I often advocate joint training for union reps and managers. It can help build relationships - essential when you are working on real workplace challenges. It can start to build trust as you learn a bit more about the other party and some of your perceptions and assumptions are challenged. It can also help to build similar understanding of processes like consultation and negotiation so when you use them back at work, you don’t start off by arguing over the meaning of the process rather than the issue at stake.
It can work when you have new or inexperienced union reps and managers. They get to understand their role better in the ER/IR framework. They learn what is expected of them and where to go to for support. Informal relationships are built and that's where solutions can often be found.
Recently I have spoken to union reps and ER/IR colleagues who have described their current frustrations to me – no trust between key parties across their organisations, lack of progress on change, ineffective meetings and a pervasive sense of “them and us”. They then tell me they did some joint training and nothing much changed and I am not surprised.
Sometimes you need to look at the whole organisation, invest the time and make a series of conscious and deliberate changes to how you work together to make a difference. What are you trying to achieve as an organisation in your relationship with your unions? What capabilities do you need in key roles to help you achieve this? Do your meetings help or hinder you to achieve this? Where are the opportunities to work differently with your unions, building skills in solving problems together with different voices offering different perspectives? What is the union view of how you work together? What does it feel like from their viewpoint?
If you don’t have time to take this systematic view and joint training seems like a more suitable short-term solution, here are a couple of alternative suggestions. One of the most effective things you can do to build trust is to ask your managers and union reps to work together on real, operational issues which are important to both parties and are getting in the way of good industrial relations. Take a structured approach - short timescales, small groups, focussed process - not a talking shop or working group. With simple but robust governance, these joint groups will learn problem solving skills, build confidence by solving problems together, build trust and relationships and take this learning out into the organisation to use on a daily basis.
A second alternative to joint training is a team “mediation” process. Union reps and managers jointly explore blockers - often perceptions and attitudes - which are getting in the way of making progress in the workplace. Again, this needs to be structured and facilitated but used effectively, it is a powerful way of resetting relationships and building stronger approaches to future challenges.
Before you opt for joint training as a solution, it is worth exploring if tackling problems jointly or team mediation are more likely to have the impact you are looking for.