How Can Employee Empowerment Help Companies Stay Union-Free?

Concerning the workplace, empowerment is defined as the authority given to someone to do something, and the person becomes more confident and stronger. It is often assumed it means developing an employee to the point of being left alone to do their work without leadership involvement. That is a myth. Empowered employees are more involved with their leaders but differently than the traditional controlling style. Leaders who successfully empower employees are coaching leaders, and coaching requires more interaction between the manager or supervisor and the employee. Empowerment can be described as giving employees a stronger and more confident voice, a key factor in staying union-free 

Supporting Employee Proactive Behaviors 

A study published in the International Journal of Human Resources investigated the extent empowering Human Resources management and empowering leadership motivate employees to display workplace proactivity. Workplace proactivity is a descriptive term the researchers defined as "the employees' ability to take self-directed action to anticipate change in their work and to respond to future possibilities instead of undergoing developments passively." Employees must be motivated, abled, and have opportunities to express proactive behaviors, and your leaders need the skills to proactively develop positive employee relations. 

The study found positive relationships between autonomy, access to knowledge via communication resources, and empowering leadership on one hand and psychological empowerment on the other. Also, there was a positive relationship between psychological empowerment and workplace proactivity, and autonomy alone had a direct, negative impact on workplace proactivity. "Empowering leaders," write the researchers, "can facilitate and support employees by sharing broader responsibilities and decision-making authority, allowing them to plan their work and make their own decisions." Summing this up, employees are empowered by their leaders who emphasize their ability to self-direct and provide the process to achieve that ability, i.e., workplace flexibility, professional autonomy, and access to information via communication technologies. 

Employees are #empowered by their #leaders who emphasize their ability to self-direct and provide the process to achieve that ability.

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Employee Empowerment and Engagement

In so many cases, labor unions are able to start a union organizing campaign because employees don't feel empowered in some way. They are not empowered to:  

  • Proactively self-direct their work 
  • Offer input into leadership decision-making 
  • Contribute to preventing and solving work problems 
  • Take control of work outcomes 
  • Show individual innovation 
  • Express an authentic voice 
  • Improve circumstances beyond  
  • Communicate with their managers and supervisors, or their coworkers due to a lack of communication access  

When employees don't feel empowered, the inevitable result is employee engagement is negatively impacted. You may have managers who think people only work for the money, but that isn't true for most employees. The people who stay in their jobs as disengaged employees might be working solely for the money. Still, employees today want more, i.e., independence, feedback, voice, belongingness, participation in decision-making, and so on.  

When employees are empowered, they are fulfilling financial and psychological needs. Additionally, their confidence increases. They are more satisfied with their jobs and the organization, and their productivity is higher. The challenge for leaders is proactively empowering employees but finding a balance between empowerment and maintaining leadership authority.  

Empowering Employees is a Process 

Empowering employees is a coaching process, in other words. It isn't a program or initiative. It's a process in which leaders use well-developed hard and soft skills to mentor, coach, inspire and motivate employees. You give employees the power to exercise their authority and voice, pushing decision-making as far down the organization as possible so the employees who are closest to the work and information make decisions. 

We have previously written about the impact of leaders as coaches in a coaching culture. It could have been described as leaders as empowering coaches. They ensure employees have the competence, training, tools and resources, and clarity about the organization's mission and shared goals. Empowerment is not a hands-off leadership style. In fact, it is exactly the opposite because effective leaders don't leave their employees to flounder.   

Employee #empowerment is a hands-on approach from leadership. Leaders are responsible for ensuring their employees have competence and clarity.

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One of the many reasons employees get involved with labor unions is due to managers and supervisors who do leave their employees floundering. They give them work assignments, too much work, not enough instruction, and no feedback. Why do they do that, knowing they may be setting employees up for a struggle or even failure? Following are some of the possible reasons. The leader: 

  • Has not learned a management style other than command-and-control 
  • Believes the recognition and reward system incentivizes being a strong direction-giving manager with employees who follow directions. 
  • Believe it takes too much time to coach employees. 
  • Perceives employee empowerment as an emotional factor and not leadership's responsibility 
  • Has difficulty asking for and giving employee feedback 
  • Doesn't know how to build employee capabilities 
  • Believes giving directions in an autocratic manner is just the simplest way to get work done. 
employee empowerment

Measuring the "Voice Gap" 

Researchers at the ILR School at Cornell University considered whether U.S. workers face a "voice gap." The gap is how much voice employees say they expect to have at work versus how much voice they have. Lack of voice has historically led to unionization in organizations and even more so now as millennials and Gen Z value authenticity in the workplace. So the researchers also considered the "representation gap," which is the percentage of non-union workers who want union representation but didn't have it.  

