ERTT – Enabling employee engagement whilst balancing a unionised and non-unionised mix

These are the thoughts and takeaways from the ER Think Tank (ERTT) held on 31st May; bringing together senior ER professionals from a range of blue-chip companies, whose collective staff headcounts equate to over half a million employees (563,150). The ERTT falls under the umbrella of the HR Think Tank Series, for more information or to be considered for membership email: or telephone 0207 11 88 444.

Following our first ERTT, a number of interesting outcomes have been identified relating to how organisations engage with a mix of unionised and non-unionised members of staff:

Straight talking…

It was certainly apparent that whatever the message (and the audience), being straight with employees goes a long way to enrich an organisation’s credibility and ultimately evoke greater levels of trust. Clearly ‘peppering-up’ a message and wrapping it in ‘sweet paper’ is not a great exercise for generating respect. Moreover, when businesses attempt to prevent communicational leaks and withhold information from staff they’re in danger of fuelling strikes.

Direct engagement…

Positively engaging with staff directly was considered one of the best ways to maintain a strong relationship; through regular and sustained meetings, organised field days, senior management involvement, and simply getting on the phone and meeting face to face with staff. However, this was noted as being to the detriment of the employer’s relationship with unions, who were suggested as being ‘hacked-off’ by direct engagement – no prizes for why!

Maintaining unions’ relevancy…

Whilst it’s no secret that organisations and unions often don’t see eye-to-eye, there was no question of their place within business, as even non-unionised employees were noted as being protective of the right to have unions regardless of their membership status. However, what was disputed was unions’ continued relevancy within the work-place, in relation to the availability of employment legislation, the influx of personal claims companies and the mind-set of generation Y employees. It was agreed that perhaps unions have a tough road ahead to continue to attract members and to be considered a valuable paid-for resource.

Our experts’ views:

a) Remote workforces are more likely to join unions, as typically they don’t have as much contact with their line-managers – relating to management capabilities.

Following the crowd…

In addition to non-unionised employees’ being protective of their right to have unions, it also seems that they will support their unionised counterparts in strike action and / or join unions as a consequence of ‘work scares’. However, following the resolution of said ‘scares’ they will be quick to discontinue membership and return to being non-unionised. There seems to be a lack of engagement from members, which is evidenced by depleting union member numbers.

Win the war not the battle…

With regard to the acknowledged tension that can often amount between employers and unions, our members strongly agreed that it was essential to maintain the moral high ground during ‘spats’. Retaliating to aggressive mudslinging in an equally aggressive manor can weaken the employer’s stance rather than strengthen it. The key is to work harder to effectively communicate the employer’s view point and win the communications war, not the ‘he-said-she-said’ battle. Yes, when information is factually inaccurate or individuals are being personally attacked, an intervention is often required; however this should typically be dealt with within a boardroom-scenario and not in the face of employees.

Collaboration is key…

To avoid the aforementioned ‘he-said-she-said’ battle, it’s essential to develop communication plans in-line with unions and address change strategies in a united and aligned manor. Like it or not, unions serve a purpose and provide a service to employees which often is not available to them from different avenues, so working against them isn’t going to be viewed favourably by staff. Unions channelled in the right way can be a good force, for instance only unions can really negotiate a better deal on behalf of employees when terms and conditions are threatened.

Our experts’ views:

a) Unions aren’t likely to dispute employer’s change policies providing they have been consulted and involved in the communication process.

Buying into the commercial reality…

Businesses need to work hard to ensure that their staff have bought into the commercial nature and reality of why and how the organisation makes money. Often companies report that employees are highly reluctant to change working hours and role structure to suit the changing requirements of their customers. It seems to be an acknowledged belief that employers are there to look after employees and therefore put their needs before consumers, which of course is detrimental to the profitability of the business. Employers, therefore, need to work harder to sustain high engagement and loyalty levels from staff to make them more adaptable. It’s about reacting to the customer not the employees.

Union replication…

In order to fully understand the relationship an employee has with its union, it’s essential to return to the roots and ask the question – why join a union? Ultimately, it is beneficial to be a union member for a number of reasons: training rights, legal advice and often simply peace of mind. Attempting to replicate this service internally has proven affective for some companies who target internal communication around those beneficial areas and thus prevent staff feeling the need to join unions in the first place.


  • Don’t mislead staff with ‘fluffy’ communication messages, be straight with them – they’ll respect you much more
  • Directly engage with members of staff to heighten engagement and build a positive relationship
  • If employees don’t trust an employer than they aren’t going to be engaged
  • Put policies together to reflect every employee, rather than new and old – they’re much harder to administer with numerous active policies solving the same issue
  • Evoke high levels of engagement with staff to encourage them to be more adaptable / flexible to customers’ demands
  • Work with unions rather than against them – concentrate on effectively communicating messages rather than responding to mudslinging.
Oasis HR

Written by , Network Driven HR Recruitment

Oasis HR is a multi-award winning HR Recruitment Agency based in London that delivers Contingency and Search services within the Human Resource and Business Change Markets. Our client base encompasses all industry sectors and we have a proven track record of delivering permanent, interim and temporary professionals at all levels across all HR disciplines. From a £20k HR Administrator to a £200k HR Director, Oasis HR is well placed to identify, approach and secure the best available talent in the market

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