Avoiding Debilitating Labor Problems

As a labor relations attorney who has represented management, I have created numerous programs to help prevent labor problems. The perception is that such programs are difficult to create and sustain, but it is no more difficult in unionized than in non-unionized companies. In both, management must commit to proactive, preventive programs.

Most companies have a business plan but do not have a corollary labor relations plan. To minimize labor problems, new leadership roles must be instituted to create dynamic workplace relationships. For example, too often management focuses on what it says, not on how it is said. If employees perceive management as intimidating, an adversarial relationship will develop.

COMMUNICATION. Rather than directives, management should engage employees in ongoing dialogue, developing a process to find mutually agreed-upon solutions. Having been consulted, employees feel their opinions count.

Management taking time daily to be visible and available helps establish a bond of respect. In addition, management can show its concern through such things as offering advice about retirement investments from a financial expert.

There are seven positive employee perceptions that enhance relationships with management. Employees must perceive that:

  • There is effective communication between management and employees.
  • Company policies and practices meet workplace needs and satisfy individual needs.
  • They like where they work.
  • Everyone works to achieve shared goals.
  • Management honors its promises.
  • Wages and benefits are comparable for similar work in the area.
  • The company provides training for employees not just to do their jobs, but to do their jobs well and facilitate opportunities for advancement.

Two-way communication also gives management an opportunity to discuss its concerns. If employees understand the burden that management faces in paying a portion of healthcare costs, they will understand how those costs affect wages and other benefits. Shared prior to contract negotiations, such information will more likely be believed. Shared at negotiation time, employees will doubt management's sincerity.

Effective communication results in understanding efficiencies and how to increase productivity. With goals achieved, management can establish recognition programs.

CONSENSUS. Employee surveys not only demonstrate that management is listening but also help build consensus. In most surveys, anywhere from 30% to 40% express negative feelings, including confusion about work assignments, frustration about working conditions, feeling oppressed by management, feeling that management does not listen, and feeling that management pays only lip service to individual concerns.

To create the most efficient and productive work environment, management must listen to employees, demonstrate respect for concerns, brainstorm solutions, and make employees feel they are all in this together. A company wants employees not merely to agree with management, but to accept them. To do this, management must have a critical understanding of employees, requiring compromise, coalescence, and consensus.

Without consensus, the prospect for an adversarial relationship always exists. Surveys detect discontent that can often be improved with cost-effective programs responding to employee concerns. Left to fester, discontent could ultimately fuel strikes, slowdowns, and unionization.

The consensus that management can create is essential in making employees feel they are stakeholders. Consensus puts an end to the unnecessary paradigm of "Us vs. Them."

TEAMWORK. With mutual understanding of how to create efficiencies and increase productivity, there can be a shared vision of how to increase success. Recognition helps make teamwork successful, so it's essential that management recognize employees, repeat it, and reinforce it.

One client developed a strategy around those three "Its": recognition, repetition, and reinforcement. He then implemented an "employee of the month" program, posting a photo of the stellar employee on a wall. The client miscalculated, however, by not realizing that when one employee's picture was replaced with another, the first employee felt disappointed. I suggested a "Wall of Honor" for all honored employees. The program has worked, and the company remains non-union in a highly unionized industry.

Another important element in creating successful teamwork is an Employee Advocate Representative (EAR) program, with a designated employee as the EAR. The purpose is to have a peer available to assist employees. In establishing this inexpensive program, management shows its commitment to addressing employee concerns.

Being part of a team makes employees feel they are stakeholders with their economic wellbeing tied to company performance. Stakeholders are team players who enjoy increased profitability and accept responsibility for increased costs.

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