Managing Tensions between Employees in a Newly Unionized Workforce

Managing Tensions Between Employees in a Newly Unionized Workforce

Unions commonly drive wedges between employees and their employers. The movement to unionize an organization, known as a union organizing drive, can be an incredibly divisive period. Such tension within the organization may continue, particularly if the union prevails with its unionizing drive and an employer is left with a partially unionized workforce whereby some employees are unionized while others remain union free. Understandably, this situation can create potentially challenging dynamics among employees.

This is not an ideal situation to be in, but there are steps employers can take to deescalate the situation, begin the path to healing the organization and rebuilding trust while preparing for collective bargaining with the union.

Redefine Roles and Expectations

Given their divisive nature, union organizing campaigns can have detrimental consequences on an organization. Not only do they erode trust, but they also create new power dynamics among team members by fostering an “us vs. them” reality. Moreover, once a campaign is over, some employees often feel a sense of security with a union representing them, while others are grappling with mounting insecurities with impending new work rules and impact on the employer/employee relationship. The result? High tension, increased stress, and general feelings of uneasiness and uncertainty.

If this happens, it’s important to not fall into the pitfall of grouping or separating people into “unionized” and “non-unionized” employees. Instead, now is the time for managers to reinforce that ALL employees are critical – and will remain critical – to the success of the business, regardless of if they are unionized or not.

While managers aren’t expected to play the role of a mediator, and can’t assume total responsibility for employees’ work experiences, they can determine what is within their control, and redefine roles and responsibilities to help employees understand what is expected of them in this new environment.

Managers should ask themselves questions like:

If a manager feels stuck or is unsure how to answer these questions, reaching out to other fellow leaders in a similar position may help spark inspiration. Collaboration is highly encouraged, especially in times of change.

Be as Proactive as Possible 

When it comes to addressing tension, managers should be as proactive as possible and consider these steps:

  • Start by first acknowledging the tension. It may seem trite and unnecessary, but simply acknowledging tensions can help diffuse stress and rebuild trust.
  • Take the time to reiterate employees’ rights to your teams, highlighting the right to differing opinions and the right to a respectful workplace.
  • Be sure to regularly check in on people, find common ground, and help employees concentrate on what is within their control. This includes focusing on the here and now – thinking about the future may cause greater anxiety for some.  

If a timely situation arises that warrants a reaction, remember to stay focused on work responsibilities and not individual personalities. This means staying calm, determining if intervention is necessary – or even wanted – and deciding if the situation should be escalated to Human Resources.

Regardless of the situation, it’s never helpful to ignore tensions. Not only will ignoring tensions not make them go away, but it may make managers look aloof, tone deaf, or like they are fostering a “toxic positivity” mindset that overlooks glaring problems and can be invalidating to employees struggling with the tension. It’s also never helpful to take sides or constantly overstep and intervene. As managers, the goal is to find a balance (there is a fine line between helping and hindering) and help employees refocus on their roles and responsibilities, all while feeling safe, supported, and heard.

A partially unionized workforce will inevitably bring about new challenges and obstacles. But with a little bit of time, combined with authentic and consistent leadership, and ongoing reminders that everyone is working toward the same goal and is part of the same team, tensions can be reduced and positive, forward momentum can be restored.

At IRI, we’ve given C-suite executives the tools and support they need to be true champions for their organizations, helping to implement consistent communications strategies that reach all employees in their organization. We believe every business is different, and each requires its own holistic and customized approach to organizational health. Whether you need comprehensive leadership development and coaching guidance or social media strategy and digital media intelligence support, we have expert communications consultants who can quickly provide a specialized solution. Contact us online today to discuss the next steps, or give us a call at (313) 965-0350