9 Steps to Dealing with Difficult Staff in Unionized University Environment

9 Steps to Dealing with Difficult Staff in Unionized University Environment

  • Monday January 20th, 2014
  • 7,219

10030372_sIt happens everywhere, even in a university environment. When you post a job, you expect to hire the best employee. Yet, there is going to be a few employees who just aren’t happy about anything and use their union as their shield. The small number of unhappy faculty/staff can cause tidal waves over a small broken shell. When the waters begin to stir, the “good” employees become miserable; this is an unnecessary occurrence. Unlike non-unionized positions or some private companies where difficult staff issues may be dealt with in just a few steps, dealing with unionized employment issues usually follows detailed and sometimes quite lengthy procedures articulated in the collective agreement.

Time, money and efforts on the behalf of many others are caused unnecessarily which ultimately negatively impacts the students. Dealing with individuals who work for the university must be dealt with in an appropriate manner. If not, the results may have a negative impact on the entire university. The following 9 steps will help you be prepared to work through and resolve the problem while affecting the least amount of people as possible.

1 – Know and understand any policy and all collective agreements. Rules, guidelines and procedures are created for a reason. These information processes advise how an environment can remain positive and productive. When an employee does not follow these is when you need to fully understand the collective agreements; especially with unionized matters.
By following the proper procedures yourself, you are not causing any further issues. The collective agreements are your sole basis in dealing with a difficult staff member. By abiding and following the collective agreements, you can successfully present, deal with and resolve the situation.

2 – Seek assistance from Human Resources. The Human Resources department of your university or college is one of your best allies as they are fully abreast on all personnel policies and everything that is new in any collective agreement. They should fully understand the agreements and assist any employee with any issue that may arise. The HR department is to be neutral and fair; ask questions and get them involved.

3 – Document all events. It has been said, the more documentation the better (for all parties). Regardless how big or small the event is, for the university and for the employee’s benefit the event should be recorded. Supervisors are advised to write a brief summary of discussions, meetings with the employee, etc, and share a copy, for example by email, with them to allow them to comment or correct any error to ensure events are accurately recorded.

4 – Mentor employee(s) to correct poor behaviour and improve performance. If an employee is disgruntled, there is a reason for it. Perhaps they are uneducated, have a personality issue or perhaps there is a conflict with another employee. Reprimanding the employee isn’t enough, uncovering the real issue and working to correct it is the best way to resolve any issue that may come about.
Reviewing the universities collective agreements, relevant policies, job description and execution of duties with the staff member and discussing their issues will help you to determine how you can help them be a better employee. Do not criticize them negatively through their steps to improve performance. Offer encouragement and alternatives to how they can resolve their problems by following the collective agreements and performance expectations.

5 – Use performance reviews. Performance reviews should be looked upon as a tool; an extremely valuable tool to find out where the employee currently stands and what direction they need to go to benefit themselves and the university. Many supervisors and managers tend to ignore performance reviews and fail to provide relevant feedback to staff members; they thus allow problems to build up to the point where they often become more difficult to address.

6 – Letter of expectations. The collective agreements, policies or performance expectations that are being broken can be summarized in writing along with what is expected from the staff member. This document should be supportive and offer suggestions as to what they can do to resolve the issue. A letter also allows the employee to take away the information that you are giving and digest it as only they can. You are providing facts and providing solutions in writing.

Letters of expectations are typically kept on an employee file and they should not be written as a discipline letter. The university HR department may help with the language and tone, if required.


7 – Oral warning. When performance reviews and letter of expectations can’t help correct the problems with a difficult employee, it is important that a clear message be sent to them. This is simply a “heads up” to the employee that there is an issue that they have been failing to address and you now are requiring more accountability in their behaviour to avoid more serious disciplinary actions in the future that may include their dismissal. It is important you explain that you are willing to help them in any way to correct their behavior and performance. The staff member should be advised the exact reason why they are receiving an oral warning and that if they do not change, they will receive a written warning or worse. Don’t forget to document the staff members file.


8 – Written warning. Similar to an oral warning, but this warning should not be taken lightly. A serious offense is occurring and the employee must respond to in a positive manner. Go back over performance reviews, provide suggestions as to how the issue can be resolved and you are willing to help. Still, you now are making it clear that if the staff doesn’t improve their behavior or performance, you certainly will proceed to the next step.


9 – Termination. When you post a job, you never intend that you may terminate the employment on “bad” terms. It is truly unfortunate that some people are unable to follow preset collective agreements which are designed for the benefit of all. Termination should be handled professionally; a representative from Human Resources and the union should be involved during this time to ensure that this process is fair and correct.


Working in a university environment, there are numerous types of personalities that are found at every level. Not everyone can be pleased all of the time, and there will be times when a staff member will react inappropriately by voiding one or more collective agreement articles. Academic jobs are important to everyone involved and precautionary steps should be taken to avoid unnecessary issues if at all possible. By following these 9 steps, hopefully you and others can work in a successful university system.

While most staff members are conscientious and pull their weight worth of effort at work, a few of them try to take advantage of their Union and their employer.

How do you deal with those few employees in a academic environment in Canada?


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