Q: I’m a member of Unison and have been asked if I’d like to play a more active role, possibly as a shop steward. Although I am interested in taking this on, I am worried that it may affect my career prospects. What do you advise?
A: Instead of adversely affecting your career prospects, this experience may well enhance them.
Unison is a well-organised trade union and provides excellent training for its shop stewards and officials – dare I say it, far better than you might expect to get as a regular employee.
Shop stewards are expected to have a firm grip on a wide range of management issues, not just a knowledge of the policies and procedures in operation at your workplace. The training you get will give you the foundation, and you can build on that by working with some (hopefully) talented managers.
You will find yourself working outside your normal remit and have the opportunity to see and learn from good management practice in a wide variety of situations. It is the perfect training ground if your long-term career aspirations are towards line management.
How you operate – ie whether you use an adversarial approach (which is sometimes appropriate) or take a conciliatory line – largely depends on the circumstances and the people you are working with. Occasionally the adversarial approach is very necessary, particularly if your managers are deliberately operating outside procedures. But, in the main, both trade unions and managers are actually striving for the same outcome.
Some of the many skills you will develop are the ability to actively listen, prepare yourself thoroughly, and communicate effectively with a wide range of people – strangely enough the very skills you need to carry out your day-to-day job too.
Importantly, if you are worried about your career prospects, remember that you are protected from being discriminated against on the grounds of being a trade union member, or of carrying out trade union duties. However, despite the rules saying that you are entitled to “reasonable” paid time off to carry out such duties, no-one has quantified what “reasonable” is and I acknowledge that there can be conflict if the time spent on these duties is excessive and is seen to be getting in the way of you “doing the day job”.
In the end, it comes down to common sense and, in practice, many trade union reps use a combination of swapping shifts, coming in late or leaving early, or just working flexibly to fit everything in, so often there is no audit trail of exactly how much time is being spent on trade union duties.
I suggest you go for it.
Alison Sanger is a social care HR consultant
A: The 1980s group of stewards, senior stewards and branch officers that were from social services in the local authority I worked for have mostly gone on to become senior managers, assistant directors and directors. So, rather than it damaging your career, I would say quite the reverse is true!
Gordon Kennedy, manager, Mold Community Mental Health Team