After almost 30 years of being involved with enterprise bargaining it still surprises me how many businesses see the process as a periodic transaction. So many tell me they are dissatisfied with the process and dread when it comes around.
Businesses that work with me know that I utilise a variety of models dealing with workplace culture, union activity and likely bargaining environments. The great majority of businesses involved in bargaining are likely to have workplace cultures that are largely compliant to participative with a smattering of non-compliant influencers. Union involvement is likely to be active through to passive.
And bargaining is likely to operate in an environment that favours transactional through to relational bargaining.
TRANSACTIONAL OR RELATIONAL
Transactional bargaining is characterised by participants seeing the process as a periodic opportunity to achieve some gain. In its pure form, the participants will be willing to damage (but not break) the broader workplace relationship to achieve this.
Relational bargaining, in its purest form, is characterised by participants putting the broader relationship first, searching for solutions to issues that have legitimately arisen since the last agreement was made and an open exploration about what constitutes a reasonable wage outcome.
MOVING FROM TRANSACTIONAL TO RELATIONAL
This process is complex and requires tailoring for each business. Here are some general insights to start you thinking.
Firstly, you need to think of bargaining as a three-cycle process as a minimum; so if you usually have three year agreements, you’re looking at a nine to ten year horizon. You need to be honest about where you are today and where you want to be in ten years.
Now think of the period between bargaining as the “off season”.
WHAT IS THE ‘OFF SEASON”
The “off season” is a critical period during which you need to improve the relationship with your employees. You should be doing this anyway because it makes good business sense, but just in case let’s consider what you should focus on.
Do your front line supervisors lead by example and are they leaders their teams look up to? In particular, how confident and capable are they with performance management; the positive, the remedial and the systemic?
You need to make sure that these key players are very good in this space so they operate with a consistent and reasonable approach, supporting good performance and managing poor or unsatisfactory performance appropriately. This means more than sending them on a training course; it is a long term learning program that imparts knowledge, practice and mentoring.
It’s ironic that many of the businesses we work with are great at executive development but resist spending money in this area when we first work with them.
Analyse how information is communicated to and from your workforce. Are these channels open? Or are they controlled by key persons? And if so, how does this distort or colour the flow of information?You need to remove egg timer communication processes where a small number of people might act as filters and conveyors of information. Don’t fall into the trap of ‘letting the union delegates’ become this.
You need to remove egg timer communication processes where a small number of people might act as filters and conveyors of information. Don’t fall into the trap of ‘letting the union delegates’ become this.
Analyse how well you manage employee issues. These could be complaints, grievances or simple enquiries. Consider the complexity of your process, the timeliness and how consistent and empathetic your responses are.
You need to build internal resolution that is seen by employees as responsive, timely and fair. You probably already understand the purpose of these efforts. To promote direct engagement with employees and along with it, trust.
These three points make business sense and build a more engaged and happy workforce. Do this well and it will reflect when bargaining comes around; by building a workplace relationship that employees will increasingly not want to damage through bargaining.
Now let’s turn to bargaining itself and face some hard truths. No doubt you’ve heard of Pavlov’s Dog. Here’s an example to illustrate how employers play a large hand in teaching employees how to behave in bargaining.
One of the questions I ask a business when I start working with them is “when do your employees know to vote ‘yes’ to a new enterprise agreement?”
Client: “They usually wait for our third offer and after they’ve taken at least some industrial action.”
Nigel: “So you have taught them to wait until the third offer and after industrial action has occurred, and anything before this is likely to be seen as a warm up?”
This is a simple version of what is often a very complex process, but you get the point.
So you need to analyse past processes and understand their tactical nature, timing, and phases and then de-engineer them so you can start to map out how to re-engineer them over your nine to ten year horizon.
Please remember it’s a lot easier said than done and most workplace cultures have an inherent cultural elasticity in any given moment. Trying to move too fast can often stretch this elasticity further than it can tolerate. So take measured steps, not giant leaps unless you find yourself in a crisis that the workforce openly accepts.
You’re investing time and effort to develop a genuinely engaged and trusting working relationship. It’s an investment that everyone will thank you for in the long run and it will pay dividends when it comes time to bargain for that next enterprise agreement.