Coaching in a Bargaining Unit Environment?
An Interview

Matt M. Starcevich, Ph.D.*

(For individual use only, not to be reproduced or distributed without permission)
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I had the opportunity to discuss this topic with George Benskey whose entire career has been involved with supervising, managing and leading maintenance and construction union employee crews for a major telecommunication company.  This has included crews of ten people up to over fifteen hundred.  Over the years, he has experienced every aspect of union-management relationships as well as been a strong participant, advocate and contributor for our Coaching Workshop.

Matt: During our workshop the question often is asked how do I coach a bargaining unit employee.
George: It goes beyond the actual coaching discussion.  I strongly believe the union leadership needs to be included in the process from the very beginning.  We asked them to participate in the Coaching Workshops to make sure there was nothing “hidden or secretive” in the skills and concepts we were building in our managers and supervisors.  This openness resulted in the union leadership being less combative and more cooperative once they understood the tools and that management was using these to try and help the employee as a partner.  Fear of the unknown was removed from the equation. As an aside, the workshop helped them in their coaching relationships with their members.
Matt: Are you saying that you affirmed that the supervisors had a responsibility to be a coach.
George: That plus we continued to make a strong distinction between coaching and discipline.  Coaching is what you do with your team every day to help employees achieve their full potential or reinforce the good job they are doing by acknowledging specific behaviors.  Disciple is what happens when all attempts at coaching have failed because the employee chooses not to become a partner even though they posses the ability to do the job.

The union representative does not have to be involved in coaching meetings where we were partnering with the employee to help them solve their problems.  If the employee is not responsive to the coaching process and we moved into the discipline process, they were invited to attend these meetings.

Matt: What advice or guidance did you give your supervisors after they had the necessary coaching training?
George: Coaching isn’t a onetime event, it’s something you do every day and it usually involves multiple conversations or meetings.  The 3 key things to remember, our three P?s were:

–          Process (Stick to the process, period! Identify and address a specific behavior, not the person.)

–          Preparation (Be prepared, do your homework before the coaching discussions.)

–          Persistence (Change is often not a quick fix or overnight outcome.)

Matt: What were the results?
George: Our disciplinary cases went way down since we were solving problems not just reacting or treating symptoms and, it freed up the union leadership to focus on the long term health of the management-employee relationships versus day to day performance issues.
Matt: Because of your position you were able to implement this strategy throughout your organization.  What advice would you give to the first line supervisor who can’t involve the top union leadership and must operate within the limits of an existing contract?
George: I believe that an individual supervisor can choose to implement these lessons at their level, if that just be working with only one union representative.  Don’t make coaching a secret, show them the process and tools; encourage an open discussion to clarify how you are trying to help the employees get where they need to be. Emphasize that coaching is a positive, collaborative approach; it’s about partnering to reach a common goal. Separate coaching from discipline meetings and be clear when each is to occur.
Matt: Regardless of union status, some employees are going to resist any attempts to be coached, then what?
George: An important mindset is that the supervisor will move into the disciplinary process only when all their attempts at coaching have been resisted and are exhausted.  At that point their role changes from coach to “record keeper”.
Matt: Any thoughts on how you move from coaching to discipline?
George: With the union present, I will have a “reality check” meeting with the employee and clearly state that they have a choice to make-we have reached a point where all attempts at coaching have failed because you have chosen not to partner with me.  In other words, I’m not prepared to invest any more time or effort that you’re not willing to match so the choice is yours; either you work with me or you leave me no choice but to become the record keeper and start the necessary documentation.

A second part that I have found very productive is to not let the employee make that decision on the spot but recommend they think about it, discuss what they need to with their union representative and meet with me the following day with their decision.

Matt: If I break down the “reality check” discussion you are basically saying either you’re with me or not, you either want to be coached or not.
George: That’s reality! The good news is that this wakeup call is all some people need to realize the seriousness of both their decision and my commitment either to help them through coaching or move into the disciplinary process.  This meeting is consistent with my basic philosophy, nothing hidden, nothing secretive.
Matt: Thanks for your time and tested thoughts.