Reducing the threat of Labor Problems

As a labor-relations attorney with more than 35 years of experience representing management in all facets of labor relations, I have emphasized to my long-term care clients that a written strategic communications action plan can be one of the most important steps to ending adversarial relationships with employees and reducing the threat of labor problems. Although the importance of open communication is well understood and sounds simple and easy, few long-term care facilities implement a communications plan that specifies responsibilities and imposes a schedule.

A successful communications plan must have an "asking" strategy, based upon listening, responding, and acting, so that employees become stakeholders. (Often a management team does not have an "asking" strategy because its members believe they have all the answers.) To get practical answers, the plan must contain critical questions. The most important questions are: What? When? Where? How? Unless these questions are answered specifically, the action plan will not be implemented properly--or it might not be implemented at all because other priorities may take precedence.

If management does not have a scheduled, ongoing action plan addressing these questions, it will be perceived by employees as being insular, secretive, and uncaring. Therefore, the employees will feel alienated, and management will have succeeded in maintaining and furthering an adversarial relationship that ultimately will take its toll on the bottom line.

In contrast, a scenario in which management and employees talk and listen to one another and resolve problems together will increase employees' trust in management. If employees are to believe management's words, there must be open and ongoing communication, both verbal and written, based upon a specific strategic action plan. Employee award programs will also bolster employees' positive perceptions of their employer's concern and appreciation.

Timing Is Everything

One of the biggest mistakes administrators and managers make is failing to open the doors of communication before a labor problem arises. Faced with negotiating a new union contract or dealing with a union-organizing effort or difficult operational issues, management may suddenly decide it's time to talk with workers. By then it's too late. At this point, workers naturally will suspect management's motives and regard everything managers say with cynical disbelief. It is essential that open communication be ongoing, not something that is initiated at the first threat of labor problems.

Building Trust by Building Credibility

An ongoing strategic communications plan will demonstrate management's credibility; it will be built upon a foundation of asking, listening, talking, and acting in response to employees' needs and issues. Managers cannot sincerely ask, listen, and talk if they do not know anything about those with whom they are having a conversation. Therefore, they should know each worker's name, job description, and family background, and be familiar with each worker's performance record. Such basic knowledge implies a level of care and concern.

The employer's concern for employees' welfare goes a long way toward establishing trust, and there are many ways to communicate that concern. Each is a necessary ingredient for a successful communications action plan. I have helped management communicate concern for employees not only by creating an asking program, but also by creating a variety of cost-effective benefits. One example is providing small, short-term, interest-free loans to employees in case of emergencies. I have also helped organizations implement regularly scheduled actions that communicate goodwill and have a positive impact on morale, such as sending employees anniversary and birthday cards, paying for birthday and/or anniversary dinners for them and their spouses, and facilitating child-care arrangements.

Other ways to communicate concern include providing financial information about retirement investments, offering fitness and stress-reduction classes, and having a guidance counselor available to advise parents about college admissions and costs. In addition to showing management's interest and concern, these extra benefits make employees feel like valued stakeholders in the company.

Having successfully communicated its concern for its employees, management can open more direct channels of communication, knowing that its credibility is secure.

Communication Takes Many Forms

Nothing is more effective than one-on-one discussions in which management asks, listens, and talks, encouraging employees to do the same. The chats may take only seconds or minutes, but they should be a requirement of the strategic communications action plan. During these discussions, managers can ask such basic questions as, "How are you?" and "Can I help you?" This gives employees multifaceted opportunities to address issues in an open and friendly environment.

More structured meetings also can keep the doors of communication open. Among the various kinds of meetings where management and employees can engage in direct and forthright communication are group meetings, compliance sessions, quality circles, and meetings for senior employees.

Group meetings can occur biannually, quarterly, or even monthly. At such meetings, managers can explain what they are doing and why. They can answer workers' questions, thus diminishing the opportunities for misunderstandings which, if left to metastasize, can grow into major labor-relations problems.

Compliance sessions (in which management and employees attempt to reach a mutual consensus) are an effective means of maintaining a reasonable level of satisfaction among all types of workers. Such meetings are generally held on a monthly basis and are sometimes referred to as "coffee and doughnut meetings." Administrators and managers can provide updates on important subjects, and employees can be encouraged to discuss any aspect of company policy, including regulatory matters involving resident care. These meetings occur during the workday, and employees are paid for their time. Defused negative rumors, revised production methods, and increased understanding of new company policies are just a few of the benefits of such meetings.

Quality circles are also effective, and they work for both union and nonunion employees. Quality circles consist of small groups of employees, making these sessions more intimate than larger compliance sessions. The small number of employees permits management to tackle problems of workplace efficiency through a one-on-one dialogue. Together, management and employees examine productivity and make suggestions for improvement. Employees are left with an enhanced sense of their own competencies and efficiencies.

Meetings for senior employees have proven to be an effective means of communicating management's appreciation for employees' long-term commitments to the company. It is essential for management to demonstrate that such employees are held in special regard and are appreciated for their long-standing interest in the company's welfare. Senior employees may be given a pin to signify the company's appreciation; after all, "thank you" is one of the most important phrases in the English language, and it communicates not only appreciation, but also gratitude. Unfortunately, managers all too often take senior employees' efforts for granted and rarely say "thank you."

