Union Awareness Starts Before the Organizer Arrives

By Bernard J. Ruesgen, SPHR Jan 2, 2009

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of question-and-answer columns from members of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Labor Relations Special Expertise Panel. Have a question for the panel? Send it to steve.bates@shrm.org.

Q: My employees are not currently represented by a labor organization, but I’m concerned about the discussion over the impending Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) legislation. Is there anything that we can do as a company to help reduce our potential as an organizing target?

A: First, I would not worry immediately over the potential for Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) legislation. President-elect Obama has many items to occupy his new administration, and EFCA action will likely not be his first priority.

There are things an employer can do to reduce their potential as a target for union organizing. Key to this is creating a work environment that fosters the fair treatment of employees and that engenders trust in management. This does not mean trying to “be all things to all people” or becoming an industrial democracy where decisions are made by committee. You must accept that you cannot make everyone happy all of the time. It is also important not to surrender your traditional management rights (i.e., those decisions that lie at the core of entrepreneurial control). That said, there are two easy things you might want to consider to help “inoculate” yourself and reduce your potential as an organizing target: roundtable discussions and management training.

Roundtable Discussions

Hosting one-hour, monthly employee “roundtable” discussions is a great way to give employees a voice and an opportunity to express their concerns. These meetings can reveal great opportunities to improve your business. Start with a balanced, representative sampling of your employees selected from various areas or departments. You should have different employees each month to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to participate. In the meeting, rotate through the employees, giving each an opportunity to ask one question at a time. Continue the rotation until the hour is over to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate.

The key is to not limit the questions to topics such as “safety concerns” or “ways to improve.” Employees need to be able to ask challenging questions about their wages, benefits, hours and terms and conditions of employment. They need to be able to challenge the fairness of management decisions in a structured format. Meeting notes should be taken, with the resulting questions and answers being typed and posted for all employees to see. Candid, honest and well-thought-out answers that are free of emotion will help build employee trust.

These meetings should never be enacted in response to an organizing effort, as that might be construed as an unfair labor practice in such a situation. If you are committed to the practice of communicating with employees through individual and group meetings on a continuing basis it can be an effective program. Employees who feel that their problems and complaints are being heard and addressed by management consistently are less likely to seek outside, third-party assistance.

Management Training

Ensuring that your management is trained in the proper handling of employee relations is critical. This is especially important for frontline personnel who supervise employees directly. These individuals must be trained on the fair treatment of employees. Employment decisions, such as hiring, terminations, job assignments, promotions, performance appraisals and discipline, must be based on substantive job-related factors that can be documented. Each supervisor should be trained in the different types of prohibited discrimination and harassment. Further, they should have a solid, functional understanding of the Family and Medical Leave Act, as well as a basic understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act and state law protections for people with disabilities in the workplace.

Finally, supervisors need to understand how to perform fair and impartial investigations and act on situations that might result in discipline or termination. Objective fairness is critical in these areas, and supervisory training can have an immediate impact. Obviously, this list of recommended training for supervisors is not exhaustive, but it provides a starting point that can help reduce your organization’s exposure to outside interference.

Bernard J. Ruesgen, SPHR, is corporate group human resource manager—Training and Logistics—the Sports Authority in Englewood, Colo. A member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Labor Relations Special Expertise Panel, Ruesgen has developed and executed strategies that reduce costs, strengthen operations through human capital development, and ensure compliance and minimize litigation. He holds a M.S. in management from Regis University in Denver and a B.S. in political science from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.


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