In recent years the business leadership community has watched the evolution of the National Labor Relations Board from being the generally non-partisan group as it was originally intended to the decidedly pro-union muscle that it has become with every new board appointment. If you’re on the Right, this development is a source of alarm. If you’re on the Left it’s a source of empowerment. Regardless of your politics, if you’re a business owner or leader, the increasing imposition of the NLRB into day-to-day people management is a source of concern.
But, despite all the clamor in either direction, the NLRB really doesn’t have to play a significant role in your business. And that’s what we’re going to talk about here.
The on-again-off-again NLRB posting requirements reminding employees that they have the right to organize a union may very likely become reality this year. For business leaders who want to keep their workplaces union free, the NLRB regulation that they post these notices where they can be seen every day is akin to being forced by the government to testify against themselves. And for business leaders who are unsure of their workplace culture and their employee loyalty that can be very upsetting.
Here’s what you do: Consider the recent NLRB delay in implementing that posting requirement as your opportunity to create the workplace culture that fosters employee loyalty and enthusiasm for your company’s mission. Strengthen your workplace culture and your relationship with your employees using the four pillars I’ve outlined below. And then you could festoon your workplace with NLRB notices like Happy Birthday banners if you wanted to (or if the NLRB forced you to), and your people will still stand by you when given their newly informed right to organize.
Result: A positive, competitive, and healthy workplace culture where your employees know that you respect and care about them. And, in return, they care about owning their role in working together to make your enterprise prosperous. Everybody wins. And isn’t what this whole thing is supposed to be about anyway? (This is where you say, “yes.”)
Let’s get started.
Pillar 1: Issues Management
Know what your employees’ workplace legitimate concerns are. No workplace is perfect; so you can be sure that there’s something important that you can resolve. I call this the Should Be/Reality Theory. How should things be? And what are they in reality? Identify those elements and get them fixed.
Ask yourself: “What can a union do for our employees that we’re not doing?” It’s an easy question to ask, yet a hard one to answer. You may be tempted to respond, “Nothing.” But then you can count on this future reality: Anything you don’t fix now and willingly, a union will make a promise to fix later. Identify and resolve or manage those concerns important to employees and you’ve eliminated any reason for an employee to have interest in joining a union.
Pillar 2: Communication
One of the main reasons why employees are receptive to joining a union is that they don’t trust that their leaders care about them. An effective communications program that informs and equips your employees to understand your business and trust the decisions you make will help prevent outside sources from filling their minds with harmful interpretations of what’s going on.
Help them understand the nature of the business they are all in. Show them how their company is impacted by the economic environment. Explain the business rationale behind all the business developments – even the most painful choices management has to make.
Wrap all your communications around consistent themes, such as, “We secure our own future. No one else can.” Or messaging around global competition or community prosperity.
Never assume that your workforce just knows that the management is committed to their best interest. The general tenor throughout the United States right now is that people can’t trust corporate America or its commitment to its people. You have to actively build on your own commitment to your people and take every opportunity to show them that they can trust their company.
One question that I get frequently is, “If we started communicating now, with all the NLRB hubbub going on, wouldn’t that look disingenuous?” Yes it probably would. Solution: Cop to the fact that you recognize that management has been neglectful in actively communicating with your people. And things are going to change right here and now.
Pillar 3: Empowered Management
There will always be a contingent of your workforce that is attracted to the idea of unions and organizing your workplace. Roughly that would be about 10% of your people. The problem is that companies typically design their policy manuals and mold leadership behaviors to cope with that 10% — which are almost always the least valuable employees in terms of contributing true value to your enterprise.
In the pursuit of fairness or avoiding charges of discrimination, unfair labor practices or disparate impacts claims, leaders unintentionally disenfranchise the other 90% of your workforce – those people who are most likely to be high-value employees.
Empower your management to make decisions wisely and with respect to individual circumstances. Give them the flexibility and independence they need to do the right thing by all your employees.
