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Two Principles for Creating Great Workplaces in Union Environments

Marcus ErbIt has been fascinating to watch the showdown about Wisconsin’s public-employee unions. In our line of work, clients often ask whether a workplace can become great if it has a union. They often assume it’s just not possible, yet there’s ample evidence it can be done.

For example, in this year’s 100 Best Places to Work For in the U.S, 11 companies have a union that covers 10% or more of their employees. So yes, some unions can be a roadblock depending on the their philosophy and operations. However, they can also be a great asset in building trust with employees, the foundation of great workplaces. These best workplaces are examples of that, and they’ve done it with two key principles.

First, they treat the union like a partner. In low trust workplaces, the union relationship takes more of an “us vs. them” tone. At the best workplaces though, unions and the organisation have the common goal of helping the employee. This shared goal moves the relationship away from this dynamic, and builds a spirit of transparency and collaboration.

The other lesson is that leaders at great workplaces are not afraid to go beyond the parameters of their contract. While union contracts can limit some actions in areas like pay and benefits, they don’t inhibit many trust building activities like communication, collaboration, or appreciation. The union contract can feel like a hindrance, but if the organisations and its leaders can start shifting their view, then they open up a huge set of opportunities for their employees and business.

Marcus Erb is a Senior Research Partner and Senior Consultant with Great Place to Work® and author of a monthly column on creating great workplaces in small businesses for Entrepreneur magazine.