Mistakes HR should avoid when dealing with unions

Whether you’re new to a unionised environment or you’ve worked in the space for years, there are plenty of opportunities for HR professionals to slip up – here, one industry lawyer reveals which ones come up most often.

“One of the most common mistakes is not being aware of the rules around union access,” says Sherridan Cook, industrial relations expert and partner at Buddle Findlay.

“There are quite prescriptive rules that generally favour unions in terms of when they’re allowed access and what they’re allowed to access to,” explains Cook. “Employers generally find those to be quite wide – and they are quite wide.”

Auckland-based Cook says employers often attempt to restrict access – limiting union representatives to a separate room or set hours – without realising that’s actually a violation.

“In many cases, you can’t do that,” warns Cook. “You may be able to restrict their access if you’ve got health and safety concerns but for most workplaces you would actually have to allow them to wander around and talk to your employees.”

Bargaining is another area that Cook says can cause some problems – particularly for employers who don’t have a great deal of knowledge about unions or have not dealt with them in the past.

“Sometimes an employer will receive a notice to bargain but they’re not quite sure what they’re actually meant to do with it,” he tells HRD. “Specifically, they have to notify everyone in the workplace within 10 days and they often fall foul of that.”

Cook says restricting bargaining to certain operational areas is also a common mistake as the notice to bargain typically coves all employees or the large majority of them.

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Finally, Cook urges employers to abandon any preconceived misconceptions which may be tainting the way in which they work with unions.

“Employers tend to view unions quite adversarially, thinking; ‘They’re only here to advocate in a way that’s not going to be helpful for our business,’ but sometimes unions do have advantages for them,” he insists.

“It’s perhaps not helped by the attitude of unions which is quite adversarial as well but I’m sure there would be a better outcome if both parties were working together rather than against one another.”