Have Union Workers? Remember These Do’s and Don’ts

Can’t we all just get along? The relationship between HR teams and unions hasn’t always been cordial. But considering that both have employees’ best interests in mind, why shouldn’t it be?

Though unions are most often associated with blue collar industries like manufacturing or construction, they can form at any company. As recently as last year, over 10 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union. Despite the growth of independent contractors and contingent workers, unions persist partially due to robust federal protections. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the government agency tasked with protecting labor rights, has heavily restricted what HR teams can do or say when it comes to unions.

Want a better (and compliant) relationship with your union? Below we’ll sum up some of the most critical “do’s and don'ts” when it comes to labor relations.


Monitor or record union activity.

There’s a good chance that you monitor employee activity at work, be it by email, phone, or video. But while that makes sense for security purposes, you’ll want to be mindful about what you’re recording when union activity is involved. The NLRB has ruled that surveilling union fundraisers, events, or rallies can be construed as a form of deterrence and hostile to employees’ protected right to organize.

Promise promotions or raises for not joining a union.

If your workplace features both non-union and union workers, it might be tempting to dissuade the former from becoming the latter. Don’t. Attempting to convince employees to remain unaffiliated through promises of bonuses, raises, or extra vacation days is illegal under federal law—so is punishing an individual who ultimately does decide to join. Punishment in this case includes termination or just overlooking someone for a promotion or raise.

Punish employees for discussing conditions.

While it might be tempting to chastise an employee for complaining about something as trivial as the break room coffee, hold your tongue. Punishing non-union or union employees for discussing anything tied to working conditions is illegal under NLRB rules. Depending on the type of conditions discussed, you might also be running afoul of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).

Crack down on union logos or patches.

It’s not uncommon for proud union members to wear it on their sleeves—literally. Time and time again, courts have ruled that HR teams cannot ask employees to remove union buttons or stickers from their clothing or uniform. Be sure that your dress code policy doesn’t explicitly forbid individuals from displaying union insignia.


Open channels for feedback.

Unions are motivated by a need to give voice to the voiceless. When employees feel ignored, they often turn to union organizers or leaders for support.

Ensure that employees have ample opportunity to communicate with and even review their supervisors. You can accomplish the former by mandating a regular meeting cadence between employees and managers, and shifting from formalized annual reviews to more of a “feedback on the fly” setup. To get feedback about the company as a whole, leverage your engagement surveys.

Be cordial.

A little small talk can go a long way. Go out of your way to maintain a positive relationship with union leaders. This is especially true for “shop stewards,” or leaders who are elected by union members but still work on the floor. These individuals serve as proxies between employees and union leadership.

Fostering these relationships helps both parties understand the other’s motivations and concerns, making them more empathetic and potentially conciliatory once it comes time to negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Build a culture of recognition.

One of the primary reasons employees feel compelled to join unions is due to a lack of recognition from management. Encourage managers and peers to publicly appreciate employees for a job well done. Even acknowledging a birthday or anniversary can go a long way. Having the right technology in place makes this easy and enables supervisors to reference this feedback during performance reviews. (Click here to discover how Namely’s appreciation feature makes it possible.)

Document everything.

While you’ll find most union employees as agreeable as any, there are always exceptions. In some cases, these bad apples might act as though they’re off-limits for discipline. In cases where employees are being disciplined, terminated, or reassigned, you’ll need to support managers with ample evidence to present their case before union leaders.

This isn’t just a courtesy to the union—CBAs often forbid at-will employment contracts. More often than not, you’ll need to demonstrate just cause in cases of a termination. Being able to provide that evidence upfront can help supervisors and union leaders see eye-to-eye on personnel decisions.

Measuring employee engagement is important for any organization, but particularly so when union workers are involved. As discussed above, providing employees with meaningful ways to share feedback can be the difference between a friendly relationship or an adversarial one. Unfortunately for HR, driving awareness and participation during an engagement surveys is seldom easy.

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