Business Journal

Unions and Management: A Blissful Marriage?

How call centers are creating models for win-win relationships

The goal of unions is to band together and protect employee rights. But these days, frontline workers aren't the only ones uniting when it comes to unions. In fact, many effective union representatives partner with management to achieve company goals. When it comes to call centers, where problems like poor attendance and waning morale are endemic to the industry, a partnership that brings more solutions to the table is invaluable. When union reps and managers partner up, both parties benefit.

QUOTE: It's not just happenstance. We have a strategy: Don't hold union reps at arm's length.


But striking this partnership doesn't happen with a snap of the fingers. Thankfully, call center managers and union leaders offer these tips for building a win-win relationship in your call center.

1. See the union as your business partner.

The first step to avoiding or overcoming an "us versus them" mentality is to engage the union as your business partner. Think of it this way -- would you rather work with people or against them?

  • Share your problems. Take your problems to union leaders and include them in finding a solution. Kevin Grewe, director of operator and information services at Qwest Communications, works side-by-side with his union rep, Rosanne DuBois of Communications Workers of America (CWA). Grewe says, "When we have a problem emerging with an employee, we go to the union and say, 'We're running out of ideas. Here's what we've tried so far. What ideas do you have?' That way, the first time the union hears about the problem isn't when an employee is facing termination." By discussing problems with the union, Grewe receives help solving those problems. "When we face a problem like [poor] attendance with an employee, we ask why," DuBois says. "What is causing the attendance problem? Is it daycare issues? Transportation issues? If so, we can help get support for this employee."

    Partnering with the union can be an effective strategy for managers who are tackling tough problems inherent to call centers. In fact, when it comes to battling absenteeism, one of MetLife's recommended solutions in their report on call centers, absences, and lost productivity is exactly that -- working with the union: "Companies that employ a bargained workforce can partner strategically with the union more frequently than just at contract negotiation time. The employer and union can work together to identify worthwhile programs, such as breast cancer and prostate cancer prevention or on-site or subsidized childcare programs."

  • Focus on the positive. Often, the only interaction managers have with union reps is when something is going wrong. When a relationship is built solely on dealing with stressful, difficult situations, it's no wonder there can be friction. But Grewe and DuBois don't only share their problems; they also work together to create a better work environment.

    In January 2005, Grewe's company needed to deploy a new call monitoring system. In the past, monitoring led to punishment rather than rewards. So to put a positive, rather than punitive, spin on things, Grewe took a new recognition plan to his managers, then to the union: Every time agents did well on monitored calls, they were paid an incentive. The new plan was then rolled out with the blessing of both top management and the union. After the new program was implemented, Grewe sought feedback from the union and agents. They all thought it was terrific. "The union said, 'This is the best, most motivating thing you have done,'" Grewe says.

    By asking for union input both before and after the rollout, Grewe created a win-win situation. First, agents' performance improved. Those who received the incentive each month for six months didn't want to break their winning streak, so they kept up their superb performance. At the same time, the company was able to introduce its new monitoring system without a hitch, which it needed to do in order to yield better results.

    The union was happy because the employees were happy. By seeking input and emphasizing positive options rather than punitive ones, Grewe was able to satisfy his managers, his employees, and the union, while implementing a better business strategy. He says, "With the success of this project, union leaders began asking if there were other ways to incent people. I said, 'Certainly -- give me more ideas!'"

2. Grow the partnership strategically.

Once you've made the conscious decision to include the union as your business partner, the next step is to grow that relationship strategically. Michelle Mueller, vice president of customer services and mass markets at San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas Co., underscores the reality that creating this bond doesn't happen overnight. "It takes time to build a strong relationship -- you can't short change time," she says. "It's not just happenstance. We have a strategy: Don't hold union reps at arm's length. Get to know their strengths, build their trust, and treat them with respect."

One idea Mueller offers for building trust and respect is documenting conversations. "Knowing and understanding what each party said helps maintain a respectful relationship," she says. "In the end, though, compromise is key."

For DuBois, growing the relationship with Grewe and his team had more to do with what happened outside of work than during office hours. "One big contributing factor to the growth of our relationship is doing community service projects like the Paint-a-Thon together," DuBois says. "Obviously, this doesn't happen during contract negotiation time! But, when it does come time to negotiate contracts, those relationships are already tight because of our common experiences."

