4 min read
19 Oct

Employers and union negotiations in South Africa show annual cyclical patterns that are quite informative and helpful. Despite the prevalence of these patterns, some going back to the ‘90s, very few employers and management teams seem aware of them, and how to optimally derive maximum benefit from these predictable processes. 

A significant characteristic of these patterns is the respective mind-sets brought to the table by the negotiators. Management views these events as inevitable battlegrounds related to costs and affordability, unions view them as stages upon which to perform membership drives and to obtain as high an increase as possible for their members. All participants see these negotiations as mostly hostile, high conflict zones where power has to be brandished and paraded to get anywhere, generally High Noon scenarios of threat and counter-threat, leaving all parties exhausted and with less than expected results. Until the next time. These patterns are seen as inevitable, as “the way it is” and even, by some, as the optimal way of conducting workplace negotiations. 

If there is a better way open to the employer, what is it, and how does management change gears so as to understand these patterns, break them where necessary and derive maximum benefit from them otherwise? 

The best solution by far is to appoint a specialist negotiator or team for these negotiating events. Like in Europe and the US, we are starting to see several very competent negotiating specialists coming to the fore in South Africa. Whether in or from the legal profession or other related fields, these specialists are becoming available to management on an ad hoc, mandate by mandate basis. The field of specialist negotiations is a complex and growing professional field, as can be seen from the curriculums and fields of study presented by most reputable overses universities, and the pattern is starting to repeat itself here. These specialists will be available to management to guide and in a transparent, measurable manner, add value to the negotiation process. Modern workplace negotiations require an above average working knowledge of applicable developments in conflict resolution, workplace psychology, social sciences, economics and, of course, the complex art of modern negotiation as well. Union officials often, by nature of their experience, outclass workplace negotiators in the actual hand-to-hand of negotiation. Whether such a specialist is appointed in a mediating role or as representing the employer specifically, the benefits of such a modern approach to union negotiations include measurable goals, accountability, increased confidence, an objective standard, freeing up of staff to attend to their primary obligations, less harm to employer / employee relationships and many more. 

The second best management tool to effectively participate in these negotiations would be to select and train a team of in-house negotiators for the purpose. This can be one or more staff members from legal, HR, sales or any meaningful selection. High level coaching can be done on-site, via distance learning and with measurable results as a fully transferable skills application, with brief annual workshops or upgrades. Options one and two can also be combined, with the external specialist being tasked with the full transfer of certain skills to a selected management team within a period of two or three years. There is at this stage however still a reluctance among most employers to adopt either of these approaches. Perceptions of time required, costs, results, the sufficiency of present methods and “don’t fix it if it’s not broken” all lead to the under-performing of management teams as nearly an expectation, a safe and risk free approach carry the day for these employers. The growing number of employers and management teams that are however leaving their comfort zones all have meaningful improved results to show for their decisions. 

If not these innovations, let us have a look at a few examples of negotiation techniques that should be of help to the employer in workplace union negotiations. Here the employer can reconsider some of the clichés along which these negotiations are traditionally being run. The vilification of each other, the tough-guy glaring contests, the race to see who can be the rudest in the boardroom – all of those need a rethink. 

And here we touch on an important consideration in modern conflict negotiation, and that is the perception of the disadvantages of a “soft” approach. Research, case studies and observable practice show that effective conflict negotiation works best when some of the perceived “assets” such as a confrontational and aggressive approach are left at the door, even when the other side persist in such outdated methods. This in no way implies that you need to give up any of your goals or principles, it is simply a different, more effective way of negotiation. It also makes the entire process, which can be exhausting and draining at the best of times a much more pleasant exercise. Parties to these events often forget the ongoing nature of their relationships with each other, and that real and perceived insults and hostilities have a way of accruing over time. An updated and constructive negotiation strategy avoids several of the more traditional unpleasantness, risk of strikes and litigation and cyclical conflicts, and opens doors to more creative problem solving, which in our economy is of course crucial to correctly assess and apply. 

This approach again offers measurable outcomes. In our experience employers often either do not fully prepare for these negotiating events, or they prepare only on a limited spectrum of topics, such as price, productivity, available funds and counter-arguments. This, coupled with the expected staid and clichéd talking points used by the union again leads the parties down some very hackneyed old tracks to the same results. A fresh outlook on comprehensive and timeous preparation on additional issues such as the role-players involved, decision-makers away from the table, value-mapping, alternatives to financial bargaining chips and so on will immediately bring a higher level of confidence and better results. 

An observation of untrained negotiators more often than not shows a disturbing absence of knowledge, training and experience of modern negotiation approaches to effective cultural communication and diversity acknowledgement (at the verbal and non-verbal levels). These are not “politically correct” or “liberal” issues, they are crucial data items at a table where you seek to persuade your counterpart. Much work can be done here as well. 

Workplace negotiations furthermore nearly invariably turn up a divergence in communication goals where the employer may view a topic as a factual debate but where the union / employees view such item as a value-driven / identity issue. Employers using a fact-driven approach (even where such facts are objectively accurate) simply bring the wrong tools to the job, matters get made worse and no-one quite understands why the other side was so unreasonable despite the “facts”. This is a crucial distinction, one that needs a finely-honed understanding of the difference between those two arguments, the processes involved in their respective resolution, and knowledge of the harm done by not following such processes. 

Employer negotiating teams also need to urgently do away with the rather lazy compromise “meet you in the middle” approach to negotiation. This is often first institutionalized and then retained as a safe option, which however leaves much value unattended, and is simply no longer your best strategy.   A few additional considerations for improved employer performance at the workplace negotiation table would include: 

  • Designing or re-designing your workplace conflict systems so as to dovetail better with these negotiation events. Negotiation tables are often seen as battle-grounds to settle old scores, old resentments and perceived injustices become unwelcome participants in these negotiations and all because the conflicts away from the table is regarded as separate from negotiations at the table.
  • Urgently supplementing your workplace conflict system with workplace mediation as an alternative to certain outdated or insufficient HR mechanisms. This brings about a range of benefits at the negotiating table.
  • Finding negotiating alternatives to tolerating bad behaviour by your counterpart at the negotiating table, training all involved team members in that and implementing consistent application thereof.
  • Consciously creating spaces at the workplace and at the negotiating table for conflict and tension to be constructively raised and made a part of your company culture, and then mirroring the effective handling of such expressed conflict to all involved, including the union.
  • Taking effective measures to step out of “survival” mode at these negotiations and into other, more constructive and rewarding alternatives.
  • Upgrading your team’s skill and experience in a framework that deals with union strategies and training, procedures, limits and possibilities at the CCMA, Bargaining Councils and Labour Court, lock-out and strike procedures and technicalities so as to give a more useful backdrop for alternatives and limits at the negotiation table.
  • Do at least a snap-course for selected management members on current negotiating techniques and skill levels.

Not every nail needs a hammer. Not every union negotiation need to be an acrimonious trench-war, and certainly not because it is the right thing to say, but simply because doing workplace negotiations and conflict the right way in accordance with modern best practices brings benefit to all involved, including the employer. The implementation of these practices will, in addition to solving a large variety of workplace problems, give the employer (ad whoever wishes to join them) a perfect springboard from which to launch other similar projects and initiatives to everyone’s benefit. And that, given our economic and social challenges, is a very good thing.  

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