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Viewpoint: How to Prepare a Labor Relations Rapid-Response Team

A group of business people sitting around a table in an office.

​Union strikes, protests and organizing activity are hitting new highs. To say that union activity is resurgent is no exaggeration. Most employers concerned about increased union activity quickly come to the same conclusion: "We need a rapid-response team." But do they? What is a rapid-response team? And if you need one, how should you prepare it?

What's a Rapid-Response Team?

A rapid-response team is a group of managers who are trained to answer employees' questions about unions. Employees may ask, for example, what a manager would think if a union were formed at a site, about the realities of collective bargaining and about the rights of employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA regulates how a manager can respond to some extent. Managers also should have relevant conversations with the team members asking the questions without violating the law.

Do You Really Need a Response Team?

People are often surprised when I ask this question, but it is the most important question of all.

How many union campaigns has your organization experienced over the last several years? Do you anticipate an increase in activity? Why? Could you more capably respond to activity by using outside resources as an "insurance policy," and devoting internal resources to equipping leaders with the skills and behaviors that help you avoid employee-relations problems and unions in the first place?

Properly developing a response team that can effectively respond when needed is challenging and requires a significant investment of time and resources. If your idea is to do a one-and-done training, even if that training lasts a week or more, you'll never develop a team that can effectively respond. And that means you have not only wasted time and resources on your training, but you'll probably end up having to hire consultants when response time comes. That's the worst of both worlds.

If your company doesn't have a considerable amount of union activity each year, training responders is typically a waste. That's because, even after you invest in training your team members, they won't have an opportunity to use their training. Thus, you'll have to choose whether to keep providing scenario-based drills to keep the team fresh—and train new members as people leave—or let those skills stagnate. And unlike general leadership training that can be used every day, a lot of response training is content-specific, and that specialized content changes all the time. This is why not having a response team is the right answer for many companies.

What Will You Ask Responders to Do?

There are many roles to be played when responding to an organizing event.

Will the managers be holding employee meetings or just talking to employees one-on-one or in small groups? Will they be delivering content, or will they focus on informal conversations? Will they intervene only during election campaigns, or will they be asked to respond to other situations, like workplace disruptions? What other resources and support will they have?

These questions are critical for designing training that will be both effective and tailored to the exact needs of the organization. Many companies are tempted to train responders on how to present information on highly complex labor law topics that they will never be asked to deliver. Moreover, presenting on such topics is difficult, and many people never become good at it. These companies not only waste time and resources, but also lose the opportunity to spend that time building skills the team will be asked to use.

If your organization rarely has union election campaigns but does experience regular precampaign union activity, you should focus training resources there. Then drill response team members on the conversations and topics that are most likely to come up in those situations. It sounds like common sense, but you'd be surprised how many companies miss this step.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Preparing for the Possibility of Union Organizing]

How Much Labor Law Should the Training Include?

Don't focus so heavily on labor law that you exclude other types of training. Labor law is complicated, and it changes daily. Practicing labor attorneys often disagree with exactly what the latest National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling means for their clients. And if the NLRB majority switches parties— and it does every time the presidency switches parties—what was lawful during your training might become illegal.

Responders should know and understand the law and the lines they cannot cross, but their response training should avoid too much time spent on these topics. The key legal rules—the ones responders are most likely to accidentally violate—are not that complicated. Once those are clear, move on to what is critical: practicing conversations. The one thing you cannot train enough is how to have conversations in situations responders are likely to face in a campaign.

There is a temptation when doing response team training to use over-the-top, worst-case scenarios to challenge responders. While this can be fun for the trainers and role-players, it doesn't help develop the best response team. While things can get emotional and charged during union campaigns, most of the time conversations are not heated, and the people who want to have a heated conversation are unlikely to change their minds. That's why you should spend almost all your time practicing real conversations and teaching responders how to listen well and with empathy, search for hidden issues and develop real connections with teammates.

Phillip Wilson is president and general counsel of the Labor Relations Institute in Broken Arrow, Okla.


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