What's your problem?

How do I advise staff pressured to join the union?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q:I'm an experienced manager who recently moved from the private to the public sector. The culture took some getting used to, but my current problem seems impossible. I manage a department of 25, some of whom are putting pressure on the new staff to join the union. Several of them have approached me to say they're not interested but are still coming under pressure from the others to join. I find it juvenile and distracting. What would you advise me to do?

A: On the assumption that all members of your staff, including you, are free to join the union and equally free not to, you must clearly uphold and promote this freedom. It should be no part of your role as a manager to persuade or dissuade your staff in either direction.

But I don't like the sound of this 'pressure' to which your new staff are subjected. No overt threats may be being made, but pressure of any kind presumably involves hints and implications. It's not being anti-union to be opposed to even the subtlest forms of coercion.

So, if you haven't already done so, call a full meeting of your 25 staff and spell out exactly where you stand. As far as you're concerned, to join or not to join must be an individual decision, freely taken. Make it clear that you expect every member of your staff to respect the individual decisions taken by each of their colleagues.

If trouble persists, you might find it worth while to invite some external organisation, such as the Electoral Reform Society, to conduct a secret ballot among your staff on the desirability of union membership.

As experts in ballot management, they'd work entirely independently of management, would frame the question(s) and conduct the voting, with the anonymity of those taking part scrupulously preserved.

In itself, of course, it wouldn't solve anything. But it would establish beyond argument the actual proportions of those in favour and those against - taken in the absence of any influence from any quarter. You might find this a valuable foundation for your own authority.

Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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