Will you get hit with complaints from the 10% that they’re being treated unfairly? You can count on it. But a charge or allegation doesn’t mean that your leadership has been unfair. Release your leadership to do the right thing across the board and you will keep your most valuable talent on your side. But if you practice defensive management just to keep the 10% appeased (which you know they never really will be), you risk losing the passion and commitment of your top 90%.
Pillar 4: Pride
In any organization, it’s difficult to be enthusiastic or supportive of any initiatives or quality if you don’t have pride in the work you do – and why you do it. If you don’t have pride in the organization, you’re not likely to care what happens to it. And you’re certainly not going to be overly concerned about what happens in an organizing campaign.
Fostering a sense of pride among your employees is critical to achieving the excellence that will differentiate your offerings from your competitors’. So for that reason alone, pride is an essential business tool for your entire workplace to install and then cultivate. It will keep your people mission-focused and loyal to your company, no matter what external circumstances may be thrown their way.
As the leader, frontline to CEO, you have to be the cheerleader to help your people understand why they can have pride in not only what they do, but also in the entire organization and what it means to the community. Whatever it is that your company does or makes, it has an impact on people’s lives. The better your people are, the better the impact they’re going to have. And the more they deserve to be reminded of that fact.
And the more they’re reminded of that fact, the more likely they will be to stand up for your enterprise in the face of outside interference.
A final word: You can’t lose a union election that you never have. If you’re already doing the right things, NLRB regulations won’t have any impact on your ability to keep your organization union free. The only organizations that are going to suffer negative impacts of the ever-strengthening NLRB are the ones that either don’t care about their people or don’t know how to help their people experience that passion their leaders have for their well-being.
They are the ones that need to worry.
You create the right environment where your people know you care about them and will actively address their concerns. And your people will take care of your enterprise in return.
You’re in HR. So surely you’ve heard that truism that people don’t leave their companies, they leave their bosses. While there are contrarians out there who consider it fashionable to “debunk” that belief, you know better from practical experience. Nothing will disenchant and then disengage a hard-won high performer faster than working for a poor leader or manager. Someone focused on the end results of what people do versus the people who create the results. Anyone come to mind?
So we know this to be a truth based on our own first-hand experience. And so we try training our managers. Things improve a little bit for a little while. But then your talent retention becomes a front burner issue again. And then we provide more training, starting the cycle all over again.
You’re the one who feels the pain more than anyone else in the organization – and probably more often. But the good news is that because as the HR leader who touches all aspects of your organization and its culture, you also have the most power to implement some core changes that will slow down that cycle and then stop it altogether. The power is yours.
Here’s what you do:
Consider your SEQCDM
Every organization has these components: Safety, Environmental, Quality, Cost, Deliverables and Management. And, especially now when the economy is so dicey, any organization will naturally slide in the favor of putting Deliverables, Cost, and Quality before Management. As the HR leader, it’s your job to constantly keep nudging the Management component higher up the organization’s priority list. You know the bottom line benefits of good management behaviors. But your fellow leaders may need to be reminded. By you. And frequently. Where does Management actually show up in your organization’s list of priorities? How many notches up that list can you move it by reminding your leaders that high-performer retention is crucial for all the other priorities to be met?
Reconfigure your managers’ priorities
This will take tremendous courage on everyone’s part, especially when keeping their jobs has been on everyone’s mind (including your own?) in recent years. The pressures of an increasingly litigious society, decreasing market opportunities, a contraction in the job market have eroded personal career confidence and caused managers everywhere to make Number One Priority One. If talent retention is top on your own priority list, the time has come to encourage your managers to put themselves third on their own list of priorities – after the interests of the company and after the needs of their people.