Another approach to building a relationship with the union is getting together -- both physically in a room and mentally by aligning goals. Each month, Grewe's local leadership team meets with union leaders for an hour and a half. Mueller's team meets monthly as well, but keeps the informal dialogue running on an ongoing basis. They both understand that the union and management share similar interests.

"When we meet, we talk about our direction, our issues, and our strategy," Grewe says. "We talk about broader issues, rather than individual issues with employees." By broadening the scope of their discussions, identifying common interests, and simply spending time together, both Grewe and Mueller are able to grow their relationships with their union leaders.

3. Build multiple union-company relationships.

Sometimes, interaction with the union is assigned to someone in human resources, not to a person who actually runs the business or works directly with union employees. At Qwest, Grewe interacts personally with union reps. "Rather than delegating the union relationship, I make sure I'm involved and that my managers are involved," he says. One way Grewe keeps in touch is by making site visits to his centers and keeping in contact with several different union reps. Often, he'll work an overnight shift, make a pancake breakfast with the team, and meet with the union leaders. "I ask them how the recognition program is going. I ask what issues they see arising," Grewe says. "Union reps are the ears of my employees, just as much as managers are. Their input is important to our success."

QUOTE: When union-management partnerships succeed, employees are more satisfied.


Both Mueller and Grewe agree that building multiple connections between managers and union reps creates trust and builds a strong base for their relationship. "The 'union relationship' shouldn't be assigned to a few select people," Mueller says. "Make it every manager's role to maintain good communication with union reps. Meet on a regular basis, then keep the conversation going." Including line managers and top leadership in the dialogue with the union -- not just the HR person -- can help develop an understanding between managers and the union, thus simplifying problems and creating better solutions that please the union, managers, employees, the company, and the bottom line.

"A good relationship is golden."

Following these tips can help call center managers tackle major problems and yield significant results. For instance, at a lot of call centers, unionized or not, representatives are allowed a certain number of absences and tardies for a specific period of time -- let's say every six months. Once that six-month period is over, the slate is wiped clean. And, as long as employees operate within these guidelines, they are protected from being punished for missed work. The problem is that some employees have learned how to "game" the system -- and the most egregious offenders use every absence and tardy allowed, virtually marking their "clean slate date" on the calendar.

But managers aren't fools -- they know who calls in for valid reasons and who takes advantage of the system. Yet union rules -- established for all the right reasons -- sometimes prevent them from taking action against the offenders.

The best solution would be to fire employees who game the system. But it's not that easy. Usually, it takes not one, not two, not three, but on average, four years to fire this type of employee. The good news is, the union is doing a great job protecting employees' rights. The bad news is, managers must cope with the reality that nearly 1 in 10 part-time employees -- and almost 1 in 4 full-time employees -- are out of the call center on any given day due to unscheduled absences attributed to extended sick leave, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Family Sick Leave (FSL), or other personal business.

According to data gathered by MetLife, high absence rates are common to call centers -- often as high as 30% to 40% absenteeism on a given day. Its report states: "Although call center employees may represent only 20% to 25% of a company's full-time employees, they can account for over 60% of its total STD [short-term disability] claims and FML [family and medical leave] absences." MetLife also found that family and medical leave incidence rates are particularly high among call centers. According to the report, "The incidence rates for FML stand alone claims (i.e., FML claims that do not overlap with disability claims) among call center operations are three times higher than MetLife's book of business for FML in non-call centers."

When most of this is paid time off, that has a measurable impact on a company's bottom line, not to mention its customer service. According to the 2004 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, the cost of unscheduled absences per employee is $610. Multiply that by the number of call center representatives at each site, and that number rises quickly.

But when managers and union reps work together, these pitfalls can be sidestepped. And ultimately, this partnership helps to improve the work environment and to attain the call center's goals. "Especially in the high-stress, demanding environment of a call center, a good relationship is golden," says Mueller.

When union-management partnerships succeed, employees are more satisfied, DuBois says. Sloughing off the "us versus them" mentality and embracing the "we" mentality means everybody wins. Satisfied employees lead to satisfied customers, and the ultimate result is a much happier workplace -- not to mention a healthier bottom line.

Teresa J. Tschida is a Strategic Consultant and Principal of Gallup.
Gallup http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/21727/Unions-Management-Blissful-Marriage.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030