Ten Questions That Must Be Asked about an Agency’s Labor and Employee Relations Program (Part Two)

How can you make labor relations work better in your organization? Here are ten suggestions to help you get started.

There is a critical connection between day to day supervision and management and labor and employee relations success.  How managers view labor and employee relations is essential to their success.  In Part One, we looked the first five of 10 questions to use in assessing whether or not labor and employee relations programs are making that critical connection with line management and supervision. 

In this part, we will look at the last five and make some suggestions about making Labor and Employee Relations more relevant and user friendly for leadership and some suggestions to build a better advisor/manager relationship.

Question Six:  Is our training progressive and does it address the most common issues?

We must offer employee relations 101 but that’s not enough.  If we want supervision to live in the landscape and act on issues, we must listen to Deming and get involved in constant training and development.  Sometimes we say way too much way too early.  Does a supervisor need to know about impasse resolution in their first LR training course?  If you think about it, you only remember at most two or three concepts from a training course after one year.  Shorter courses and more practical info are critical keys to a smart supervisory culture.

Question Seven: Does the average HR advisor see him or herself as a cop or the defender of somebody’s regulations?

OPM is asleep at the switch.  It doesn’t do a very good job of advocating its own regulations.  Classification is virtually a subjective exercise.  Merit staffing is all too frequently an oxymoron.  The FPM was trashed fifteen years ago.  Get over it.  The job of a labor or employee relations advisor is to help management accomplish its goals. 

Credibility with managers doesn’t require a disregard for law but the days of we have to do it “this way” or else are long gone.  FLRA doesn’t worry much about OPM’s rules, so concentrate on the Agency that does, namely MSPB, for advice and guidance on making an employee relations decision and on what’s good for your Agency when dealing with the union.

Question Eight:  Where do our supervisors get their information about cases, issues and agreements?

Because Francis Bacon was right when he said that that “knowledge is power”, unions understand the value of getting information out.  The union grapevine generally puts a management’s vehicle for disseminating information to shame.  Win or lose, supervision should know a case outcome before or at least at the same time the workforce does.  The same is true of agreements–particularly impact and implementation (I&I) when things will change.  Someone should be tasked with this responsibility.

Question Nine: Is there a regular interchange among advisors and policy makers to ensure consistency in the corporate message?
It’s easy to get disconnected from events whether you’re inside or outside of  D.C.  If there’s a corporate message, who’s getting it? And how?  Things and people change and stuff (I’m cleaning this up) happens.  One lesson we in government can learn from business is the value of consistency.  This is particularly true if you want to resolve problems or failing that, win cases. 

Question Ten:  Have we developed a cadre of senior line managers who know the business sufficiently to forestall uninformed decisions?

In every management meeting in which a decision affecting labor or employee relations may be considered, someone should be present that has an awareness of the effect various options will have.  The old saw about alligators and swamps is valid.  It takes determination and time to develop line managers with an appreciation for the wider impact decisions may have on employees and their unions.  I once accompanied the head of my Agency (a very smart fellow) to a scary meeting at OMB in which He (and I) were literally the only ones present who understood a single thing about career Federal employees.  I’ve always wondered how some ill conceived ideas got out of executive leadership.  I discovered that often there was no one around with the necessary piece of information at the right time to forestall a less than good decision.

Ten suggestions you can start implementing today to make labor and employee relations work better at your organization.

"It is not necessary to change; survival is not mandatory"
– W. Edwards Deming

  1. Develop a strong internal and regular communication vehicle between advisors and management.
  2. Implement constant progressive training for supervisors and managers.  Get them used to attending multi-topic briefings/discussions that are concise and helpful.
  3. Develop Collective Bargaining Officials and Employee Relations Officials that have an appreciation of the programs.  These are people that attend decision making meetings.  HR is generally not invited to meetings dealing with “mission” planning.  These folks are.
  4. Revisit guidance regularly.  Make sure your written advice is current and user friendly.
  5. Make your Collective Bargaining Agreements easier to understand.  Convene a focus group of supervisors and ask them to tell you what problems they have understanding the contract.  I’ll bet anyone a meal (under $19.00) that supervisors will tell you that the stuff in the front of the contract has nothing to do with them and employees.  They’ll also tell you that they have to search to find things.  Ever consider an annotated agreement?
  6. Develop contract and policy guides.   It may sound funny but a handbook that covers “what they really meant to say is…” will be invaluable to supervisors.
  7. Constantly improve templates.   The web is chock full of sample ER and LR letters.  Get them, fix them to your needs, and disseminate them. 
  8. Clone good systems.  If it works in one part of the organization it may work in another.
  9. Make policy change easier.  An annual review of policy is probably not often enough.  It’s amazing when cruising Agency policies the number of 20 year old or older documents are out there.  Maybe nothing has changed but I doubt it.
  10. Steal other agencies’ good ideas.  Go to conferences, interagency meetings, surf the net.  If the government has created it, it’s free. 

I would like to start a dialog on the role of labor and employee relations advisors in Federal Agencies.  None of you are shrinking violets, so let’s hear what you think.

As always, the ideas expressed here are mine.

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.