Keeping Labor Loyal

As a labor-relations attorney who has represented management in its multifaceted relationships with labor with labor over the past 36 years, I have created numerous programs that help prevent labor problems from arising. While many people have the perception that it is difficult to creates and sustain such programs, it is not any more difficult in unionized companies than in non-unionized ones. In both instances, management must make an ongoing commitment to proactive, preventive programs.

To begin, management must create an action plan. Most companies have a business plan but, unfortunately, most companies do not have a corollary labor relations plan, whether they are union or nonunion. The action plan must recognize that in order minimize the possibility of labor-relations problems, new leadership roles must be instituted that create dynamic workplace relationships. For example, too often management focuses on what it says, not no how it is said. Management must treat employees as it treats those with whom it has personal relationships. If employees perceive management as intimidating, an adversarial relationship will develop, along with concurrent resentments.

Improving Communication

It is far better for management to engage employees in an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-sided monologue of management directives. If there are workplace problems, management should open a dialogue with employees and engage in a process of brainstorming to fins mutually agreed-upon solutions. Having been consulted, employees thus feel that they matter, that their opinions count.

If top management takes time daily to find out what's happening in the workplace and in employees' lives, and to be visible and available to employees, that will go a long way toward establishing a bond of respect. If a manager asks an employee, for example, now well his son is recovering from a broken arm, or if his daughter's piano recital was successful, it will pay off in heightened loyalty and increased productivity because it will show that management cares.

An ongoing dialogue will lead to employees perceiving that management is listening to their concerns. In addition to listening, management can show concern by doing such things as having a financial expert offer free advice about retirement investments, by offering fitness and stress reduction classes at a nominal charge, by having a guidance counselor offer advice to parents about college admissions and costs, etc. As a result of such actions, management will be perceived as sincerely showing that it cares for the welfare of its employees.

Employee perceptions are extremely important, because positive perceptions will significantly enhance employee relationships with management. There are seven essential perceptions that strongly influence the way employee will feel about their workplace and management:

  • Employees must perceive that there is effective communication between management and employees--and effective communication includes management asking, not telling.
  • Employees must perceive that the company's policies and practices meet the needs of the workplace and, in particular, satisfy the individual needs of employees.
  • Employees must perceive that they like where they work and enjoy going to work; this produces positive morale.
  • Employees must perceive that everyone is working to achieve shared goals, and that there is an effective commitment to teamwork.
  • Employees must perceive that management can be trusted to honor its promises.
  • Employees must perceive that wages and benefits are comparable to similar work in the geographic area.
  • Employees must perceive that the company provides training for employees not just to do their jobs, but to do their jobs well and to facilitate their opportunities for advancement.

Two-way communication also gives management an opportunity to discuss its own concerns about ever-increasing operating costs, such as for healthcare coverage. If employees understand the onerous burden that management can face in paying a portion of healthcare costs, they will understand how those costs may affect wages and other benefits in the future. When such information is imparted many months prior to negotiations, it will more likely be believed, simply because it is not associated with the negotiation process.

Effective communication results in management and employees sharing an understanding of how to improve efficiencies and increase productivity. Once goals are achieved, management can show its appreciation by establishing employee recognition programs, which are effective ways of saying thank you.

Developing Consensus

Employee surveys not only demonstrate that management is listening, but also provide an effective opportunity to build consensus. In most employee surveys, 30 to 40% of employees express a variety of negative feelings, which are often cries for help. Among the most common concerns voiced by employees are: confusion about work assignments, frustration over certain working conditions, feelings of being oppressed by management a feeling that management does not listen, and a feeling that management pays only lip service to employee concerns. If management wants to create an efficient and productive work environment, it can deal effectively with such concerns by listening to employees, demonstrating respect fro their concerns, brainstorming solutions with them, and making them feel that they are all in this together.

A company wants its employees not merely to agree with management, but to accept management. To achieve acceptance, management needs to have a critical understanding of employees. It requires compromise, coalescence, and consensus. Without a consensus between management and employees, there will always be the possibility of a heated adversarial relationship blowing up the most carefully laid tracks that had been constructed to reach corporate goals. Surveys will detect areas of discontent that can often be ameliorated with cost effective programs that are responsive to employees' needs and concerns. If those areas of discontent are left to fester, they could ultimately furl strikes, slowdowns, and unionization.

The consensus that management can create, following the results of a survey, is absolutely necessary in making employees feel as though they are stakeholders in the company. A consensus will make them feel as though they are an integral part of the corporate culture, contributors as well as beneficiaries. A consensus puts an end to the old, unnecessary parading of Us vs Them. When a 1 consensus is established, management and employees will be reading from the same page when dealing with key issues.

Building Teamwork

Once management and employees come to a mutual understanding on how to increase productivity and efficiency, they will share a clear understanding of the drivers that increase success. They will be part of the same team.

One factor making teamwork successful is recognition. It is essential that management recognizes employees, repeats that recognition, and reinforces that recognition. One of my clients, in fact, developed a strategy built around those three Rs. He then implemented an employee of the month program, in which the stellar performance of a particular employee was recognized by posting the employee was recognized by posting the employee's photo on a wall. My client, however, miscalculated when he failed to realize that in many instances when the employee's picture came down and was replace with another, the first employee felt disappointed. I suggested to my client that he create a wall of Honor or a Room of Honor where all of the recognized employees would have their photos posted. My client's recognition program has worked, and his company remains nonunion in a highly unionized industry.

There is another important element in creating successful teamwork: an Employee Advocate Representative (EAR) program. A designated employee, one mutually agreed upon by management and employees, becomes the EAR. The purpose of the program is to have a peer available to assist employees with any of their problems. In establishing the program, management demonstrates its commitment to addressing its employees' concerns. This initiative has greatly improved workplace environments in various industries, and it isn't expensive. The return on such an investment, in fact, has been tremendous. I have seen companies get more mileage from an EAR program than they would have gotten from a modest pay increase.

Being part of a team also makes employees feel that they are stakeholders in a company. Stakeholders believe that their economic well-being is directly tied to overall company performance. Stakeholders are excellent team players, who enjoy the benefits of increased profitability and accept responsibility for increased costs.

Conclusion

In sum, there must be an effective communication between employers and employees. Management must learn to listen and express its concern for the well being of its employees. And it must encourage brainstorming to solve problems. Form effective communication will come a consensus of shared goals, integrating everyone into a successful corporate culture. From that culture, in which everyone is reading from the same page will emerge a sense of teamwork, of everyone being this together, of the elimination of the Us vs Them paradigm.

Contract negotiations in the nursing home industry are underway, and more are scheduled in the coming months. Those that have proactive, non-adversarial action plans, such as the one that I have described, will do far better at the negotiating tables than those who either have no programs in place or those who waited to put them in place until shortly before contract negotiations began.

The program that I have explained in this article is designed to ensure that all the companies in the nursing home field will enjoy increased productivity and profitability as a result of significantly reducing the likelihood of significantly reducing the likelihood of labor unrest not just in coming months, but also for many years ahead.

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