Employees voice without unions

by 18 Mar 2008

A STRONG COMMUNICATION culture is the key to maintaining employee voices in workplace decision-making in the face of declining union membership.

HR departments will have to work toward creating a transparent and open culture in order for employees to feel they have an impact in the organisation and prevent industrial relations conflict and third-party intervention.

“Having a strong communication culture, encouraging dialogue between employees and management, and actively listening whereby if employees make a good suggestion it is actually acted on (and then they see they can influence how the business acts) – that’s very powerful,” said Neil Napper, partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers legal.

There has been a steady decline in union membership. In the last decade the system of industrial relations has been deregulated to a considerable extent, and union membership density in Australia has declined to 28 per cent of the workforce, and even lower when focusing on the private sector.

Consequently, increasing numbers of employees may not be covered by any form of representative structure in the workplace. The demise of trade unions has left a void in terms of ‘voice mechanisms’ available to employees. The shift towards greater non-union employee relations in Australia has meant that, if employees are to have a ‘voice’ in the workplace, there needs to be additional institutional arrangements.

“Employers have to take a proactive stance on communication and messages and not wait for the union to start the process, not wait for conflict or emotional issues to hit the press. It’s about saying ‘we’re going to ask you how you would like to be communicated to and start communication with you around these issues’. The companies that are doing that are the ones that are coming to agreement with less conflict,’ said Stephen Hale, director of Impact Employee Communications

There are some situations where a lack of a union presence can raise issues when it comes to negotiating. One example would be with collective workplace agreements and EBAs. Employees are negotiating on an individual level and they often don’t have the knowledge or expertise.

“What we found is helpful in these types of situations is providing education and training negotiating committees among the staff to help them know their rights. Also, sometimes paying for an independent consultant or expert to advise the employees in that bargaining process can be a good idea,”said Napper.

According to Napper, a decline in union membership does not necessarily mean a decline in employee voice and it is largely dependent on the culture of the company.

“Levels of union membership don’t necessarily go arm in arm with level of employee voice within an organisation. It’s really a factor of the culture,” he said. “Does it create an environment where employees can communicate with management and vice versa?”

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