The key to avoiding unions is making them unnecessary.

This article was originally published in Forbes on February 15, 2022.

If we were writing this article in 1990, it might begin with a trendy quote, something like Newton’s Third Law of motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Speaking of the ‘90s, not much in management’s union-avoidance playbook has changed in 30 years. And that’s made employers extremely vulnerable to unionization.

On December 9, 2021, for the first time in the company’s fifty-year history, workers at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, voted to unionize. This decision was a landmark moment for the large corporation–and an alarm bell for others. Dozens of other locations have already begun considering unionization.

This brings me back to Sir Isaac Newton. His third law is the physics equivalent of a phrase often uttered by labor relations professionals: “A company gets the union it deserves.”

Paraphrasing Newton’s law, in every interaction there is a pair of forces acting. In the case of employee experience, the character of the forces exerted by the employer on their employees will be matched equally by the manner in which the union conducts its representation.

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Why do employees unionize?

Unionization campaigns are the last-ditch effort of employees who feel ignored, disrespected, unheard, and unappreciated; exasperated people seeking rescue from what they perceive as a hopeless situation in their relationship with their company.

 

A tired playbook.

Management’s tactics in the face of a union organizing campaign are so predictable that unions distribute “bingo boards” containing tired tropes employees can expect to hear. Imagine employees standing up in a meeting to shout “Bingo!” to the chagrin of embarrassed and confused managers.

This response developed because companies have consistently pulled tactics from the same old playbook: hold mandatory, anti-union meetings; post anti-union materials, make insinuations about layoffs; sow doubt and division among employees; denounce unions in daily interactions; interrogate employees about their views; and other statements and actions that indicate management has not paid attention to its relationship with employees.

These tactics are disappointing because they rely on fear and illustrate a disturbing reality: the organization considers employees the adversary. While this mindset may be unintentional, under prolonged pressure, belittling stereotypes can seep into managers’ viewpoints. Before long, this subconscious perspective begins to color the way they think, speak, and act toward employees.

These criticisms are not meant to skewer management’s concerns. Unionization often poses distinct disadvantages to companies, including the loss of organizational agility. The uniformity imposed on the company damages its ability to make key exceptions, which can hurt high performers as well as employees in unique personal circumstances. Aspects of union contracts such as seniority can also be unpopular among employees, and can make organizations uncompetitive in the labor market. These are real impediments that can place a heavy drag on the business trajectory.

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Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of traditional union-avoidance is how reactive it is. Suddenly, a herculean effort is made to devote time to communicating with employees. The irony is that employing a fraction of that energy early on could have avoided the situation. Another apt quote? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

 

An emotional commitment.

A unionization campaign is the result of an emotional disconnection between employer and employee. Emotional connection may sound like a lofty goal, but there are steps you can take to establish a strong bond between your organization and your people.

Employees invite unions into their workplace when they feel ignored, disrespected, unheard, and unappreciated. Prevent that by creating an environment where employees feel consistently informed, respected, heard, and appreciated.

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Mindset shift.

Acting from a place of negativity (even fear) can derail managers into a pessimistic and controlling mindset, which is exactly what disengages their workforce.

If not through tighter control, how can a leader guarantee the results they’re held accountable for? Breaking away from control requires them to stop thinking that their job is to manage people. Their real job is to manage systems.

View employees as a key part of a system. A manager’s role is to do everything possible to avoid interference with employees’ activities; with a broad responsibility to prevent problems from reaching people. Then, employees feel trusted, are freed up to do what they do best, and the organization becomes something personally important to them.

 

Stop insulating employees.

When employees feel leadership is out of touch, it’s because leadership has insulated their employees from the business.

A survey by Slack identified that 66 percent of executives create plans with “little to no” input from employees. A 2017 Harris Poll indicated that 91 percent of employees feel leaders do not communicate effectively about the business. The majority believed the reason is executives’ failure to make time to speak with employees.

Leaders must maintain daily dedication to sharing information, which is what employees expect.

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Buy-In through listening.

In order for employees to buy into the organization, they must feel their input is thoroughly considered. Establishing routine practices for input is key so employees not only support decisions made, they enact them.

Appreciation and recognition

Celebrating wins is incredibly important to foster a performance culture and drive trust. Making a big deal about the right behaviors on a frequent and predictable basis is an excellent way to display an organization’s values and demonstrate that leadership aligns words with actions.

Trust in practice

There’s a lot of buzz about trust, but the definition is hazy. In this context, trust means an employer’s actions consistently signal trust in its people. This looks like challenging people, granting them discretion in their work, intentionally building relationships, facilitating whole-person growth, and showing your employees a healthy level of vulnerability. These are non-negotiables when it comes to demonstrating the kind of trust that drives unshakable commitment to your organization.

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