Difficult conversations: Training to talk to trade unions

Vicky Roberts discusses how to deal with trade unions productively.

Trades unions continue to hit the headlines as the first half of 2017 has seen industrial action and disputes across many sectors – including junior doctors, outsourced cleaners at London School of Economics, and employees in various transport and education organisations – have caused headaches for organisations across the UK.

A tricky situation that often arises for managers is dealing with the Trade Union (TU) representative. It’s also one of the sensitive conversations that managers believe is the most difficult. This is because they feel that any interaction in this scenario almost inevitably has a language and tone of conflict. 

There are ways that learning and development professionals can help with this. Training in how to manage working relationships of this nature will develop a manager’s understanding of what makes a trade union rep tick and give them confidence to deal with issues when they arise.

It is important that they are able to look at the situation from a union’s point of view – how they perceive the organisation, what their aims are in the discussion, and what they need to be seen doing.

It comes as a surprise to many managers that trade unions need to operate as businesses. They must attract members and therefore membership fees, which then fund the services that unions provide. 

Reps can make union membership popular and relevant by getting quick, tactical “wins”, such as stopping a disciplinary or preventing the implementation of a change programme.

Training in how to manage working relationships of this nature will develop a manager’s understanding of what makes a trade union rep tick and give them confidence to deal with issues when they arise. 

Once managers understand this, they can consider the trade union perspective and begin to divert attention away from those quick wins affecting individual members; instead asking union reps to look at the situation from the picture: One example could be when trade unions are threatening strikes after an individual member has been disciplined for health and safety breaches.

The whole workforce has a right to be safe, so the trade union rep would be more effective if it supported the business to deal with the situation that caused the disciplinary offence to take place.

This is not to say they shouldn’t call you to account if procedural mistakes are made (say, in that disciplinary), but the TU membership as a whole has nothing to gain by obstructing management to deal with a health and safety breach effectively and fairly.

Train managers how to communicate that bigger picture thinking to build a relationship in a constructive way. Develop managers’ capability to reframe a position for the rep to think more strategically than tactically by recognising the influencing styles and powers of the TU reps with whom they are dealing; and how to adapt their own.


Also training managers on the ‘technical’ side of the relationship with the union, including the rules of what a trade union representative can and cannot do, will be helpful to build managers’ confidence in navigating the relationship. 

For example, in a disciplinary scenario, if a chairperson asks a direct question to the employee (“did you throw the first punch?”), the rep, acting as a companion, cannot answer on behalf of the employee. It is common though that they will step in.

If the chairperson makes a statement of opinion (“it is clear to me that you threw the first punch”), that is not a direct question and the TU rep has every right to step in and respond to the point. It will also be helpful to develop managers’ understanding of the difference between what is required to be negotiated, consulted and where the organisation need only share information: 

Development on these topics will give managers knowledge and confidence to ensure that these difficult conversations run smoothly – and will begin to build a more constructive working relationship between manager and site representative.


About the author

Vicky Roberts is head of VLearning at Vista Employer Services


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