Retention Vs. Recruitment: The Revolving Employment Door Dilemma:
Over the past few years while working with various clients and having casual conversations with industry friends, the topic that always surfaces to the top of the anxiety and frustration index is the employment dilemma of our current times. The conversation quickly reveals the clear organizational strain between HR and operations as to who is responsible for the latest employment debacle and what each division could/should be doing. For the purposes of this article I will limit the employment arena to the unskilled/semi-skilled labor market typically employed within the manufacturing and service industries as well as the hospitality and restaurant business sectors.
It is with some degree of amusement that I frequently hear our politicians in Washington, D.C. or from various State Houses’ say that we need to create more jobs. Yet talk to those living in the above-mentioned industries and you will hear they can’t find people who want to work. Drive through virtually any community and there are more “help wanted” signs including “open interviews today” signs than political signs in November. There is a litany of reasons behind this, but bottom line is that everyone is hiring. So it then goes without saying it is very challenging to hire good quality candidates with strong stay ability likelihood. In fact it has reached the point that it is all too common to hear operations as well as some HR people simply say, “Just hire me a warm body”. I find this statement to be one of the most derogatory and demeaning statements any organizational leader could make. Yet offensive or not it is a sign of our time. This statement is repeated many times daily throughout the industries that depend on unskilled/semi-skilled employees to get the required work completed. Unfortunately when the employment process gravitates to this level “warm bodies” are exactly what organizations get. Employment standards are lowered and the self-fulfilling prophecy takes precedence which says; Employees will quit anyways and so until proven otherwise we will invest only the minimum resources in them. This ultimately leads to many of them leaving, and the downward cycle continues. If any of this sounds familiar you are not alone, and in fact you are in the vast majority. But recruiting woes are only part of the equation. Depending on the business sector, each industry has a typical turnover or attrition norm. It is also common that many organizations judge their attrition rate against this norm, which in itself begs a serious self-reflection. When looking at attrition over the past few years most organizations, and especially those in the lower quartiles of pay, have seen the attrition numbers hit all time highs. For some the numbers are staggering, creating a multitude of organizational challenges ranging from safety and increased cost, to the quality and delivery of services or products. The much more difficult to remedy decrease in morale among employees, is frequently a missed yet highly impactful challenge as well. The turnover rates, including those within the staffing industry, have created a virtual vortex within organizations where everyone is running ragged and systems, policies, and programs are being aborted simply for the sake of getting the necessary work completed. Communication is eroded and the feeling of being valued, appreciated and cared about is almost nonexistent. All of which are symptoms of the current employment dilemma where the employees become the victims. Again, if this sounds familiar you are not alone. Yet rarely do I ever hear organizations discuss retention, as an equal culprit to poor recruiting.
Hiring Good Quality Candidates
So I ask the question, do you have a hard time hiring good quality candidates? The answer is always an exasperated “yes”. I then ask are you having an increase in turnover that is creating serious organizational issues? The answer, as you have already guessed, is always “yes”. Finally I ask, “What are you doing today that you were not doing three (3) years ago to retain your good employees”. Their facial expressions say it all. This unwillingness or unawareness to do things differently is exactly why they have a heightened turnover issue. It is true that some organizations and HR divisions have implemented some practices or activities to stem the turnover tide, but these are generally proving ineffective. My analogy is that the actual day-to-day work environment is the cake and the newly implemented activities to promote retention represent the icing. Too many organizations are trying to put icing on an unknown or nonexistent cake. The icing is great and I am fully supportive of policies and programs that reward retention, provided the day-to-day work environment promotes retention first. It is this insensitive and disconnected approach to the day-to-day life of employees, like the phrase “Let Them Eat Cake”, that is manifested in the failure to correct the true issues and concerns of employees. This sends mixed and confusing messages to employees ultimately causing them to look elsewhere for employment when plausible. It is the vortex of daily operations, that has become a “category 5” for many organizations. It is this employment dilemma that literally sucks everything and everybody in, leaving most to say, “I don’t know what to do.”
While there are exceptions to every rule, I have found most people do not leave a job solely for better pay – especially if the increase is minimal. So if money is not the sole motivator for most people to jump ship then why do they leave? If you have not asked this question then it is likely time to ask. As the old adage goes, “you cannot countermeasure that which you do not know”.
