AT A RECENT Labor Arbitration Institute program in Chicago, several arbitration panels discussed how they would have ruled on various grievances. Panel members heard a summary of the grievance, and then each one explained how he or she would have ruled and why.
Throughout the two-day program, “credibility” came up more than any other word. Grievants and companies alike were described as being either credible or not credible in nearly every discussion. And the effect that credibility had on arbitrators was clear. When one side was credible and the other was not, the credible side nearly always won.
What works in arbitration works at every stage of the grievance process. Stewards with credibility are more likely to negotiate good outcomes for their grievants. But if company supervisors do not trust a steward, negotiations become difficult.
Likewise, grievants who are not credible have difficulty winning. Companies get tough if they don’t trust you.
The credibility of witnesses is important as well. If the witness sounds untrustworthy, the company (or the arbitrator) will not give that person’s testimony as much weight as the testimony of someone who is credible.
To build credibility, you need first of all to be honest. Once a person has been caught in a lie, trusting that person is not easy. Often, a single lie can forever ruin your credibility.
Few stewards would ever tell an outright lie, but many are tempted to shade the truth or to leave out some information that goes against their case. These actions also undermine your credibility and, ultimately, your effectiveness. You may get away with a little misrepresentation for a while, but once people begin to see that you are not entirely honest, they will stop giving you the benefit of the doubt.
Dishonesty is not the only way to destroy your credibility. Filing frivolous grievances can do it, too. So can refusing to give in, even when the company comes up with a good argument and a reasonable offer.
Stewards sometimes feel that every member has a right to grieve, even if the case has no merit. Others believe they need to file grievances they know are losers, just to test the company’s resolve. You might even hear a steward say he is filing a grievance simply “because I haven’t filed one in a long time, and I don’t want the company to think we’re not paying attention.”
If the company sees you filing grievances with no real basis, they will find it more difficult to believe you when you bring them a real grievance.
A similar thing occurs when you have a winning grievance but you push too hard, demanding an unreasonable remedy. The fact is that the grievance process is built on mutual trust. You need to trust the company to give your argument a fair hearing, and the company needs to trust you to be willing to negotiate a reasonable settlement. When either side breaks that trust, their credibility is weakened. Be ready to accept a reasonable, fair offer.
Stewards must also constantly work to maintain their credibility with the members they represent. Your members rely on you to listen to their problems, represent them professionally, and, when necessary, file grievances.
If you fail to take a member’s problem seriously, that member may believe you don’t care. If you promise to take some action or “look into it,” but then you don’t follow through and get back, that member will have difficulty believing your next promise.
If you file a lot of frivolous grievances, members will see how often you lose and come to believe you don’t know how to win. When that happens, they will stop coming to you for help — and they will not be inclined to help you when you need member support in a showdown with the company.
In order to be a good steward, you need to have the respect of everyone you deal with — and you cannot get respect without having credibility.