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Today's organizational mantra is "empower the employee voice in the workplace." It's good advice, and there are many ways to achieve that goal. Employees who have a voice can interact with each other and with management. Those opportunities can be structured in various ways, including department meetings, focus groups, surveys, task forces, and employee advisory groups. The Employee Advisory Group (EAG) is one of the most effective approaches to giving voice to the workforce for many reasons. It gives management the ability to include representative employees who can deliver insights the employer may not get otherwise. EAGs are beneficial in the union and non-union workplace, but it's important to structure and manage the EAG in a way that delivers the most benefit to employees and your organization.
An Employee Advisory Group goes by different names in organizations. It might be called an Employee Advisory Committee, Employee Advisory Board, or Employee Action Committee. They are all based on the same principle: to provide a forum to improve employee communication in the organization and give opportunities for employee input on issues that involve more than one department or function affecting employees. The EAG offers two-way communication between employees from across the organization and between employees and management, adding social factors contributing to a culture of inclusion.
One of the advantages of this approach is that the Employee Advisory Group gets organizational recognition. If internally marketed, employees know it exists and that they are represented in decision-making at higher management levels. The EAG membership represents more than one department or function, getting organization-wide recognition. Individual face-to-face meetings between an employee and a supervisor and departmental meetings are valuable interactions, but they are limited and only involve one employee or one department. Office workers in finance don't know production line workers have a voice within their operation unit. This is important to staying union-free and developing positive employee relations across the workforce.
There are many benefits an Employee Advisory Committee or employee committee delivers. One of the top benefits is that it helps with employee retention, which is critical in the current labor market and during the period of the Great Resignation. The EAG can increase employee engagement which is the key to employee retention. The talent mobility firm Randstad Risesmart says this about an Employee Action Committee, "When employees feel involved in developing the solutions and are empowered by senior leadership to implement those solutions, that in itself will help improve retention and employee engagement."
Some of the other benefits include the following.
Dr. William Moskal at IRI Consultants explains, "You can expect the EAG employee team members to experience a heightened awareness to the complexity of the business structure and workings, advance their understanding of the significant interlocking horizontal overlaps in their work, become more aware of the interdependencies of the departments, build closer relationships with the supervisors and managers of the company and improve the capabilities of communicating real-time information to leadership. They will also gain "just in time education" relative to data collection, prioritizing critical information, and building business plans for submissions to leadership for review."
What are the expected outcomes? Generally, the goal is to increase inclusiveness and give employees a voice. The EAGs don't make policy decisions, but employees can make suggestions that improve the workplace culture and enhance the employee experience. Employees can brainstorm ideas that will address operational concerns and develop suggestions to resolve the concerns. Outcomes could be things like:
There are legal considerations to keep in mind. One of the challenges management faces is avoiding high-risk behaviors that could lead to violations of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions. Some examples of high-risk management behaviors versus low-risk behaviors follow:
Section 7 and 8(a)(1) of the NLRA says employees have the right to join together to advance their interests as employees, but you don't want the EAG to become a de facto union organizing committee. Attorneys at Fox Rothschild explain the balance employers must maintain to avoid violating the National Labor Relations Act. In the case of T-Mobile USA, Inc. (14-CA-170229), the company was found to have violated the NLRA by setting up an "employer-dominated organization" at call centers. The employer selected the group members, had members attend summits away from the workplace, and tracked the group's "pain points." T-Mobile said the pain points concerned customers and not employees, but the Administrative Law Judge noted the group discussed working conditions, like paid time off and bathroom conditions.
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The NLRA prohibits employee groups dominated by employers that function as fake unions or employer unions. If management determines the structure and function of the employee group, sets goals and agendas, requires face-to-face meetings with management, and defines pain points, it's employer controlled. This explains the reasoning behind the things an employer should not do and the things the Employee Advisory Committee must not discuss.
