Supplanting the Role of Unions

In order to maintain a productive non-union workforce, manufacturers need to supplant the role of unions. Unfortunately, there are not many managers trained to do so. That lack of training can be a detriment to a company's success.

In the past, the foremost role for unions was dealing with employee grievances/complaints. Where there is no union, management must create an "asking strategy" that comprises listening to needs, concerns, fears, and grievances/complaints of employees and be prepared to resolve them without discord. An "asking strategy" is an effective means for creating a policy that promotes employee inclusion.


It is essential that HR executives be expert in administering alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs ADR programs are generally welcomed by management and employees they are cost-effective and swiftly arrive at fair resolutions.

While there are many ADR programs, the three most common varieties are the following:

  • Arbitration, an adjudication process during which a third party hears both sides of a dispute; and weighing the evidence, renders a decision;
  • Mediation, involving a third party who facilitates open and ongoing communication that is designed to lead to a settlement that both sides will accept;
  • Peer review, an adjudication process that relies upon a selected panel of managers and employees, a majority of whom render a binding decision.

So that employees are aware of ADR process, management should structure the use of various types of communications, such as newsletters, brochures, e-mails, company announcements on bulletin boards, direct mail pieces in pay envelopes or mailed to homes.

ADR programs are important for defusing and resolving employee grievances/complaints before they can grow and have negative effects on morale and productivity.


When management successfully supplants the role of unions, it also undertakes to perform a traditional role of unions: asking and then listening to what employees say about their jobs, futures, companies and policies.

One of the best means of doing that is focus groups, which afford management important opportunities to obtain reliable information about workforce and attitudes.

A focus group, for example, might be formed so that management can impart new policy information about health care benefits, while learning about employee attitudes to the new policy. A focus group should be run by a person who has the interpersonal skills to ask the right questions and get specific information.

Focus groups examine issues in a flexible manner that is part of an overall strategic plan; they are an effective means for collecting valuable data.


Focus groups lead to team building. While the former are exploratory, teams are instruments for implementing strategic plans.

Teams serve to enhance communications and resolve conflicts, but are most effective for increasing productivity and enhancing employee morale. When it comes to meeting certain productivity criteria, for example, the entire team is mutually responsible for reaching those goals (TEAM is an acronym for "Together, everybody accomplishes more," which helps to dissolve adversarial relationships.)

When teams of workers are formed, they can be banded together to accomplish specific tasks, then reformed to accomplish other tasks. Management can reconstitute teams to solve different problems and to achieve higher goals of productivity.

To create effective teams, management should clearly determine what problems a team should solve. It is important that teams have a selection of the right kind of people to get a job done. The most effective teams are composed of idea people, detail people, and facilitators.

Once teams are established, it is important that they meet regularly, review their progress, keep records, and provide management with tracking tools. One individual should report to management.


As unions have shop stewards, non-unionized companies can have what is known as an Employee Advocate Representative (EAR). The EAR position is usually a trial assignment aimed at improving morale. The EAR is proactive, asking and listening, then imparting employee concerns to management. The EAR deals with workplace issues and the personal concerns of employees. The EAR position may or may not be salaried and is for a limited period of time.

The responsibilities of the EAR include providing input about employee issues and suggesting solutions at regular department meetings. In addition, the EAR may assist in promoting company communications. 

If management implements these activities, it will successfully supplant the role that unions had played in the past, and it will do so without the negative aspects of unionization.

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