Common Ground: Strategies for Communicating Effectively with Labor Unions

Hospitals, health systems and other organizations are still finding their footing in the wake of COVID-19, with many feeling the residual effects of a pandemic that fundamentally changed the health care conversation. Nurses and other frontline health care professionals feel empowered to share their stories on PPE shortages, staffing issues, workplace violence and other safety concerns. Labor unions are amplifying the national narrative, and labor organizing has increased measurably since the start of the pandemic. As organizations struggle to recruit and retain health care talent, fostering effective communications with labor unions remains an important priority.

Each health care organization’s relationship with organized labor is unique (and often complex). One of the most powerful ways to build a good relationship – with unions, colleagues and the public at large – is through strategic communications. With thoughtful messaging and a regular cadence of communications, you can shape a narrative that reflects the positive impact your organization is making while strengthening relationships with your colleagues and key stakeholders.

Tune into your colleagues’ top concerns

Whether you operate a hospital, health system, health plan or other health care organization, your workforce is the lifeblood of your organization. For organized and non-union workforces alike, your internal culture plays a major role in both recruitment and retention of talent and perceptions on union representation. Strategic communications can help build trust and cultivate a culture of respect and recognition. Consistent communications can also help establish vital feedback loops to help you keep a pulse on colleagues’ top concerns.

These direct lines of communication enhance understanding beyond engagement scores and provide actionable insights and opportunities for future outreach. Work with your leaders to have regular dialogue with colleagues to understand: Do they have the resources they need to do their jobs well? Are they experiencing stressors or concerns management may not know about? Is a new protocol having an unintended consequence? Are they wanting to have greater input on decisions that impact them directly? Find out what your colleagues value and consider how your organization can provide or plan for it. And importantly, how effectively are you communicating with colleagues about these topics? Investments and improvements that are made – but not communicated – rarely provide full ROI.

Additionally, consider that if you’re not proactively pursuing a two-way dialogue with colleagues, likely others will. To that end, stay up to date on what’s happening outside the walls of your organization, including trending topics on workplace issues and quality of life concerns. The more insight you have on these issues, the better equipped you’ll be to communicate about them, both internally and externally.

And remember that communication is rarely a once-and-done event. An ongoing dialogue is necessary to keep colleagues engaged and build a culture based on trust.

Recognize unions as critical stakeholders

As you plan your internal and external communications efforts, remember that labor unions are important partners. Partners may not always agree on everything, but they find common ground and work together to meet specific goals – and in health care, those goals almost always involve patients. When your organization has important news to share, make it a priority to consider how the news will be received – and perceived and repeated – by both represented and non-represented colleagues. Craft strategies that speak directly to these stakeholders’ concerns and comply with your organization’s bargaining agreements.

Be proactive in addressing what your news means for your workforce in both your internal and external communications. For instance, consider which stakeholders might need a courtesy call or email on the day of an important announcement and follow up as needed to make sure any questions are answered. This outreach might include union leaders, local officials or other stakeholders that communicate regularly with union representatives.

Anticipate questions

Stay ahead of potential problems by anticipating questions you might receive throughout the year – from labor unions or other stakeholders – on your operations and financial performance. Be mindful of public filings, ratings reports and your organization’s Form 990, which includes information on executive compensation, profit margins, investment income, community benefit and other items. News outlets, labor unions and watchdog organizations monitor these and other public filings closely, so it’s important to review them carefully and prepare answers to questions that may arise when the information is filed.

Finding common ground may not always be easy, but preparation, anticipation of questions and consistent communications can help build trust with your colleagues and with labor unions. As organizations continue to recover from the pandemic, investing in these efforts can go a long way in strengthening these important relationships and the long term health of your workforce.