Negotiating with unions: 7 sins

in many of our projects at some point we reach the stage where our client enters in negotiations with Trade Unions. Often a minefield.

Transformational change usually comes with an impact on people. Therefore, in many of our projects at some point we reach the stage where our client enters in negotiations with Trade Unions. Often a minefield, such discussions can make communicating with your own employees fraught with difficulties. It doesn’t have to be this way if you apply a well considered negotiation strategy and smart communication. Even so, it will help to know the 7 deadly sins of negotiation…

1) Unrealistic optimism.
Negotiation delegations often overestimate the willingness of social partners (and employees) to accept difficult propositions. Employers often presume that the case for change is clear to all and that any discussion is merely a formality before reaching agreement on certain measures or changes.

2) Negotiating without strategy.
Everyone knows that scenario planning is crucial for achieving good results in any negotiation. Still, I often see negotiators concentrating solely on their next move. This can end up with them conceding more than they had intended, painting themselves into a corner or even losing control altogether.

3) Aversion to thinking the unthinkable.
A double deadly combination of the first two sins. Usually someone in the team is prepared to play the devil’s advocate and voice the less than positive scenarios. However, he will often quickly pick up on the irritation generated by this. “C’mon, that’s never really gonna happen,” the team will respond in unison, thus avoiding any serious willingness to look into these scenarios in detail. In practice however, it is often one of these less than desired scenarios which eventually unfolds.

4) Not setting out the limits beforehand.
Another pitfall experienced by anyone who has ever bought (or sold) a second hand car: if you don’t make a hard and fast agreement with yourself beforehand about how far you’re willing to go, you’ll invariably end up giving away too much.

5) Lacking a follow-up plan in case of failed negotiations.
What happens if we’re unable to come to an agreement? Do we have an alternative route to achieving our goals? Are we willing to risk a strike? As an employer, if you don’t have a realistic alternative plan you will be starting from a particularly weak position in the face of the negotiations (also psychologically). Worse still, you will have no way of exerting pressure on your social partners or creating a sense of urgency in your organisation.

6) Negotiating in public.
I once witnessed an employer who, at the launch of the negotiations, disclosed it’s complete wish list to the internal audience. The sheer number of proposals alone (mostly geared towards economising) stamped aggression all over this approach and only managed to add fuel to the fire. In this case there was a clear negotiation strategy to come to an exchange of demands in a number of steps. But of course that part of the story could not be communicated to employees…

7) Negotiating in silence.
The opposite to sin number 6 is equally deadly: negotiating in complete silence to prevent unrest and to reduce pressure on the talks. With the intention to explain everything to employees after closing an agreement. Unfortunately, unions may be willing to enter in negotiations, but they will never sign. They will always ask the employer to first ‘explain it’s plans to the employees’. However, to do so at a very late stage in the negotiations can prove to be an extremely difficult prospect. The employer’s single option is to disclose the detailed proposals and present them as some kind of ‘best and final offer’. This rarely creates support, but rather tends to reinforce resistance, resulting in a much stronger union position.

So how should it be done?
It will be clear that the key factor for success is to approach the negotiation table with a sound strategy. One in which the minimally desired result is clearly identified. And where the range of scenarios has been carefully detailed and the various steps regarding the exchange of wishes and demands fully considered. It is also good practice to place the preparations and calculations pertaining to all scenarios into the hands of a technical team that operates at arm’s length of the negotiators. This team should be tasked with providing ‘objective’ information regarding the material consequences of the various choices open at each step, thus enabling the negotiators to act less impulsive and more strategically.

Finally, it is vital before and during any negotiations to keep in close, intense contact with the employees to prepare minds for accepting the later results (also see this earlier blog). Not by negotiating in public, but by regularly communicating the case for change and by managing expectations with respect to potential measures and the possible impact of these. Step by step, this will build acceptance of the fact that ‘something needs to happen’ and will ensure that employees gradually get used to the notion that various certainties are up for discussion. This will also open up room for manoeuvre for the union side, eventually enabling them to sign an agreement.

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