Teach your managers to be aware of the gaps between what should be and what reality is
Disenfranchised high performers are acutely aware of how things should be (your company’s culture, its practices, the way its leaders treat their people) and what the reality really is in terms of their day-to-day experiences. Have your managers gotten into the habit of assuming everything is fine by their people because no one is complaining? It could be that no one is complaining to them. If your people aren’t busy raising legitimate concerns it could be because they’re busy quitting – either in fact (looking for a new job) or in place (sticking around, doing the minimum, and infecting the rest of your workplace with their malaise). Your managers are either your front-line buffers (protecting their own jobs by keeping senior leadership in the dark about the truth of your corporate culture) or your reporters – giving you the intelligence you need to cultivate a culture that helps you keep the talent you want.
Managers who have become accustomed to covering their backsides by keeping the truth of the should be/reality gap from senior leadership will need your support and encouragement. Reward them for their awareness. Make sure they are not punished for delivering unwelcome truths. Your own behavior will give them the courage they need to develop into true talent-retention partners.
Teach your managers to make management decisions the right way
Have your managers become over-reliant on policy manuals and rules? You know the signs. They come to you with increasing frequency, asking for a rule or policy about this incident or that possible infraction. They have gotten out of the habit of thinking for themselves, or using independent judgment, which is the true job of a manager. They confuse the concepts of fair or equal treatment with the right thing to do.
Think about it: Your policy manual, which is a necessary organizational foundation component, was actually written to anticipate the management challenges of your poorest performers. Your best people don’t need all the minutiae detailed in your policy manual to do their jobs well and responsibly. And laboring under such a heavy millstone of rules sucks the life and passion out of any top performer – especially your managers themselves. Managing purely by policy is managing to the organization’s lowest expectations.
Liberate them from the minutiae. Give them the training and leadership they need to be able to confidently pry their own fingers off the policy manual. Give them the chance and encouragement to think independently when it comes to making case-by-case judgments about the challenges their people present to them.
If you’ve hired and promoted well from the beginning, you’ll have managers who know how to do the right thing by their people. And your top performers will respect the logic behind what might appear to be actionable disparate treatment in the eyes of your bottom 10%.
Will the right thing make you more subject to litigation than “equal treatment”? Probably. But if you’re running the people side of your organization with avoiding lawsuits as your number one priority, you will go bankrupt. If running a competitive, successful organization staffed by high performing people who are committed to staying is your priority, litigation might be in your future. Take heart in knowing that an unfair labor practice charge or lawsuit is not a bad thing. It’s the cost of doing business in a society that is increasingly encouraging low-performers to regard themselves as management victims. A bad unfair labor practice charge or lawsuit is a bad thing.
As long as you’ve done the right thing, and you’ve taught your managers to do the right thing by using their wisdom and independent judgment, you may end up dealing with litigation now and then. (But you probably would anyway.) But your organization will be a better, stronger, more competitive organization as a reward for the risk you and your managers take.
Free your managers up to develop authentic relationships with their people
If you want an environment where adults bring their best, most responsible selves to work and pull together in the name of company competitiveness, you must have strong relationships. The workplace is nothing but a network of relationships. All relationships require the same things to thrive: mutual support, trust, communication, and real caring that can be freely expressed without fear of misinterpretation.
If an employee under stress needs a hug, your managers should feel free to provide that hug if they want to, without fear of a charge of unwelcome attention. If a manager knows that an employee is struggling with substance abuse or a pressing family crisis, why wait until that employee’s performance suffers before the issue is addressed in a corrective action context? Why compound the original problem with job stress? Strong relationships will free your managers up to help their people before a personal crisis also becomes a job security crisis.
It is in this context of strong relationships and the trust that arises from these relationships that inspires people to be dedicated and innovative (and therefore competitive). And it’s safe to share the bad or hard news, soon enough to be able to do something about it. (And therefore prosper in business, staffed with those top performers who would never dream of putting their resumes into circulation.)
