Ask Ellie & Jill: Working with Unions for the First Time

Posted on August 2, 2018

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In the series, ELGL members can anonymously send their questions, difficulties or scenarios to and receive a response from the ghost writing response team. Your name, organization and other details will not be shared in the posting or subsequent response.

Dear Ellie & Jill,

What advice do you have for someone who is interviewing for a job that includes managing union employees for the first time? How can I demonstrate that even though I don’t have this direct experience, I am a willing and quick learner.


Quick Study

Dear Quick Study,

This is such a great question. It shows a lot about your thoughtfulness as a candidate and gives you a great opportunity to demonstrate your ability to track down information, critical thinking skills and commitment to good management practices.

Public sector unions can be a touchy topic depending on who you talk to and the political climate of your area. As we are getting more comfortable as #localgov managers talking and thinking about our internal biases, it makes sense to take a few moments of introspection as you prepare for this interview. Good managers can’t let any anti-union baggage they might have picked up along the way influence their management.  Whether they are union members or not, the staff you would be managing in this new role are people who have chosen to serve the community, just like you.

When it comes to preparing for your interview, we recommend that your research about the new community/position includes a detailed reading of the current union contract(s). In many communities, these are posted online, either as an attachment to the council agenda when the contract is authorized, on their HR site, or elsewhere on their website. Alternatively, your state may have a statewide labor relations board that serves as a clearinghouse for public employee contracts. As you read through the contract(s), note any questions that you may have, and flag any areas that you think might come up in the interview.  Not only will you be able to say honestly that you’ve reviewed the relevant contracts during your interview, but you might also get a leg up on some key issues between the bargaining unit and the City.

Next, make sure that you address the importance of getting up to speed on the day-to-day administration of the contract very soon after being hired. To be honest, this would be the same with any new job or new contract—not just your first one. You’ll need to find the organization’s “resident expert” on the contract soon after you start working there and ask them any questions you’ve got after your thorough review of the contract(s). Depending on the organization, this might be someone in HR, a senior manager or the City Manager. You’ll need to learn any common issues, timekeeping nuances, recent grievances, etc. If your new organization has something of a contract minefield, this person can help keep you from walking through it.

And finally, as you answer these interview questions, make sure to weave in your understanding of the importance of taking thoughtful and deliberate managerial action. While always important, managing union employees means you need to be particularly sensitive to past practice and acting in accordance with established policies and procedures. Sometimes this means you can’t respond immediately to a management issue or an employee question, but rather you take some time to refer back to the contract, consider past practice, and check in with your trusted “resident expert” before you respond.

We hope this information is helpful, Quick Study. And we wish you the best of luck on your interview!

Your Friends,

Ellie & Jill

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