Leadership must be committed to supporting the process. Dr. Moskal explains that leadership "buy-in" is a three-step commitment:
There is a 3-4 year commitment to establish a foundation for integration, sustainability, and trust-building. It takes that long to prove management is making a real commitment.
One of the major roles of leaders is ensuring adherence to the NLRA and NLRB decisions when forming the EAG. The following are ways to avoid violating the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and incurring unfair labor practices.
Allowing employees to volunteer for membership or employees to self-select with supervisory approval
Think of the EAG as a sounding board for top management as your leaders develop policies, establish systems and processes, and make organizational changes. It may consist of 15-20 members and should reflect the workforce's makeup. This means members will come from different employee groups, like technical, clerical, service, and professional groups. The CEO can randomly draw names from each set of names by classification. Employees with current disciplinary actions in progress or with poor performance reviews are not eligible for participation.
Membership can also include a position for someone with expertise in a given area who attends meetings as needed or is used as a resource. The person can share expertise and provide information the team needs for a particular discussion. Other positions beside the executive sponsor and the open position include the ombudsman, who handles issues like accessing resources and removing barriers that may arise.
The EAG decides what it will discuss, the issues it will prioritize, and how the team will communicate with employees and managers. Leadership's main role is to get feedback from the Employee Advisory Board.
The Employee Advisory Group does work for unionized employees. The structure of the group is embedded in union contracts, allowing for an integrated approach to a policy relative to education and training. It is important to discuss the formation of the EAG with the union and how the Employee Advisory Committee will function. The union will want to know the role of the committee, how it fits with the collective bargaining agreement and the relationship between the union and the EAG.
The EAG is best formed before there is any union organizing taking place. This clearly establishes the group as separate from labor unions. The EAG will not discuss things like working conditions, wages, and benefits. It doesn't make decisions or policies.
Starting an Employee Advisory Group begins with an assessment relative to the current values, the orientation of work processes, and an examination of the tools used in the past that worked and those that did not. The EAG's purpose and implementation timeline is communicated to executives and the management team, and then the staff. A management consultant can help with identifying the actions needed to form the group, including creating a charter, explaining possible structures and responsibilities, and establishing a communication process.
The Employee Advisory Group mission goes back to the definition of an EAG. For example, the mission statement says it is to provide a communication forum for employees from the different classifications and different organizational areas, so they have a voice by providing advice on the best way to address workplace issues affecting employees.
The parameters are established as to what the EAG can and cannot do. The type of issues are named that the group can discuss, like communications, services in the workplace, efficiency, and engagement activities. If employee surveys bring issues to light, they can be discussed as long as they do not involve wages, benefits, and workplace conditions. The group is also instructed that they cannot make policies or rules and only provides feedback.
You will need to provide training to group members. The training will include explanations of the EAG's purpose and process, an overview of the organization's structure and regulatory limitations, and team participation skills. Formal training is important because teams have a structure and culture of their own. You want team members to participate fully and be inclusive. They need training on topics like running meetings, leadership skills, presentations, and conflict resolution.
In Year 1, a formal modular training program may cover topics like:
In Year 2, the employees who remain on the team as some are replaced per a rotation plan will have training on topics like orienting new members. However, the team members who will do the orientation of new members will need help in developing orientation skills. This is where outside resources, like IRI Consultants, can also help.
The previous discussion mostly lays out the purpose of the EAG and how to avoid common issues during its formation. Though the Employee Advisory Group is not established to address unionization, it has the power to do so the right way. The right way to stay union-free is through employee engagement and by developing positive employee relations at every level of the organization. Whether you call it an Employee Advisory Board or Employee Action Committee, it gives employees a voice in the organization. It does take some planning, careful organization, and employee and leader training, but the return on the investment in employees is exponential. Utilization of outside resources with experience in developing an Employee Advisory Group can help you avoid the potential pitfalls, like violating the NLRA. Doing it right upfront will save a lot of problems from developing later.
With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.