Get HR Analytics On It
HR analytics is finally now becoming a topic of interest; unfortunately in most organizations it is woefully weak and only minimally useful. Analytics related to the human side of every organization should be on par with the data gathering effort related to the analysis of quality, cost, productivity, etc. When I have looked at attrition data (rarely with any analysis included), it is extremely difficult to understand why employees are leaving. The data too often simply describes how someone left (quit, walked-off-the-job, no-show, etc.) and not why he or she left. If the data does include the why (another job, pay, treatment, etc.) it virtually never includes a “why-why” analysis to derive the actual root cause. If an organization does not have meaningful data backed up by in-depth analysis, how can any effective countermeasure to improve retention be implemented? Again, “you cannot countermeasure that which you do not know”. If we cannot countermeasure quality, safety, or cost issues without data and analysis, how can we expect to countermeasure turnover without the necessary data and analysis? Organizational leadership and HR will say they know why employees are leaving, but I have yet to find one who can specifically link the actual number of exits to an identifiable root cause. Without specifics it is far too easy to make excuses, deflect criticism or pass the blame – all of which retards the development of effective countermeasures. This in turn allows the vicious cycle of employee turnover to worsen. Equally troublesome is not clearly knowing why employees stay. What makes some stay while others leave? If an organization does not collect retention data and performs detailed analysis of the data it is very difficult to replicate the actions, programs, culture, etc. that are the reasons employees stay. Yet there is danger in this data analysis if not performed with a high degree of reliability. A company should not be making wholesale changes to policies and programs based on data that is less than credible. One final point is that like any discipline within an organization (finance, quality, safety, etc.) data related to the human side of the organization must be converted into meaningful information. Finance data may make sense to an accountant but not to someone else. Likewise HR related data must be converted to information that is “user-friendly” in order for the organization to grasp a clear understanding of the actual situation. The data must be meaningful to the people who are expected to act on it.
Recently, in looking at turnover data at a manufacturing organization attrition had significantly increased and a sizeable percentage of the workforce were working 7 days consistently. Unfortunately, not an uncommon scenario. Yet in looking at the data over 80% of the employees who left had less than one (1) year of service. Again not uncommon. Why were new employees leaving while longer service employees were staying even though they were exposed to the same work environment factors (overtime, plant conditions, treatment, etc.)? How many employees left because of the overtime, required due in part to the high turnover? No one knew these answers or the answers to a number of other pertinent questions, contributing to the worsening turnover. In case you may be wondering, one data point I did find was the most frequent age of those new employees leaving were not millennials, as you may have thought, but in the 30 to 40 year age range. This fact of course then led to why were they in this job market to begin with? I had my guesses but without data, they were only that – guesses. The point of data collection and analysis is to separate fact from fiction and myth from reality.
To dig deeper I explored why new employees were leaving at a significantly higher rate than longer-term employees at the above-mentioned organization. Pay was mentioned as one of the primary reasons but unfortunately, without any data to back up the statement it could not be accepted as a contributing factor. Further, if an employee joins an organization knowing the pay level, then why would they leave shortly thereafter because of pay? After all, the wage they were offered (and agreed to) was the wage they were paid. It was not as if they were promised a higher wage and then the company reneged with a lower wage come payday. They wouldn’t unless! This is where you must redefine the meaning of pay. It is not the quantitative side of pay, but the qualitative side that is at issue. Employment between employee and employer is a transaction that is subject to the value equation like any other business transaction. New employees were not leaving because of how much pay they received, they were leaving because the pay was not adequate to offset the work environment factors to which they were being exposed. The company’s offering (wages, benefits, work environment, etc.) was not a balanced transaction for the new employees’ currency (time, best effort, commitment). The new hires could afford to quit and start over somewhere else because they were not vested in the organization, whereas the longer service employees had attained a pay rate that would require them to take a sizeable pay reduction to go elsewhere and start over. If pay was blindly accepted as the reason for new employees leaving then the true root cause may not have been identified. Conversely to deduce from this that longer-term employees were staying because of pay, would not itself be entirely accurate – they were staying because they could not afford to quit and start over somewhere else. While the work environment factors were equally concerning the difference between the starting pay elsewhere, versus their current pay was the incentive to stay – which rapidly erodes long-term loyalty from an employee base. Unfortunately, here and across many organizations, employees actually mentally quit but stay on out of necessity. The focus on retention and turnover in this case should be one in the same. It is the contributing work environment factors that were causing employees to either want to leave but couldn’t or who did physically leave because they could. We could effectively “kill two birds with one stone” in this case.
Why Do Employees Really Leave?
Despite what some may think, organizations cannot buy themselves out of the employment dilemma. But they can do what almost no one else is doing. They can identify specifically why employees are leaving as well as why employees are staying and then leverage the positive and countermeasure the negative. Through proper analysis, countermeasures, and execution companies can begin to create and enhance a competitive advantage. If it is very difficult to hire good candidates then shouldn’t the focus be on retention? Why continue to fill a bucket that has a massive hole in the bottom? If you subscribe to this logic then the way to getting ahead begins with knowing the actual unfiltered situation even though the truth may hurt. Once the actual situation is known it will unleash the ability to know what to do and improvement will begin to take form. No longer will organizational leadership say: “I don’t know what to do”. Central to that improvement undertaking is ensuring the value equation is well understood, embraced and embodied within the organization.