The project measured worker views on the voice they believed they ought to have on the following issues: 

  • Safety 
  • Respect 
  • Dealing with discrimination 
  • Control over how to do work 
  • Scheduling of work hours 

 They also measured the representation gap on the traditional collective bargaining issues: 

  • Compensation 
  • Benefits 
  • Job security 
  • Promotion 
  • Training (technological change)  

The third category of measurement asked employees about higher-level organizational issues, like strategies involving technology, services provided, quality of products, and employer values. The survey results found employees expect to have a voice on how they work, their conditions of employment, the quality of the products or services they help produce, and the organizational values. Only 7 percent of the employees indicated they should have no say in these areas.  

The survey found the voice gap is largest among traditional collective bargaining issues, like compensation and training. It was also found that women reported a larger voice gap compared to men. But here is an important finding: union members had a LARGER VOICE GAP on issues that include safety, protection from harassment, respect, discrimination, use of technology, and organizational values compared to non-union workers. 

UnionProof has maintained through decades of helping companies stay union-free that employees lose, not gain, some degree of their voice in the workplace once they unionize. Despite the union's claims that employees don't lose their direct connection to management, they do, and the union representatives become the spokespeople. 

The researchers also tried to answer the question as to whether employers are meeting the interests of workers after years of union membership decline. There were two "voice options" groups that emerged as to their perspective on the best way to get a voice. One group was interested in unions, alternative union-like associations, petitions, protests, and strikes as the way to get a voice. The second group was interested in union avoidance options facilitated by the employer, which included:  

  • Talking with a supervisor 
  • Conferring with people like themselves 
  • Utilizing a grievance procedure to settle issues 

Here is a second important finding: The vast majority of employees faced with workplaces turn to their supervisors and coworkers first for assistance. Leaders who leverage this information are a big step closer to developing positive employee personal relations and staying union-free.  

Full Circle to Employee Empowerment

This takes the discussion full circle. A major element of employee empowerment is closing the voice gap and following through by working with employees to inspire and motivate them to be their best selves at work. Closing the voice gap means your employees have a true voice in the workplace, are engaged, and trust their leaders. Your leaders can then utilize the employee voice to empower employees as they carry out job responsibilities. 

Autocratic leadership is not an effective style today. Your leaders who continue to use an autocratic leadership style with employees at all levels may drive them to labor unions.  

Employee empowerment and employee voice go hand-in-hand. A leader as coach interacts with employees in ways that naturally encourage employee voice. In a straightforward example, the employee says, "I don't think this department procedure is effective." An autocratic leader would deliver a union-attracting response, "Just follow the directions." A coaching leader empowering the employee through employee voice asks for feedback on why the employee believes the work should be handled differently. There is a conversation, exchange of ideas, exploration of decision-making, and trust-building.   

empowered employees

Time to Act is Now 

Take note: The Cornell University study found there is a great unmet demand for union representation but said the demand is unlikely to be satisfied as things stand now. The unmet demand refers to employees who want to join a union but don't follow through.  

The two main reasons are there must be majority support for unionizing in a bargaining unit, and employers have been largely successful at opposing unionizing. This explains the strong push by the Democrats at federal and state levels to change the laws to make it easier for employees to join a union. The current union-friendly NLRB and federal legislation like the PRO Act is designed to help employees meet the unmet demand. 

Employee empowerment is a path to staying union-free. Labor wise leaders learn how to empower, and employees learn to be empowered. At IRI Consultants, along with the Projections team, we have all the resources you need to develop leadership skills in empowerment to stay union-free and to develop employee communication skills which are crucial to being empowered. It is imperative that organizations take steps now along this path because the push to increase union membership is gaining strength. 

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

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.

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