Why Nursing Homes Must Supplant the Role of Unions

To avoid unionization, management must act like a union when employee grievances arise

The number of unionized workers in the private sector continues to diminish, it is estimated that no more than a small fraction of the nongovernmental workforce is currently unionized. In order to maintain a productive nonunion workforce, however, the management of nursing homes and assisted living facilities needs to supplant the role that unions had played at an earlier time in Corporate America.

Unfortunately, not many nursing homes and assisted living facilities have managers trained to "supplant" unions, and that lack of training can be a significant detriment to a company's overall well-being.

Representing nursing homes in all facets of labor relations for the last 37 years, I help them by preparing their supervisory personnel to supplant the role of unions by not only maintaining productive workforces and high employee morale, but by minimizing the adversarial relationships that have historically existed between management and employees.

Throughout the history of unionized America, unions, foremost role was to listen to employees' grievances/complaints and then negotiate resolutions with management. In a non-unionized company, management itself must be on the firing line listening to needs, concerns, fears, and grievances/complaints of its employees and be prepared to resolve them equitably.

Alternative Dispute Resolution programs

It is essential that human resource (HR) executives be expert in administering alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs, of which there are many types. ADR programs are generally welcomed by both management and employees because they are cost-effective and swiftly arrive at fair resolutions. One obstacle, unfortunately, that I frequently encounter is management's fear of giving up its traditional power. Yet, by involving employees in the process, management will not be perceived as arbitrary or capricious. I always try to explain to management that by being proactive, rather that reactive, they create a general feeling amongst employees of inclusion, and that goes a long way to increasing productivity and morale.

While there are many ADR programs that I recommend as part of an overall proactive program, the three most common types are

  • Arbitration. This is an adjudication process during which a third party hears both sides of a dispute, weighs the evidence, and renders a decision. Both sides may agree prior to the commencement of arbitration that the arbitrator's decision will be binding, or they may agree that there could be an appeal to another body to reach a mutually acceptable decision.
  • Mediation. In this case, the third party does not render a decision, but facilitates open and ongoing communication that is designed to lead to a mutually acceptable settlement. In most cases, the mediator is an outside professional without the authority to render a decision.
  • Peer review. This is a representative adjudication process that relies upon a selected panel of managers and employees. A majority of the panel is required to render a binding decision. Peer review should not threaten management's perquisites, because in most cases employees will side with management.

If costs are incurred for the services of a mediator and/or arbitrator, management and the employee can agree to share these, which are nominal for the employee, or management can absorb the full costs. It is essential that both sides feel that decisions are equitable because it ensures a sense of fairness in the process.

So that all employees are aware of various ADR programs, management structures a policy of inclusion in which various forms of communication will play a pivotal role: newsletters, brochures, e-mails, company announcements on bulletin boards, and direct mail pieces inserted into pay envelopes or mailed to individual homes. Open communications should be used not only to inform employees of the program and of how it works, but should also be used to inform them of results.

ADR programs serve an important role in defusing and resolving employee grievances/complaints before they can grow and have manifestly negative effects on morale and productivity. In all of the programs that I have established for my clients, most grievances/complaints were resolved in ways that were fair to both management and to employees.

Focus Groups

When management successfully supplants the role of a union, it also undertakes one of the traditional roles of unions: listening closely to what employees think and feel about their jobs, their futures, their companies and its policies.

One of the best means of doing that is through focus groups, which provide management with significant and important opportunities to gather reliable and representative information about its workforce and their attitudes. Focus groups also permit management to communicate real issues through ongoing employee involvement.

A focus group, for example, might be formed so that management can impart new policy information about health care benefits, while learning about employee reactions to the new policy. To be successful in determining how employees feel and what course of action management should take, a focus group should be led by a person with the necessary interpersonal skills to ask the right questions and get specific information. To achieve that input, the company (often its HR director) should pick employee participants who will be direct in their responses and are representative of the workforce as a whole. It is important that as many employees as possible be invited to participate in focus groups, and their presence rotated as a means of increasing employee involvement.

It is also important that the purpose or goal of the focus group be established prior to inviting employee participation. Without a statement of purpose, the focus group could easily turn into a free-flowing conversation that aimlessly meanders from subject to subject. If the purpose of the group is to learn how employees feel about the costs of health insurance and how those costs should be borne and what variables an employee may choose, then the facilitator will want to ask questions and offer topics of discussion that will elicit valuable information so that management can make a thoughtful decision. Finally, design the questions to obtain the fullest and most informative answers that help the facilitators reach the stated goal of the focus group.

