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Janine Milne

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In a Nutshell: Five ways to ensure a positive relationship with the unions


Philippe Ferrie, worldwide employee relations coordinator at Vallourec, which makes specialist tubes for the oil and gas industry, has a long history of dealing with the unions.

Here he offers his advice on the best way to ensure that you have a smooth and productive relationship with them too:
1. Show respect
I’ve always had a quite constructive relationship with the unions because I respect people as individuals as well as because of the roles that they perform. One of the best ways to demonstrate that respect is simply to listen carefully to what they say and try to understand their perspective. It sounds simple, but it is an incredibly powerful thing to do. People instinctively feel it if you don’t care.

2. Do what you say you will

Always be predictable and crystal clear about what you want – and communicate that effectively. You will lose the union’s respect if you say one thing in public and do another when you leave the meeting. No one wants any surprises so there is a need to be predictable in order to create trust.
3. Focus on the individual
Although unions deal with broad regulatory issues, at the end of the day it is all about the individual. About 80% of what you talk about with union reps focuses on communication and relationships. Although things such as collective labour agreements or regulation violations are important items on the agenda, most of the time it is people issues that you’ll be trying to solve.
4. Be professional
Another way to show respect for people is to master the subject that is up for discussion. By having an in-depth understanding of the details and nuances of the topic on the table, you demonstrate your interest and, therefore, your respect for the people who raised the topic. If you take this approach, you will gain respect from them in turn.

5. Be yourself
Being yourself sits alongside transparency and predictability: people need to know what will upset you or make you feel comfortable, even if you disagree with what is being said. In a long term relationship, having this kind of integrity creates a ‘mirror effect’ and helps to build solid partnerships.

One Response

  1. Negotiating – with Unions and others

    Yay Philippe!

    I find that building mutual trust, respect and integrity is vital for any collaborative ‘Win-Win’ deal, in any culture.  Of course, one can never be assured that the other side actuially wants a collaborative deal, whether buying, selling or negotiating with organised labour – even though all experienced negotiators from both sides will know that the ‘best net sum deal’ requires both parties to move to a position of mutual advantage.  And as workforces and their management most usually need each other’s goodwill and co-operation, whatever the public rhetoric, that will most commonly be promoted by both sides listening to each other and aiming to address each other side’s significant issues in good faith.  (Not very different from negotiating a divotce really?  Either side can take the other to the cleaners, but only for mutual disadvantage.  And not necessarily a different suibject!)

    As it happens, I have been running Negotiating workshops for over two decades now, internationally across most cultures, in buying, selling and managing employee-relations.  What prompted me to do this was because I had to find out the hard way how to negotiate effectively.  (It turns out that here is a vast body of academic reserach on this but, amazingly, it seems to be little read.  That didn’t stop me writing a practical hands-on book on this, I must say, but the knowlege is freely available for those who search!)

    And the problems that arises most often in my experieince are that at least one side a) didn’t know what they really wanted; b) wasn’t sure what they had to trade to achieve their objectives; c) let their emotions get in the way; and d) – most importantly – didn’t know ‘how’ to negotiate.  They may miss well-intended but covert signals, not know how to make productive counter-proposals, they may make unsutainable claims and yet may offer hostages to fortune they will regret and cannot deliver, and mismanage the time available.  Every professional negotiator#’s nightmare!

     In the last analysis, you can’t ‘make’ an unwilling party settle.  But you can stay cool, calm and collected; say nothing you might regret later and ignore any personal insults; and ‘stick to your last’.  Insist on giving nothing for nothing in return, and above all, build on mutual respect and integrity.  And remember?  Like any relationship, no deal may be better than a bad deal!


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