Should You Do A Labor Relations Assessment?

January 12, 2021 2:50 PM
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What’s the current state of your labor management relationship? Do you really know or do you just suspect?

Taking the temperature of any relationship can be a good thing to do. Considering the amount of stress placed on labor management relationships in the last four years, getting a temperature check might be helpful in improving your relationship going forward.

The Obama Executive Order 13522 on Creating Labor-Management Forums to Improve Delivery of Government Services required each Department or Agency to “conduct a baseline assessment of the current state of labor relations within the department or agency.”

I, along with members of my firm, conducted a number of these assessments at the Department and Agency level. Some of the assessments involved multiple collective bargaining relationships within a Department and some were just individual labor management relationships at the activity level. 

The purpose of the assessments was to determine the current state of the relationship between labor and management throughout each organization. Before discussing the value of completing an assessment, it would be beneficial to understand the process we use in conducting a Labor Management assessment:

Ground Rules

In agreeing to take on an assessment, we develop ground rules that have to be agreed to by both union and management.

The first is that both union and management agree to use our services. JSA acts as a neutral in conducting the assessment even though management pays our fees.

The second is that any interviews conducted remain confidential and no interview summaries or notes will be provided to either side.

Additionally, no names will be used in any final assessment report. Confidentiality is a key factor in getting participants to open up during assessment interviews.

Interviews 

To obtain information about the state of the relationship we conduct a number of one-on-one interviews of both labor and management. Participants on both sides are of varying levels within the agency.

We prepare interview questions which are, for the most part, the same for both union and management. The only differences are for example to change the question to reflect if it is being asked of a manager versus of a union representative. The questions are not provided to the people being interviewed before the interviews. We do not want people who are being interviewed to discuss questions prior to their interviews and share or plan answers with other interviewees.

Some of the questions create metrics which allow for determining if the relationship had improved in subsequent follow-up assessments. As an example, one question that we ask both union and management participants is how they rate the relationship on a scale of 1 to 10. Subsequent assessments can determine if the parties believe the relationship has improved. 

When conducting a Labor Relations assessment, the total number of participants is dependent on how large the bargaining unit is. We ensure an equal number of union and management participants to ensure both sides are represented equally.

In the past, we conducted both in person and telephone interviews in order to accommodate all participants. With the increased use of online conferencing platforms, we would now replace the telephone interviews with Zoom or Microsoft teams or other similar application.

The number of the interviews is based on the size and number of bargaining units we are assessing. The names of the initial interviewees are provided by both union and management.

From management, we ask for both managers at various levels in the organization and labor relations staff. The goal is to interview managers who have dealings with the union.

From the union, we ask for both union officials and union stewards. If the bargaining unit is geographically dispersed, we ask for union and management interviewees from different geographical locations.

As much as possible, we strive for an equal number of union and management participants. An exception to this would be if, during the interview process, we discover someone who wasn’t on the original labor or management lists, that we feel is necessary to talk to. 

Interviews are conducted one-on-one, in a confidential manor. Before the interviews take place, each person is told that their answers will remain confidential and not be given to anyone. They are also told their names would not be used in the final assessment report but that unattributed statements or quotes might be used in the report.

Each person we interview is asked the same questions. Most assessment interviews last one and a half to two hours. Interviewees are told they might be called for follow up questions. 

Documentation

In conducting an assessment, certain information is sometimes needed to assist in getting a full picture of the relationship. Documentation includes such things as collective bargaining agreements and grievance and unfair labor practice statistics. Often times, information is requested when certain issues are raised in an interview which have an impact on the relationship such as an arbitration decision. 

Assessment Report

After all interviews have been conducted, a final assessment report is prepared and provided to both labor and management. It contains a summary of what was learned from the interviews and documentation.

The report describes strengths and weaknesses in the relationship. It specifically points out problem areas which need attention. When requested, the report also includes recommendations on approaches to improve the relationship.

The report is then presented to a joint meeting of labor and management. This meeting gives each side an opportunity to ask questions and discuss the report with a member of JSA there to answer questions about the report and act as a facilitator of the discussion, if necessary. In a number of instances, this meeting led the parties to then work together on an action plan to begin implementing approaches for improving their relationship.

Follow-up

It is recommended that agencies and unions participate in a follow up assessment each year after the initial assessment.

Many of the same questions asked in the initial assessment are repeated in the follow-up assessment(s) in order to see what changes if any have taken place. It is also recommended, if necessary and agreed to by the parties, that management and union participate in relationship building training to work on their relationship. 

What is the Value of an Assessment?

The concept of an assessment is to give labor and management a way to determine the current state of their relationship. Using a confidential survey of both union and management sentiment allows for each participant to voice their true concerns and attitudes toward the other.

The assessment is intended to give the parties a starting point to implement changes within the relationship which will allow them to move forward constructively. The assessment process allows for misconceptions to be aired in a safe environment and points of dispute to be addressed. 

The assessment does not just tell the parties the state of their relationship but also why the relationship is where it is. It gives them an opportunity to come up with a plan that details how to fix the things that need to be fixed and to forgive the things that need to be forgiven. If you want a better relationship, an assessment is a good way to start.

© 2021 Joe Swerdzewski. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Joe Swerdzewski.

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About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email [email protected] or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.

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