The value equation is not about lowering accountability by expecting less of people or being more tolerant of poor performance – a sad reality for those organizations living in the employment dilemma vortex. It is actually about raising expectations and driving highly competitive performance. It is not about the work one does; it is about the actual employment environment in which one works – it is about the organization’s culture. The employees that are aligned with this thinking will embrace the high expectations and often exceed them.
Regardless of title, job or pay, I have always found people want to simply know three (3) things: Do you value me? – Do you appreciate what I do? – Do you care about me or only the end result of what I do? Getting the answers to these questions right does not need to cost any additional money, but all of which will drive world-class performance and significantly improve retention. If organizations’ would seek out the truth to these questions and then create plans to satisfy these emotional feelings, the majority of organizational challenges would vaporize and job candidates would be coming to seek employment. Leadership in organizations’ that are in business sectors where pay is in the lower quartiles or who utilize a high percentage of part-time employees may disagree. While it is true such organizations historically experience a higher turnover rate, this rate can be significantly improved in today’s employment environment by focusing on retention. An employee in a service industry, for example, moving to a significantly higher (15%+) paying employment opportunity, should be celebrated. The organization should take some credit for being a stepping-stone in the employee’s positive career trajectory. This outlook should promote others to do the same and serve as an example for wanting what is best for the employee. When an employee leaves to escape the organizational culture, within any workplace, it should drive organizational self-reflection and improvement. The qualitative side of pay says there is a non-financial value to working within an organization – how someone is treated, the degree of job security, opportunity for growth, sense of responsibility, the feeling of self-esteem, etc. Somewhere there is a shortfall in the value equation. While no one can put an exact price tag on the qualitative side of pay, as each person is different, it is possible to estimate with a good degree of accuracy. Assume for an example an employee is making $10.00 per hour, and nearby another organization is paying $10.50 per hour. If the employee feels their current qualitative pay value is worth $1.50 per hour there is a good chance they will not leave. However, if the perceived value is $0.25 per hour they may make the decision to leave. The overall worth of the value equation is largely dependent on the culture, environment, and policies of the organization. Pay is only part of the value equation but is most often the focus because it is the simplest part to understand and in the short term the easiest fix.
On a final note related to retention, it is far too common for organizations to lament over the turnover of new employees – especially those who last less than 30 days. There are always excuses why this problem cannot be confronted. “Excuse management” rules many organizations, allowing the self-fulfilling prophecy to be alive and thrive. Yet if new employee retention is a serious issue doesn’t it deserve serious attention? The successful organization will look the problem in the eye, understand it, and begin to countermeasure it.
The Onboarding Function
One area of the employment process that is often underappreciated and undervalued is the onboarding function. The relationship between a new employee and the organization is quite similar to most relationships in life. It is not deep or solid in the beginning. In fact, any small problem or disagreement could stop it before it ever gets a chance to mature. It is extremely important to get off on the “right foot” making sure that both company and employee feel a sense of mutual respect and commitment and be on the same page regarding expectations. Both must understand their part in the value equation. This is where onboarding becomes critical. Most onboarding programs I see essentially address the mechanics of transitioning a new hire into the organization. They are transactional based focusing largely on crossing the “T’s” and dotting the “I’s”. The programs consist of filling out paperwork, explaining rules and procedures, a cursory safety and quality orientation, and maybe a benefits explanation – an overwhelming and highly ineffective download. This is not exactly a, “we’re glad you’re here and we are going to have a great relationship for many years” kind of effort. A strong onboarding plan should start at the pre-employment phase and last at least 4 weeks post-employment followed by structured touch-points throughout the 1st year of employment. The onboarding program should be less policy focused and more employee-valued focused. It is that one (1) opportunity every organization has to introduce new employees into their organization in a way that drives commitment from the start.
The revolving door of recruitment vs. retention has a virtual strangle hold on many organizations, driving increasing cost and lower overall performance. While there is no single solution, doing nothing to strengthen retention has yet to prove to be an effective strategy. The challenge is not developing and implementing plans based on reliable data analysis. The real challenge is getting organizational leadership to truly buy-in and embrace a strategic approach to improved employee retention. If this was not the true challenge, leadership would not answer, “NOTHING” when asked what they are doing differently now versus 3 years ago to address turnover.
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.