Communication, empowerment and unions

Communication, empowerment and unions

This month's blog on communication, empowerment, and unions is taken entirely from an edited article written by David James and published in the Business Review Weekly. It is called Workplace Realities and you can read the full article here.

Management has long been in the habit of blaming the unions for its own failings. In the majority of cases (more troubling industries aside), a well-managed enterprise should be able to avoid the more problematic union difficulties.

The principal of the consultancy Sacher Associates, Monty Sacher, compares the situation with a husband (managers), a wife (workers) and a mother-in-law (unions). If the husband treats the wife well the mother-in-law tends not to be involved. If you don’t look after the workforce then you invite in the mother-in-law — unions. [What typically happens] is that the worker puts four times more credence on the team leader than management and the unions.

Sacher’s comments are confirmed by the human resources manager of one of Australia’s industrial relations hot spots, the ports run by Patrick Corporation (acquired by Toll Holdings). The human-resources manager at Patrick’s East Swanson Dock in Melbourne, Colin Bambrook, says that within the company, the ports dispute of 1997-98 is referred to as “the war”. It created a steep human-resources challenge.“Where we came from was very adversarial” Bambrook says in something of an understatement. We had to be more inclusive of the workforce, otherwise, we would not get the productivity gains” He insists that what mattered was relationships with the workforce, which he said was “paramount”.

This had little to do with the formal legal or industrial relations conditions. “you really have to have open and honest communication with employees, because they will tell you what is wrong and right [in the organization]. We have tried to keep them informed every step of the way.” That a workplace that has been as fractious as the ports should now be concentrating on honesty and communication may come as a surprise, but Bambrook says that one initiative was to establish teams, which went under names such as United Nations (because it has no Australians), the Quiet Achievers, the Full Monty, Kaxxi (Lebanese for “box”), Hurdlers and Bonus Busters.

The idiosyncratic names indicate a truism of management, that it is culture, not legal relations, that matter in the workplace.

For more information see our publication:

 Performance-linked communication, How to communicate the right information to the right people at the right time.

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