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An Ombudsperson Can Improve Management-labor Relations

August 1, 1993
Related Topics: Labor Relations, Featured Article
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Grievances can be a serious deterrent to labor-management cooperation. Unions play an important role in grievance management. Mediation is becoming more common in U.S. companies. North of the border, however, some companies are trying out a special type of mediation approach. Some companies tackle this problem by providing an ombudsperson to workers to help settle all types of disputes, especially in nonunion settings.

"We were concerned that our salaried, nonunion employees might not feel comfortable with the company's complaint process," says Gary Johncox, VP of HR at MacMillan Bloedel Limited in Vancouver. "We thought that an independent, outside, professional and neutral person might provide a safer, more confidential complaint avenue," he says. MacMillan Bloedel chose a lawyer for the ability to investigate and question, the discipline of thought process, and the knowledge of law and arbitral jurisprudence. The company specifically chose a woman, hoping to reduce any reluctance on the part of women employees to use the program.

Johncox says that the program has been more successful than expected. Complaints get handled quickly. The company's treatment of people has been exonerated often, and some real problems have been identified and are in the process of being resolved. The company has added another ombuds-person, also a female lawyer.

Some members of management didn't see the need until the pilot program proved a success. They thought that if managers were fair, then employees would discuss their problems openly. They also were reluctant to advertise the program. Johncox said that he had to explain to managers that the ombudsperson is neutral, not an employee advocate on the lookout for management wrongdoing.

Whenever an ombudsperson has received complaints from union members, she has let union leaders know. "The union leaders were quite willing to include her or hand a problem over to her, if it was a member-versus-member issue," Johncox says.

The union is also happy to have expert help in cases of sexual harassment-an area in which union leaders aren't fully competent-or in other cases that the union can't resolve. The ground rules for involvement were worked out in advance.

The program was set up in 1991. Since then, it has been expanded to include all 3,300 of the company's employees.

Personnel Journal, August 1993, Vol. 72, No. 8, p. 62.

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