Labor Snafus

As a labor-relations attorney who has represented management in its multifaceted relationships with labor over the past 36 years. I have created numerous programs that help to prevent labor problems from arising while many people have the perception that it is difficult to create and sustain such programs, it is not any more difficult in unionized companies than in non-unionized ones. In both instances, management must undertake to 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, regardless if they are union or non-union.

The action plan must recognize that, in order to 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 on 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.

Communication

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

An ongoing dialogue will lead to employees' perceptions that management is listening concerns; in addition to listening management can show its concern by doing such things as having a financial expert offer free financial 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 university admissions and costs, etc. As a result of such actions, management will be perceived as sincerely showing that is cares for the welfare of its employees.

Employee perceptions are extremely important, for positive perceptions will significantly enhance employee relationships with management. There re seven essential perceptions that strongly influence the way employees 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, that they enjoy going to work; this is what produces positive moral
  • Employees must perceive that everyone is working to achieve shared goals, 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 for similar work in the area
  • Employees must perceive that the company provides training for employees not just to do their jobs, but also to do their well and to facilitate opportunities for advancement

Two-way communication also gives management an opportunity to discuss its own concerns about ever-increasing operating costs, such as healthcare. If employees understand the onerous burden that management faces in paying a portion of healthcare costs, it 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 because it is not associated with negotiations.

Effective communication results in management and employees sharing 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 an effective way of saying thank you.

Consensus

Employee surveys not only demonstrate that management is listening, but also provide an effective opportunity to build consensus.

In most employee surveys, anywhere from 30 percent to 40 percent of employee express a variety of negative feelings, which are often cries for help. Among the most common concerns frequently voiced by employees are the following: confusion about work assignments, frustration about certain working conditions, feeling oppressed by management, feeling that management does not listen, and feeling that management pays only lip service to employee concerns.

If management wants to create the most efficient and productive work environment, it must effectively deal with such concerns by listening to employees, by demonstrating respect for employee concerns, by brainstorming solutions with employees, and by making employees 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 prospect for a heated adversarial relationship blowing up the most carefully laid tracks that had been constructed to reach corporate foals. Surveys will detect areas of discontent that can often be ameliorated with cost-effective programs responsive to employees' needs and concerns. If those areas of discontent are left to fester, how ever, they could ultimately fuel strikes, slowdowns, and unionization.

The consensus that management can create, following the results of survey, is absolutely necessary in making employees feel as if they are stakeholders in a company. A consensus will make them feel as if they are an integral part of the corporate culture, contributors as well as beneficiaries.

A consensus outs an end to the old, unnecessary paradigm of Us vs. Them. When 1 consensus is established, management and employees will be reading from the same page, dealing with key issues.

Teamwork

Once management and employees come to a mutual understanding about how to create better efficiencies and increase productivity, they will share a clear understanding of the drivers that increase success. They will, in other words, be part of the same team.

One thing that makes teamwork successful is recognition. It is essential that management recognize employees, repeat that recognition, and reinforce that recognition.

One of my clients developed a strategy built around those three Rs: recognition, repetition, and reinforcement of that recognition. He then implemented an employee of the month program in which the stellar performance of an employee was recognized by posting an employee 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 replaced with another, the first employee felt disappointed. I suggested to my client that he create a Wall of Honor or a Room of Honor in which all of the employees would have their photos posted. My client's recognition program has worked, and his company remains non-union in a highly unionized industry.

There is another important element in creating successful teamwork. It is 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 person available to assist employees with any of their problems. In establishing the program, management demonstrates its commitment to addressing its employees' concerns.

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.

Summary

There must be effective communication between employers and employee. Management must learn to listen and express its concern for wellbeing of its employees. It must encourage brainstorming to solve problems.

From effective communication will come a consensus of shared goals, integrating everyone into a successful corporate culture.

From that culture, where everyone is reading from the same page, will come a sense of teamwork, of everyone being in this together, of the elimination of the Us vs Them paradigm.

Contract negotiations in biotech companies are underway: those that have proactive, non-adversarial action plans, such as the one that I have described, will do far better at the negotiation tables than those who either have no programs in place or those who have waited to put such programs in place until shortly before contract negotiations are to begin. Remember: communication, consensus, and teamwork must begin the moment you sign a labor agreement, not weeks or even months before you negotiate a new agreement.

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

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