Teach your managers to engage the heads, hearts and hands of your top performers
This article has been about developing your managers to retain your cherished high performing talent. So let’s think for a minute what makes up a high performer? Someone who goes above and beyond the job description to contribute energy, and thought, that so-called “discretionary effort,” to the work at hand. No matter what the job is (a factory worker or CFO), discretionary effort necessitates that a person’s head, hands and heart are all incorporated into their work. Are your managers trained and encouraged to open their conversations with their people to encompass all their skills, passion, and work-related time to the benefit of your company? Or have they gotten into the habit of limiting their best performers according to job description, roles and responsibilities? Your best people may be bored and frustrated. Teach your managers to discover and tap into all their potential and desire to throw their lot into the mission of your company. Or teach them to love sourcing and interviewing candidates to replace them.
HR leaders who have been paying attention have been noticing that unions are looming larger in their operating decisions than in recent memory. True, the argument can be made that their membership numbers in the private sector are still historically low. But unions are drawing their strength and power from new sources – namely union-friendly political administrations on both the state and national levels.
While the prospect of union interference itself can only be bad news to most employers, unions can help you make your workplace an even better place to work. Not through collective bargaining and contractual strong-arming. But by showing you where you can improve your culture and give your people what they need, want and deserve in advance of organizing activities. During my role as the head of HR for Honda of America Manufacturing, we kept our organization – and our suppliers – union-free (even through multiple organizing campaigns) by actually using union strategies and promises as ways to improve our own operations. So they won’t have to.
The one question that makes all the difference: For instance, the most important thing we did – repeatedly – was to ask ourselves, “What can the unions do for our people that we’re not already doing?” We would force ourselves to override the kneejerk answer: “Well, nothing.” And then we’d search for ways we could improve our people’s work experience. One of the areas, for instance, that unions had the advantage over us was the employees’ recourse for appeal in the event they were separated. While the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) union offered a formal arbitration appeal process that gave employees a second chance at saving their jobs, we didn’t. So, we designed one.
And we made ours better than the UAW’s. Where the UAW used third-party arbitrators, we used a randomly selected panel of the separated employee’s peers to hear out the employee’s case and make the final decision. Of course, the UAW criticized this approach thoroughly, calling it a “kangaroo court,” thinking that it was criticizing Honda. But it was actually belittling the very people it wanted to bring on board as members.
Beating the unions at the “us/them game”: Unions also offer employees a sense of belonging – a way to identify with a group that’s larger, more powerful than they are individually. “Us/them” is a powerful dichotomy. We recognized that. So what did we do? We made the UAW the “them.” The “us” was all of us within Honda.
Here’s how we did it:
Everyone wears white: We all had the exact same uniform. Specially designed white shirt and pants. From CEO on down, the uniform was the same. That visual reminder that we were all members of the same team reinforced the organizational value that we were all equally important to the company and its success.
We used our vocabulary as a unifying tool: Every culture has its own vocabulary that sets outsiders apart from insiders. We could allow the UAW to set the terms, literally, claiming our employees for their own through their messaging. Or, we could build a proverbial wall around our people by the words we chose to use to create a sense of unity and a respectful, inclusive culture. For instance, the UAW called our people employees, we called them associates. They would say discipline, but we would say corrective action. Consequently, every time the UAW would send out a communication using their vocabulary, they immediately set themselves apart as outsiders. So what did they do? They launched a campaign ridiculing our terminology. Which only made them seem petty and unprofessional. And it revealed their real mission – which was to attack the company – rather than any mission of representing their members’ best interests.
Likewise, Honda was never “the” company, it was always “our” company. It belonged to all of us, and we were all equally important to its competitiveness and success.
We didn’t talk in “third party” terms: Unions love to talk about themselves as the “third party,” which implies that inside the company there are two parties: evil management and victimized workers. But to all of us at Honda, there were only two groups: us (all of us, one team, at Honda) and them, the “outside party.”
Followers of the Honda’s success in staying union free would be surprised to hear that I’m not universally anti-union. If unions are the only way for some employees can get the respectful treatment and safe conditions they need to do their best work, then their particular companies deserve to be organized.
But most importantly, employers can take a proactive position on their own, without waiting for the push to come from that outside party. Give your people the respect they deserve, the sense of belonging that they need, and the fair compensation they earn, and you’ve beaten the unions at their own game.