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What Should An Employer Do When It Learns Employees Are Unhappy

Union Organizing Article Series William A. Walden

Today I learned that my employees are unhappy with management and some have made comments that maybe a union could help them. What now? For many employers, this experience takes management by surprise and creates a sense of panic. In our previous article, and first of this five-part series, we noted the increase in union organizing efforts and discussed the key role that workplace policies can have during organizing campaigns. This installment focuses on strategies for when you learn you have employees who are not happy and you are concerned that this unhappiness may develop into a union organizing drive.

Despite the prominence of unions in the media and politically, the percentage of U.S. private sector employees in unions remains relatively low (under 10% in 2017). Experience teaches that when employees seek the assistance of a union, they do so because they feel ignored or stonewalled by management on issues of concern. With this in mind, consider your employees’ interest in a union as a symptom of an underlying employee relations issue—which you can potentially fix through active engagement with your employees.

Your first step, once you learn that your employees may have an interest in union organizing, is to diagnose the specific employee relations issues. We outline below some of the best practices that employers have taken to figure out these issues and address them before a union petition is initiated, including, investigating and attempting to understand the issues causing employee dissatisfaction, conveying understanding of those issues, and then responding to them. The employer can and should also provide the employees with a platform through which they can communicate ongoing issues to management.Note that the steps below can also be taken without any notice of interest in a union in order to create a work environment less likely to result in interest in a union in the first place.

Best Practices for Diagnosing the Employee Relations Issue

  • Create a platform for employees to voice their immediate concerns. You have several formal and informal ways of inviting employees to express their immediate concerns. For some employers, the most direct and effective method may involve the management team engaging in informal conversations with non-management employees. Employers needing a more formal approach, perhaps because of the size of the workforce, could schedule town hall meetings where one or two members of the management team meet with employees or join a video conference with larger groups of employees. Employees can drive the agenda at these meetings, either by submitting issue items beforehand or proposing topics of conversation at the meeting. Once the meeting adjourns, management should prepare a communication to the employees thanking them for attending and also memorializing the topics of discussion and any pertinent action steps. Besides these direct conversations, you can also create mechanisms for employees to submit concerns via an online portal or something as simple as suggestion boxes at the workplace. These repositories create a platform for the employee who wants to submit a concern anonymously or who wants to submit a concern at a time when a member of management is not available for discussion. One cautionary note if you know that employees are actually organizing a union, you will want to consult with legal counsel prior to making any changes to work conditions in order to assure that such changes will not run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act.

  • Develop a sustainable system for ongoing dialogue with employees. Don't stop your efforts to encourage communication after your initial efforts. You want to reassure employees that the dialogue about their concerns will continue. So if you initiated suggestion/comment boxes or town hall meetings, you might announce to employees that the box will remain in place indefinitely or meetings will recur on a periodic basis. Informal meetings between individual managers and employees could continue through a formal Open Door program, where employees can approach a manager about issues anytime.

  • Communicate and emphasize the benefits of working for your organization. At the same time you address employee concerns, you also want to highlight the positive features of your working environment, including existing pay, benefits, advancement opportunities, and work perks.

Basic Ground Rules for Engaging with Employees

Effective employee engagement involves the key best practice themes of communication, education, information sharing, and employee involvement. Avoiding contact with non-management personnel can do more harm than good. Instead, active listening, candid conversation, and positive responses always lay the groundwork for a better long-term relationship between the employer and employees.

Conversation, however, does not mean confrontation. The employer should focus on the issues rather than launching a dragnet in the workplace and sniffing out individuals behind employee dissatisfaction. Targeting individuals with interrogations and threats can expose the company to liability under the National Labor Relations Act. You also want to look closely at any employment-related actions you may consider against employees whom you know have expressed interest in unionizing. Those actions can give rise to a retaliation charge with the National Labor Relations Board, and you want to take any such actions consistently and with guidance from legal counsel.

Conclusion

Most of us have heard that the 3 critical elements of real estate are location, location, and location. In employee relations, the keys are to listen, figure out the problems, communicate, and take action to address what's bothering the employees. Once two-way communication is established and a process to resolve issues is outlined, employees begin to develop a sense that their employer is fair and responsive to their concerns. When employees feel they can speak up, and their concerns about wages, hours, and/or conditions of employment will be understood and acted upon, they become much more likely to bring their concerns forward and less likely to feel the need to bring a third party, such as a union, into the relationship. A supervisor who doesn't listen or takes no action can be poisonous not only to employee morale and performance but also to the employer. Employers who follow up on employees' concerns in a fair and consistent manner will lead employees to rightfully believe they don't need a third party such as a union to assist them in the workplace.

For employers with questions about union organizing, please call your local Quarles & Brady attorney or contact: