When President Biden became the first sitting President to join strikers on the picket line, he did so with confidence that his presence there would not harm his chances for reelection. That is because unions are more popular today than they have been in more than 50 years. To some, it may seem odd that modern workers are turning to antiquated approaches to achieve workplace goals – but they are – and the recent success achieved by the United Auto Workers in negotiations with the big three automakers only enhances the sense of union empowerment. Employers need to carefully consider our place in history and explore new approaches if they wish to maintain a union-free workplace – or a positive relationship with unions should organization occur. Here are a few ideas.
Be authentic. Employees today live in a “fake” world. Social media and politically driven news cycles spin facts with such alacrity that no one trusts anyone anymore. Consequently, today’s workers possess a remarkable ability to spot a phony. Be sure you are not phony. Whatever you do, do it with real intent – meaning you cannot make empty promises or lame excuses. Don’t tell employees the budget won’t support higher wages and then spend millions on executive pay. Instead, just be honest about challenges facing your company, opportunities you are exploring, and options you are considering.
Listen – really listen. Employee engagement must be more than an “open door policy” and Friday socials. What do your employees really want? Do you know? If not, you are not listening enough. Surveys are important, but if you really want the scoop, get down in the trenches with your workers, work with them, and while you do, listen to gain understanding. Consider the power of this affirming statement by an executive working side by side with a laborer: “So, if I understand correctly, you are saying we can save money by…” Find ways to listen like that.
Make work important. Today’s workers want more than a paycheck – they want work they can be proud of. Find ways to empower workers by showing them the importance of each thing they do. If you have never heard about “job design” go figure it out. There is good evidence that the number one reason for employee satisfaction is not wages or benefits – but a feeling of belonging – the sense that “I am needed.”
Tear down the labor/management wall. Today’s workers don’t believe in traditional roles – like the divide between labor and management. Today’s workers want leaders and successful organizations develop good leaders. Undoubtedly, the most effective leaders in the workforce don’t sit behind closed doors. Get out there, know your team, listen.
Think about new approaches. Traditional approaches to union avoidance look a lot like a battle plan complete with spies (though you would never call them as much), captains and propaganda. The resulting conflicts are not only costly, but the battle leaves scars and hostilities that are hard to heal. Labor experts are beginning to recognize that yesterday’s approach may not work with today’s workers. The underlying concepts are the same (employees want to be heard – listen) but the approach needs to be proactive and open rather than reactive and secretive. Microsoft adopted just such an approach when the Communications Workers of America proposed to organize its ZeniMax unit in June 2022. The company announced a neutrality policy, explaining that it was taking a long-term constructive approach to union activity. The approach has resulted in two organized units at Microsoft so far, but it seems the resulting relationship is collaborative rather than combative and the vast majority of Microsoft employees have not attempted to organize. No doubt it is a brave new world, but the early results seem promising; Microsoft’s shares have increased from $256 to $361 per share during the same period.