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Six things Unilever could do differently to avoid the strikes

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Following plans by the management to close Unilever’s final salary pension scheme, Unilever staff are going on strike for the second time in as many months.

How would you react to your staff going on strike? Here are six negotiating techniques Unilever should pay attention to:

1. Get your mindset right

Effective negotiators are not users – they don’t seek to take advantage of the other side. Nor are they losers, who think that appeasing the other side is more important than taking care of their own needs. It’s about bringing both sides together and negotiating a common currency for both parties.

2. Having got the right mindset, re-frame the issue positively

If it’s just a zero-sum negotiation about pension levels, it is inevitably divisive. How about re-framing the issue as “How can we improve the performance of the company so that we can maintain benefits at the highest affordable level for employees?”. That would get everybody on the same side of the table.

3. Understand the motivations of the strikers 

Employees who are facing the loss of accrued pension benefits are bound to have a “reassurance” need in the negotiation. Once that is grasped, it may be possible to find ways of meeting that need without maintaining final salary pensions at their current level. For example, does Unilever have the flexibility to offer better health care provision? Maybe that’s a little more afforable and would be reassuring enough to prompt agreement on a reduction in final pension levels? Maybe Unilever could offer to top up pension levels if employees are able to deliver to an agreed programme of efficiency improvements? That would provide reassurance that an employee’s pension rights could be improved or restored in due course.

4. Don’t give in to strike pressure

Strikes are a form of negotiating pressure and it’s normally good to stand up to pressure tactics, otherwise you just encourage the other party to repeat them. Furthermore, if you stand up to a threat like strike action, it is normally far less effective once it has been carried out than when it was still a threat. Unilever will find ways to work around the strikes, and maybe the strikes won’t be quite as well supported as the unions hope. At which point the future power of the strike threat in the negotiations will be substantially reduced.

5. Keep the negotiations private

It’s tempting when a dispute is news-worthy to conduct it in the media, with each side briefing against the other. When that happens, though, the public statements tend to be fairly critical of the other side (as each side seeks to justify its own position and blame the other side). This can inflame tensions on both sides and make it harder to get a deal done.

6. If you get stuck, break the pattern

Many difficult negotiations get into a rut with neither party sure how to get things moving forward again. When that happens change something. Change the participants in the negotiating teams. Or change the location for the meetings – how about meeting in a pub or a curry house rather than a boardroom? The negotiation will feel quite different. Or get in a mediator. Skilled mediators are often very good at spotting restrictive patterns of behaviour and adept at suggesting ways that the parties can break up these patterns so as to move forward again.

Clive Rich is an expert negotiator.

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