition Solutions. He can be reached at (905) 648-9873, or [email protected].

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