Get Employees Involved

At all meetings, an employee assistance representative (EAR) could be present. This person would work with the company's human resources (HR) representative to make sure that all issues are discussed. The EAR--who could be chosen by both employees and management, by management alone, or through a roster of volunteers--should serve on a rotating basis, so that most employees have an opportunity to serve in this position and to interact with the HR department.

The purpose of the EAR program is to have a peer available to communicate management's concern for employees by responding to and acting upon employees' concerns and by assisting employees with their problems. In establishing such a program, management further communicates and demonstrates its commitment to addressing employees' concerns. This type of initiative has greatly improved workplace environments, and it doesn't need to be expensive. The EAR might be paid with a modest cash bonus, a gift certificate, a nominal increase in hourly wages, or anything else that seems to be a reasonable incentive. The returns on such an initiative have, in fact, been tremendous. I have seen companies get more mileage from an EAR program than they likely would have gotten from a modest across-the-board pay increase.

In addition to personal contact, written communication can be helpful. This could include newsletters, personal letters, private memos, public notices, and self-appraisals. Newsletters, which can be mailed to each employee's home or distributed at work, not only serve to inform employees of company programs and news, but also might give family members who read them a favorable view of the company.

Another effective form of written communication involves the use of personal letters mailed to individual employees' homes, thanking them for their help or, perhaps, congratulating them for completing training or for other achievements. Similarly, management can convey important reminders, notes of appreciation, and acknowledgment of an employee's accomplishment of a goal in memos placed in employees' pay envelopes.

A bulletin board, which should be placed where all employees can view it, can serve as a community newspaper, providing an opportunity to reach all employees with important announcements. Among the kinds of information that should be displayed on a bulletin board are notices about company policies, work rules, employee events, and job openings and requirements.

Another effective way to give employees an opportunity to relate valuable written information about themselves, management, and their peers is the use of self-appraisals. These can be performed using a simple written form.

Giving Employees Their Due

Award programs provide management with another effective tool for communicating its appreciation for employees. One such program is a service award program, which helps the company retain the best employees by recognizing their contributions to the overall success of the company. Service award programs build employee self-esteem, reinforce desired behaviors, and help to create and maintain an atmosphere of appreciation and trust. Although most such programs recognize length of service, they should also acknowledge quality of service.

Awards for length of service should be given at the conclusion of an employee's initial probationary period and after his or her first, third, fifth, tenth, and subsequent milestone anniversaries with the company. These awards may include small cash gifts, gift certificates, tickets to sporting events or theatrical performances, company merchandise, and jewelry. To maximize the positive impact of the awards, management should present them at company-sponsored events, such as annual holiday parties, summer picnics, etc. The presenter of the award should be a member of top management.

Numerous processes for selecting recipients of awards for quality of service exist. For example, management might form a committee of five to seven volunteers; in any event, hourly employees should comprise the majority of this committee's members. The committee should select employees from various departments and positions, and the awards should be based upon attendance, safety, team building, productivity, and other criteria deemed important within the corporate culture. Awards for quality of service should be of greater monetary value than those given for length of service.

Another category is the suggestion awards. On a monthly basis, management could select an important and topical issue about which to solicit employee suggestions. Management could ask, for example, how it and employees could work more effectively to reduce operating costs, reduce absenteeism, improve efficiency or productivity, or address other matters of mutual concern.

The suggestions would be reviewed by a committee of three to five people representing both management and hourly employees. Again, hourly employees should comprise the majority of this committee's members. Management representatives should be chosen by top management, but all the hourly employees should be volunteers. The committee should meet within seven days after the end of every month, or as immediately as possible, to review the month's suggestions. By majority vote, they should choose a winning suggestion. The author of the winning suggestion could receive a cash prize and a plaque with his or her name inscribed on it. At the end of the year, 1 of the 12 monthly suggestions could be chosen by management or a committee of management and employees as "suggestion of the year." The person who offered the suggestion should receive a larger cash prize and a special inscribed plaque, and have his or her photo placed in a special location where it could be seen by all employees.

Another part of a strategic communications action plan is the exit interview, which provides one of the best opportunities for management to gain candid appraisals of the company from departing employees. When an employee leaves a company, he or she is likely to feel free to voice candid concerns, opinions, and advice. During such interviews, management can learn a great deal about problems that an employee might have been hesitant to express while employed. One can garner valuable information about where a company must improve working conditions, where it needs to make changes in its corporate culture, and how to increase its own levels of trust and credibility. Such insights will ultimately serve to enhance levels of productivity and efficiency.

By not asking, not listening, not talking, not taking action, and not opening numerous channels of communication, companies will feed the adversarial relationships that lead to unionization and to slowdowns, walkouts, and strikes in companies where unions are already in place. A decreasing bottom line resulting from these actions will surely demonstrate the shortsightedness of not having a strategic communications action plan. Furthermore, that plan must be part of a company's overall business plan and, within that, its labor-relations plan. The communications plan should be audited every six to nine months or more often, if necessary.

The strategic communications action plan that I have described in this article is designed to break down adversarial relations and establish perceptions of management's goodwill. If followed, it will ensure years of increased productivity and profitability, with little or reduced labor strife. The positive results of this will go directly to the facility's profitability.

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