Developing Agency Negotiators? Consider a Systematic Approach

Who will represent your agency in a variety of situations that each require specific skills? An agency needs a negotiator development plan to adequately protect its interests. Here is an outline of how to construct such a plan.

Federal agencies send people to negotiate case settlements before Merit Systems Protection Board or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission administrative judges. In labor relations, negotiators bargain unfair labor practice cases and grievances as well as a wide variety of labor relations bargaining situations from a space move involving one employee to a national master labor agreement involving thousands.

There is substantial risk and liability in many of these situations. At the time of these negotiations, I have heard much gnashing of teeth about what might happen and great concern about who is out there representing the agency.

Are You Thrilled with the Results of Agency Negotiations?

The above negotiations all require specific technical knowledge and negotiation skill sets that differ. OH! I know what to do! Let the lawyers do it! They are trained by the time of graduation from law school at age 25 to deal with all of the above situations. Right?

If you’re a manager in a Federal agency, have you ever wondered about the quality of a case settlement or the language resulting from a union negotiation? Do you know where agency labor and employee relations bargainers come from? How much planning goes into their development? Where do they get their training? What pool of candidates does an agency draw from? Have you ever been put into an EEO mediation or other negotiation without training? Have you ever been asked to agree to a disciplinary action resolution without a good comfort level about the outcome?

If you’re a senior manager, whether in human resources or not, and have difficulty answering the questions above or don’t like the answers you’re getting, maybe it’s time to approach bargainer development in a more systematic way.

The hard reality in the last five years or so is that more and more agencies are hiring outside negotiators rather than developing their own. I know. I’ve been hired to do some bargaining for agencies as have a number of other retired Feds I know.

This may sound strange but I’d rather train negotiators to build an agency bargaining capacity and advise them once they are trained than do the bargaining myself. I know that doing the bargaining is more lucrative (and frankly more fun) for the consultant but I believe an agency is better off using those with detailed inside knowledge to serve as a principal negotiator on a matter of substantial concern. You wouldn’t be negotiating if it wasn’t. Even the Harvard Negotiation Project folks ask the question “What’s your BATNA? Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement?” – implying any alternative may be better.

Who Makes A Good Negotiator?

The best negotiation insight I’ve ever heard was by Lawrence Suskind, Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program and President of the Consensus Building Institute. He made the simple but truthful statement that the hardest negotiation is not with your counterpart on the other side of the table but among those on your side trying to reach a decision on what to or not do once you get to the table.

Good negotiators need the ability to get management to a consensus, the skill of get interests across in an accurate manner, the talent to recognize the makings of a deal and the ability to figure out a plan to get into and out of the negotiation successfully. I think you learn this by reading everything you can find about negotiation; getting good training; hanging out with experienced negotiators; and getting involved in negotiations in progressively responsible roles. It’s certainly not accidental.

So How Do You Develop A Negotiator? Where Do You Start?

First, there needs to be an organizational commitment to provide learning opportunities both in the classroom and on the job. This means a pledge to fund ongoing training and development. Second, senior management needs to encourage and support development. This includes involving those in a learning mode in decision making and negotiation planning meetings. A lot of executives are reluctant to involve junior staff in these meetings lest they see exactly how like making sausage the decision process can be. Third and perhaps most important, the agency must recruit people for this process that are motivated to take action in ongoing self-evaluation and development.

Create a Negotiator Development Plan (NDP)

1. Conduct an assessment. List skills and knowledge and compare to needs.

2. Identify the areas that are sufficiently developed and the areas that should benefit from additional learning.

3. Write down existing skills and knowledge and those areas that require attention in the development categories of the NDP. (e.g., Technical, Analytical, Interpersonal, Organizational).

4. Set NDP Goals to be used as a tool by the negotiator and supervisors in discussing development; to prioritize immediate learning goals and longer term goals; and to estimate effort required to reach goals.

5. Figure the resources needed to achieve the goals. Resources include time, managerial/staff support, financial investment and anything else needed to accomplish the goals. For goals requiring financial support, list vendors of training, dates, publications required, etc.

6. Consider/Develop Other Actions to Support the Plan

• Rotation to a different project/job to learn technical needs in that area.

• Find a mentor(s)

• Establish details and assignments to organizational components to learn the key operational needs of the agency

• Consider an interagency detail to an agency with a lot of negotiations in a given area. I guarantee they will appreciate the help.

7. Put the NDP into Action

• Keep the plan visible and updated.

• Resource the effort.

• Monitor progress and adapt the plan as needed.

• Discover preferred learning strategies.

• Reinforce accomplishments along the way.

The effort I describe requires a fair amount of will by people like senior executives, agency counsel and human resource Directors. If you don’t pay the price now, you’ll pay it later. Let me know if I can help.

As always these views are mine and mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.