JEA Vol. 48 no. 2 - 2nd Quarter 2018

Effective Management Consulting

Consulting to Union Officials

By Jeffrey Harris, MFT, CEAP

In our exploration of the many ways in which an EA professional can be an effective management consultant, I felt it was important to include some reflections on how to be an effective union consultant. 
In fact, EAP core technologies states: “EAP core technology is: Consultation with, training of, and assistance to work organization leadership (managers, supervisors, and union officials) seeking to manage troubled employees, enhance the work environment, and improve employee job performance.” (italics mine)

According to the AFL-CIO, “Union members work together to negotiate and enforce a contract with management that guarantees the things you care about like decent raises, affordable health care, job security, and a stable schedule.” It goes on to say that, “Unions don’t protect low-performers or harm the employer.” To explore union services in more depth, visit

Unions: A Culture Within a Culture
A union is a brotherhood – and out of their history of struggle, they have become protective, insulated, and careful with their trust. 

Unions are non-profit entities led by a board of directors who are rotated in/out through elections. The board must work in the trade or industry represented, and are granted either a full hiatus or limited release time from the job to serve the interests of the union. Most unions have a business agent, an employee of the union who has special training in contracts and negotiation, and who leads collective bargaining on behalf of employees, who are called members.

Each work department or division has a shop steward, who helps the union organize and, along with union directors, may represent members in the filing and testimony of grievances on behalf of members, when it is perceived that the supervisor or organization has misinterpreted or breached the labor stipulations spelled out in the memorandum of understanding (MOU).

One of the many elements that make union consulting unique is that union representatives likely have little management training and are often co-workers who may share the same pay grade and supervisor. That is to say, they may have few supervisory skills.

What Matters to Union Leadership
As EA professionals, we address the needs of the referred individual in order to maximize assistance for this person (union member). It is common for union representatives to mistrust management, so you would be well-advised to avoid the perception that the EAP was a tool of management intending to disadvantage union members.

For instance, be sure to avoid the error of arguing for the importance of profits (they know profits are important, but don’t expect them to prioritize it). You’ll have better luck making your arguments to labor leaders if they are built on themes of job retention and job safety because a union rep wants, “union brethren to keep their jobs and I want their jobs to keep them in one piece. Tell me how an EAP helps.” 

From the start, clarify the role of the EAP, its policies with union representatives, being sure to stay within your boundaries. Offering an “EAP 101” for shop stewards could help clarify things from the get-go. From the beginning, seek to develop shop stewards into EAP ambassadors.

Be cognizant of key events, such as contract negotiations or workplace trauma, which might heighten sensitivities in the workplace and temporarily drive labor and management towards polarizing extremes.
A short list of “do’s” for the EA professional would include: 

* Conform your consultation style to relate on their level;
* From the beginning, work to create a common goal;
* Make continual efforts to gain the respect of union members;
* Ask relevant questions about union culture;
* Strive to be collaborative rather than confrontational; and
* Wait for the union member to introduce their readiness to relate to you as a counselor/ social worker.

Ultimately, remind yourself that you are an outsider looking into their family.

Typical Consultation Themes
It’s also helpful to keep in mind that the motivation of a union leader can be very different than supervisors or managers in some ways. For example:
* Quelling co-worker complaints that this individual is not sharing the workload, or is putting co-workers in danger;
* Addressing management threats to sanction, suspend, or terminate a union member if the union doesn’t “fix” him/her;
* Restoring the individual’s performance before it progresses to the attention of a supervisor;
* Benefiting union members and getting re-elected;
* Addressing a performance problem for the company that could become a bargaining point during union/management negotiations in the future; and
* Prolonging the tenure of a troubled employee by getting him into a “program” so that he/she is “in treatment.”

Attribution and Gratitude
I would like to extend my gratitude to the following EA professionals who leant their expertise to this topic: Takis Bogdanos, LPC-S, CEAP; EAP/WorkLife Services Advisor at Chevron USA; Jeff Christie, LCSW, CEAP; EAP Manager at JPS Health Network; Sandra Turner, PhD, CEAP; Director, EY Assist at Ernst & Young LLP; and Robin Waterman, MSW, Employee Assistance Specialist at Portland General Electric/

Let’s Keep the Discussion Going
For more consulting tips on managing union officials, contact me through my LinkedIn profile ( and Twitter (@jeffharrisceap). 

Jeffrey Harris, MFT, PCC, CEAP has provided union consulting to a wide variety of organizations throughout his 24-year career in employee assistance, including the US Postal Service, the City of Long Beach (CA), and Keck Medical Center of USC. The author also served as Assistant Director of a member assistance program for the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, Local 112. Jeff currently serves as Program Manager of EAP & WorkLife at the University of Southern California.