Hoping to get rid of unions?

You’ll need an employee relations plan to turn your shop around

You can’t decide to operate without a union. That’s up to employees. HR, however, can certainly set the stage.

Decertification is a result of employees — not management — deciding they no longer require union representation. Therefore, decertification is an employee-initiated process.

Even though successful decertification proceedings are becoming more and more common, setting the process in motion, especially in an entrenched union environment, requires one of the most committed changes in management paradigms that an organization will likely go through. The challenge is to create a workplace that convinces employees that the union is no longer required. This new culture must be based on strategically implemented positive employee relations initiatives that literally reset the labour relations landscape.

This sought-after cultural metamorphosis may start with a union-management environment relationship that’s characterized by:

•excessive control by management;

•reduced productivity;

•diminished work quality;

•poor communication;

•job dissatisfaction;

•large number of grievances;

•unscheduled downtime;

•tense working relations; and

•generally poor morale.

Do these sound familiar? While certainly not the environment that management strives to achieve, this situation may have evolved due to managers’ lack of awareness, lack of long-term perspective and insatiable quest for money or more power — in a word, greed.

The business systems, policies, practices and procedures are rigidly documented. And the day-to-day operational management is numbers- and control-oriented. The processes are all task-driven.

Most businesses attempt to deal with and treat employees similar to the way the rest of the business is run. Ultimately this leads to the assumption that everyone will follow established policies, practices and procedures without disagreement, disloyalty or dissension.

Here lies the disconnect: the seeds of unionization flourish in an environment that treats people as technical items or simple extensions of the machines that produce the products. This approach may produce short-term gains but, no doubt, at the sacrifice of long-term benefits. Managing people as though they were technical systems or processes leads to dissatisfaction and eventually to alienation.

Reversing this negative outcome means refocusing the entire organization on a positive employee relations program. This means management must place a priority on what motivates employees. The principles of positive employee relations are the precise values employees will want demonstrated before they are convinced that decertification is a viable and possible step.

This paradigm shift will require some time to develop (expect in most cases a three- to five-year period) but the outcomes will be quite different than the current climate.

Positive employee relations are characterized by:

•a clarity of mission and purpose;

•people-skilled managers;

•a climate of creativity and innovation, and open and direct communications;

•loyal and committed employees;

•reduced waste and fewer accidents;

•quality service and products; and

•a customer-first attitude.

How does one set the stage to develop and implement a positive employee relations program?

At the heart of this new mind-set are the core values of the company. These values must drive decision-making from the top down. The more positive the values embraced by the company, the more the employees will feel encouraged to share those values. Let’s examine seven possible core values of a positive employee relations organization:

•a spirit of partnership, and a solid belief in decency;

•a commitment to self-knowledge and development;

•a respect for individual differences;

•a strong focus on health, safety and wellness;

•an appreciation that change is inevitable; and

•a passion for products and processes.

Management will have to do business differently in order to adopt these core values and encourage decertification. Essentially, reclaiming positive employee relations means eliminating the conditions within the organization that led to unionization in the first place. All levels of leadership must clearly understand that decertification will only occur as a result of the adoption and implementation of the corporate values. The importance and necessity of managerial and supervisory commitment to these goals cannot be over-emphasized.

Like any strategic plan, there needs to be a time-frame set, keeping in mind that the process could be a long one, spanning, in many cases, five years. Implementation would require:

•not letting the existing culture interfere with the creation of a new culture;

•focusing your vision on new business processes, not old and established relationships;

•making the culture change obvious, and making significant changes in recognition systems to reflect the new culture;

•championing the new vision by senior management;

•changing the locus of decision-making from management’s sole responsibility to a collaborative model that recognizes employee contributions;

•cranking up the communications, letting employees and supervisors know about the changes taking place and how they will benefit;

•if training, coaching and mentoring fail, being willing to replace managers and supervisors who cannot work within the new culture; and

•recruiting new supervisors and managers to a higher standard, and training everyone.

Critical areas of focus in a decertification strategy include:

Hiring practices: Rigorous screening of new applicants must be carried out to ensure that only those who are best able to perform the tasks of the job and operate effectively within the new corporate culture are chosen. Ensure interview policy and procedures do not contravene either legislation or the collective agreement. Keys to diligence in hiring are:

•train all interviewers;

•use a behavioural model as criteria to objectively assess candidates (activity vector analysis is suggested);

•have high achievers do peer interviews;

•interview, test, reference check and, if in doubt, interview again;

•make supervisory involvement and approval mandatory; and

•reward supervisors who hire good employees.

Communications: Good communication plays a vital role in any positive employee relations program. Clear and candid communications are pivotal to gaining respect in the workplace. Avoiding issues or conflicts resolves nothing. The keys to effective communicating are:

•opening your eyes and ears: listen, question, and then listen some more;

•saying what you mean, and encouraging feedback; and

•resolving conflict before resentment sets in.

Recognition: Nothing empowers a workforce like rewards and recognition. Meaningful recognition reinforces the values that make an organization a better place to work. Programs of this sort provide management an opportunity to move away from an environment of enforcement where punitive consequence is the primary response to negative performers.

Rewards and recognition allow for positive attention to the majority of employees who give their all, essentially unchecked, each and every day. Earmark behaviours that can be rewarded, such as sales, production, quality, innovation, participation, safety, team-building and internal customer/supplier success stories. Rewards can come in many shapes and sizes from a simple, but largely under-utilized, “Thank you” to “employee of the month” honours. All demonstrate, in a tangible way, the new corporate culture.

Leadership training: One of the most critical elements of any positive employee relations culture is directly connected to the competencies of the leadership and supervisory staff. Their influence and involvement in the success of any decertification strategy cannot be over-emphasized.

Empowering employees can be paradoxical to supervisors who feel they cannot improve their influence by relinquishing some traditional power. Explain to managers that sharing power helps prevent poor decisions and that power built on fear is an expression of intimidation, not leadership. Managers and supervisors must become leaders, and positive role models must be accountable for making decent people decisions. This emphasis on core competencies of both the technical and human aspects of a supervisor’s job must be aligned with the performance appraisal and compensation process.

Once the implementation of the new values begin, a culture will begin to emerge. This re-assertion of management’s role in the organization will be the heart of the decertification strategy. By institutionalizing the new corporate values, a new business vision will be declared. This vision asserts that maximum attention is paid to creating a workplace environment where people can do the work that will ultimately produce the bottom line.

Further to this, proclaiming an “employees’ charter of rights” will help to regain control from the union. The “charter” recognizes that management is committed to the survival, growth and development of the company, and that these goals can only be achieved if leaders respect that employees:

•have thoughts, feelings and fears;

•possess unique strengths and differences;

•desire to contribute, and need recognition;

•want to learn and develop;

•desire a safe and healthy workplace, and a balanced work-family life.

While only employees are permitted to run a decertification campaign, through positive employee relations, the employer can regain employees’ respect and create an environment that makes the union redundant. Creating and maintaining a decertification climate should be as important to the business as setting financial budgets.

Why would employees prefer to pay a union to protect their interests if, through demonstration of core values, the company provides a positive work environment seen to be just as important as customer relationships. This leap is by no means a short-term “talk the talk” quick fix. It is an ingrained commitment at all levels to carry out the needs of the business while demonstrating company values. It requires patience and integrity but will be as gratifying as it is profitable.

Lloyd M. Field is chairman of Performance House Ltd., a management consulting firm specializing in strategic organizational development and human resource management. He may be reached at (416) 512-9583 or mailto:[email protected].

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