Throughout the focus group session, there should be opportunities for its members to have an equal amount of time to make their contributions. If the facilitator is not sufficiently in control of the group, one or two individuals may dominate the meeting, thus defeating the representative makeup of the group. If the group is to serve its stated purpose, each individual should be given sufficient time to state a point of view. By ensuring that every member of the group can make an equal contribution, the facilitator will be seen as a neutral party, rather than an advocate for management.

Focus groups explore and examine issues in a flexible manner that is part of an overall strategic plan; such groups are an effective means for collecting valuable data. That data, when it is analyzed, will be essential for management to make decisions that will meet the needs of its employees, thus maintaining high levels of morale and productivity. The results should be published as part of management's commitment to open communications with its employees.

Team Building

Focus groups lead to team building. While focus groups are exploratory, teams are the instruments that implement strategic plans that are designed to accomplish specific goals.

Historically, unions had created a sense of employees playing on the same team, a sense of employee solidarity. In today's complex work environment, management can create that same spirit of solidarity to accomplish commonly shared productivity goals and to solve important problems.

Teams can serve such purposes as the enhancement of communications and the resolution of conflicts, but teams are most effective as a means of 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. One need only look at various sports teams to see how valuable mutual cooperation is to winning. In successful corporations, no one is an individual sprinter, although individual initiative is extremely important to the overall success of a team and the achievement of its goals.

TEAM has come to be an acronym for "Together, Everybody Accomplishes More," and that helps to dissolve the us-versus-them adversarial relationship that unions have fostered to create leverage.

When teams of workers are formed, they can be banded together to accomplish specific tasks, and then re-formed to accomplish other tasks. Team membership should be flexible. As an athletic coach calls in new players to replace others in different situations, so management will re-constitute teams to solve different problems and to achieve higher goals of productivity.

To create effective teams, it is essential that management clearly determines what problems it hopes to address by the formation of a team. It is also important that all levels of management support the team(s). Finally, it is important that teams have the right mix of people to get a job done. The most effective teams are comprised of idea people, detail people, and facilitators. In other words, those who see the trees and those who see the forest.

Once teams have been established, it is important that they meet regularly to review their progress. They should keep team records and provide management with appropriate tracking tools. One individual should be chosen to report to management on the team's progress, its problems, and its day-to-day operations.


An essential spur for a team's success is having an effective coach. A coach is a counselor-not a disciplinarian. The coach encourages employees to do better, to accomplish more; the coach works to rehabilitate negative employee attitudes, emphasizing what's positive; the coach is not a punitive task master.

In fact, a successful coach in today's highly competitive workplace is similar to the coach of a winning sports team. The corporate coach does not have a whistle and game book, but the effective coach has the ability to inspire people to higher levels of productivity, to meet goals and to feel a sense of mutual commitment. The coach deals with poor performers and mentors team members so that they realize their 1 potential. Coaches inspire, motivate, and guide their teams. Such coaches should create high-energy climates that foster initiative and innovation. A team with an effective coach will not only reach all of a company's goals, but will do so rapidly and with a sense of a job well done.

Employee Advocate Representative (EAR)

As unions used to have shop stewards who represented the interests of the union members by reporting back to union officials, so today 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 by involving employees in a broad spectrum of management activities and decisions. When employees want to make their concerns available to management, the EAR listens and then voices its concerns to management. The EAR is both the ears and voice for the employees. The EAR Position may or may not be salaried and is held for a limited time. Once a term expires, another employee is either chosen or volunteers to be the EAR. To enhance a sense of employee inclusion, the EAR position should be filled by as many employees as possible. Such rotations ensure the greatest amount of employee inclusion, and the rotations further guarantee that no employee is perceived as a being a tool of management. In small companies, the EAR can work in that position for an hour or two each week.

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 which includes communicating productivity and quality issues to key personnel and assisting with and/or developing action plans, providing articles for the employee newsletter, and reviewing bulletin board communications, company letters and payroll stuffers. The EAR may also play a pivotal role in assisting management with training and quality control programs, while also serving on committees dealing with employee awards and activities.

If management implements the activities described in this article, it will have successfully supplanted the role that unions have played in the past, and it will do so without the negative aspects of unionization, such as strikes, walkouts, and an often pervasive atmosphere opposition. Management and employees can rise Up From Confrontation and create a workplace where Everybody Wins! (as I titled two of my books) and achieve new levels of mutual cooperation, profitability, and productivity.

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