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Wednesday 15 March 2017

Working in partnership with trade unions

By Craig Ryan

In today’s NHS, managers need to work in partnership with unions to keep staff happy and fully engaged. Here’s a few basic principles worth remembering.


1. Be clear what partnership means

Partnership working is about improving both the organisation’s performance and the working lives of staff. Meaningful consultation with unions is essential, but so is involving people directly in decisions that affect them and the care they provide. Make sure you agree on what you want to achieve, who will be consulted about what, when meetings will be held and how you will deal with disputes (which will still happen).

2. Meet regularly

Make sure your partnership forum meets when it’s supposed to and that senior managers turn up. Even if there isn’t a big crisis on the horizon, regular meetings help to cement relationships, build trust and create a culture of ongoing consultation.

3. Understand the other side

Not all unions are the same. With some, active members working within your organisation will take the lead, while others rely more on professional union officials to represent members. Try to understand a little of the culture, history and policy of the unions you deal with. Be aware of the local pressures reps might be under – they have to deliver for their members and are accountable for their decisions. 

4. Engage middle managers

Local partnerships often fail because senior leaders take a “summit” approach and don’t involve middle managers. Feeling that that the partnership is “above their heads” can make middle managers defensive and reluctant to share information and involve staff in decision making. People will quickly see a credibility gap between the organisation’s promises and what they experience on the ground.

5. Get the board onside

If senior managers don’t take partnership seriously, no one else will – middle managers will follow suit, and unions will inevitably revert to more adversarial approaches. It’s no use just corralling the chief executive to turn up to your partnership forum once a year. At the Oxleas Trust in south London, the HR director and the staff side chair work as a team on all aspects of employment policy. In Scotland, staff side representatives sit on NHS boards as “employee directors”. This kind of engagement cascades down the organisation.

6. Use your partners as a resource

Professional union negotiators are usually very experienced in HR and legal matters, so being able to run ideas or problems past them is a big plus for managers. Unlike your management colleagues, local union reps come from all parts and levels of the organisation, so can give you a very different perspective on what’s going on. An early chat can head off a lot of trouble later on.

7. Solve problems together

At Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital, staff side reps and managers use a technique known as Appreciative Inquiry to generate ideas, improve services and and solve problems together. Make sure you consult fully and early about any big changes. The national Social Partnership Forum recommends consulting unions about any decisions which affect people’s jobs.

8. Broaden the Conversation

Staff engagement and partnership working go together; consulting unions isn’t a substitute for managers engaging with staff at every level, every day. Work with unions to develop credible and sustainable ways to engage staff. But remember, staff won’t engage if they don’t like working for your organisation. Your local union reps can tell you all about that too!

9. Build personal relationships

It’s all about trust. In the old days, unions and management used secrecy and bureaucracy to try to get one over on each other. Today, both sides need to be open about sharing ideas and information, and must respect each other’s confidences. Get to know your local union reps and the full-time officers looking after your patch.

10. Sharpen your skills

Working in partnership will develop your skills and knowledge of issues and parts of the organisation you didn’t know existed. But remember, negotiation is a professional skill. Do your homework: make sure proposals are properly researched and costed, and benchmarked against similar initiatives elsewhere. And make sure you read the papers before meetings. Both your union and your employer can offer training in things like negotiating skills and change management. You might even decide to become a union rep yourself!

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