Mills: Supervising through grievances

Despite the effort that goes into negotiating agreements…inevitably grey areas arise in their interpretation.

In unionized workplaces, the employer-employee relationship offers unique challenges to frontline supervisors.

Specifically, I am talking about issues of trust that arise out of the grievance process and ways that they can minimize negative after effects.

Let me first say that I am not a labour relations expert and that my perspective here is based on my knowledge of best practices in people management and my experience as a leadership coach.

A collective agreement represents a set of terms and conditions of employment that both the employees (represented by a union) and the employer agree to abide by in the workplace.  It will also include steps for addressing any violation—actual or perceived—of those terms by either party.

Despite the effort that goes into negotiating agreements that are clear and straightforward, inevitably grey areas arise in their interpretation.  Disagreement about what the collective agreement really says—or means—is not uncommon.  The more interesting issue in my opinion is how well those differences in understanding are handled.

Let’s use the example of a small unionized organization where an employee challenges a certain administrative policy he/she perceives as being unfair.  The first step is to approach his or her direct supervisor with the concern.  The supervisor’s primary job at this stage is to listen and gather facts.  They also have a responsibility to be fully informed about company policies so they can provide clarity to the employee if necessary.

What happens thoug,h when the supervisor disagrees with the policy too?  How is he/she to maintain a neutral “messenger only” position in that conversation?  On the one hand they need to uphold consistent management practices, and on the other they want to be assured that the policies supporting those practices are fair to employees.

Ideally that first meeting with the employee goes well and through respectful dialogue both parties gain a better understanding of each other’s position.  That sets the stage for informal resolution.

One outcome might be that the employee simply didn’t understand the policy for whatever reason until the supervisor explained it further.  With further clarity it becomes a non-issue.  Or, the policy in dispute gets brought forward to senior management who, after the scrutiny of seeing it practice, agree that it is unfair or unrealistic and the policy gets changed.


Either of those scenarios is desirable and the former is certainly the ideal resolution. Reality can be messier though.  The willingness to minimize conflict depends on the dynamics between

employee and supervisor, as well as the union’s relationship with senior management. Once an “us vs. them” attitude sets in, it is hard to budge.


This kind of situation can really challenge a supervisor’s ability to deftly manage both the immediate response to the employee’s concern and the long term effects of how it is addressed by senior management. Remember we are talking here about administrative issues where the supervisor is at least one step removed from policy making but still perceived as “management.”

While the collective agreement is intended to guide fair and equitable employment practices it is not without its flaws.  No one likes to go down the path of a formal grievance, but it happens all the time and sometimes is the best way to highlight where change is needed.

Being both a management representative and an advocate for employees is a real balancing act. Regardless of whether a grievance is resolved satisfactorily or a flawed policy gets changed the supervisor still needs to work with the employee.  Moving forward without any lingering tension will be easier when the trust and respect between the two individuals is intact.

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