SHOP STEWARD LIMITATIONS- Wearing ‘two hats’ is not an easy task!

The role of a shop steward is not an easy one. In the first place it is not even a paying job! To make matters worse, he has to wear ‘two hats’. He is an employee first foremost with all the duties of an employee but he is also required to don a ‘union hat’ when making representations on behalf of employees.

This is where problems often creep in. Employees often have unrealistic expectations and/or are misinformed about things. When employees are angry or dissatisfied, it is the shop steward to whom they turn to make representations to management. When they are accused of misconduct, it is the shop steward who is expected to represent them in disciplinary proceedings which follow. While the unions do some training, from my own experience this is often insufficient to equip a new shop steward with the skills required to handle what is actually a thankless and difficult job.

As a result, shop stewards often get caught up in the ‘heat of the moment’ and do things that may be regretted later. Depending on the employer’s organisational climate, some come to think that employees are ‘always right’, regardless of the facts. In the process they often overstep the mark and forget that they themselves are still employees and that their employers are entitled to expect a certain level of respect and behaviour from them.

While a shop steward may ‘fearlessly represent an employee’, the shop steward still remains an employee and there are certain boundaries that may not be crossed. Deliberate misrepresentation and dishonesty destroy the trust relationship and may result in disciplinary action against the shop steward which may include dismissal. Insolence and insubordination destroy the employment relationship and can also result in a shop steward’s dismissal.

So how can these sorts of situations be avoided?

Well, I believe that management holds the key and much depends on their attitudes. If they are prepared to put up with unacceptable behaviour, that is exactly what they will get!! Management needs to set boundaries and make it very clear what standards of behaviour they expect from shop stewards. They also need to be consistent and take action against individuals who believe that they are ‘above the law’.

On the other hand, if management perceives shop stewards to be ‘the enemy within’ they will probably treat them accordingly and this will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Management has to take the initiative and lead by example. Developing common values with employees and living those values goes a long way to building trust and repairing damaged relationships. When a culture of participation, consultation and respect exists in an organisation everybody benefits. Shop stewards then become useful assets who can help resolve misunderstandings and improve communication within the business.

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