Employee Relations Issues: Be Proactive to Stay Union-Free

It is nearly impossible to please every single employee, especially with a large workforce. Certainly, there are many employee relations issues that can potentially snowball into a union organizing campaign. A 15th-century English monk was right when he penned, "You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time." 

We will cover some of the most common employee relations issues to address in your workplace that can lead to union organizing, and how to best approach them. At UnionProof, we believe in creating an environment where unions simply aren't necessary. By being proactive and addressing any potential issues ahead of time, you can build a unionproof culture, and create the strongest workforce in your industry! 

Accepting the Challenge

One of the most challenging responsibilities of management is developing positive employee relations to stay union-free. It takes a real effort that involves leaders from the senior level to first-line supervisors, fair HR policies and procedures, effective communication systems, and a path for employees to resolve disputes. It isn't one thing, but it includes everything that promotes positive employee relations, positive employee experience, and positive workplace culture.

Early identification of employee relations issues is crucial to stemming from growing dissatisfaction in the workforce. The following are some obvious and not-so-obvious employee relations problems that can turn into union organizing.

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Obvious Employee Relations Issues

The obvious employee relations issues are just what the word "obvious" implies. They're apparent to anyone paying attention. The factors in this category point the way for employers to improve employee-employer relationships and workplace culture. Here's a quick snapshot of the obvious issues we will be discussing below:

  • Frequent employee complaints/conflicts
  • How to deal with complaints
  • Lack of employee respect and trust in management
  • Ignoring safety issues
  • Non-competitive pay/benefits
  • Transparency with pay/benefits
  • Weak front-line leaders

Here's a more in-depth look at each of the issues outlined above:

Frequent employee complaints/conflicts

A stream of employee complaints and frequent employee-employee and employee-employer conflicts indicates a serious problem exists. It could be too much stress, unreasonable performance goals, trouble-making employees, poor workplace culture, and so on. Your organizational leaders need to address the complaints or conflicts that arise during the workday. If they don't, the other employees will conclude that you don't care whether there is harmony or not, or that some employees are making their life at work difficult.

Every workplace has chronic complainers. Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith interviewed more than 200 clients. He found that "a majority of employees spend ten or more hours per month complaining – or listening to others complain – about their bosses or upper management." He went on to report that a third of employees spend 20 hours or more each month. These numbers don't include the many other complaints about peers and employees.

People complain to people who agree with them, making them feel supported and justified in griping. Goldsmith points out that people complain because they feel powerless. That provides a situation that is ripe for union organizing.

Dealing with complaints the right way

When your supervisors realize some employees are "complainers", they need to discuss the situation with them. Don't write off any employees as chronic complainers or difficult people. Instead, turn the situation into an opportunity to increase employee engagement by discovering what the complaints are really about.

Sometimes, many employees can communicate what they're unhappy about, which can range from work schedules and compensation to job requirements and lack of employee voice. For example, Amazon workers have repeatedly and publicly claimed the work pace in the warehouses is unreasonable. They also don't like the fact that the scan guns used by employees track every second of their workday. In the words of an employee, "It created a constant buzz of low-grade panic. I felt as if the company wanted us to be robots."

Is it any wonder the employees are talking to three big unions – Teamsters; Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union; and the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. Amazon has vigorously fought against unionizing, including hiring employee relations managers who have experience in handling union organizing activities and responding to unions. Time will tell if this company is able to stay union-free.

Lack of employee respect and trust in management

Employee trust is the deep belief in the reliability, truth, and ability of the company and its leaders to treat people fairly and honestly. There is a long list of reasons employees don't trust their company or don't respect management. Payscale's research found a big gap between what employees believe versus what employers believe concerning transparency, pay, and appreciation. For example, 45 percent of employees indicated feeling appreciated at work. 65 percent of employers stated that their employees feel a sense of appreciation.

scientifically controlled study on employee trust found that the amount of employee training employees received was positively associated with employee trust. Workplace longevity, hours worked, and trade union membership was inversely associated with employee trust. Employees may not trust their employers and start union organizing, but belonging to a union increases the lack of employee trust in managers.

The level of employee trust has a direct impact on employee performance. A lack of trust leads to lower employee engagement and a lack of employees' investment in their jobs. How do you find out if your employees trust management? Ask them. Conduct employee engagement surveys that include questions about trust. If the trust level is low, the next steps are to improve communication with employees, to provide regular feedback on performance, increasing transparency about the direction of the business, compensation schedules, and promotion policies; and offering training opportunities.

Ignoring safety issues

Workplace safety is a key issue for employees, and a common reason they turn to unions. They don't need a union because the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 gives employees the right to file a complaint with OSHA. All safety matters must be addressed, and never minimized.

When employees believe their safety is knowingly compromised, employee relations are seriously hurt. Failing to respond sends a message that employers don't care about employee health and welfare; no matter the reasons management may unknowingly ignore workplace safety, like lack of funds to upgrade equipment, lack of time for additional training, etc. Labor laws give employees certain rights concerning workplace safety. They have the right to:

  • Be provided with safety equipment
  • Receive training in a language employees understand
  • Report an injury or illness
  • Voice concern over unsafe working conditions without fear of employer retaliation.

 Workplace safety is a major talking point for unions. A survey of construction firms found that companies with union workers are more likely to perform safety best practices and more likely to get OSHA training than non-unionized companies. It shouldn't take a union to force employers to train employees.

Non-Competitive Pay and Benefits

In the Payscale survey mentioned earlier, 20 percent of employees believed they receive fair pay, and 44 percent of employers believed employees feel they receive fair pay. That's a big discrepancy.

Numerous studies have found that employees are most satisfied with their pay when they are paid more than the average industry compensation. While this is not always possible, the amount of compensation and benefits your employees receive is a hotspot in terms of union organizing.

The unions are backing protests for $15 an hour demands because they understand that what people earn is connected to more than just take-home pay. Compensation is connected to employee status, feelings of appreciation, and satisfaction with the company and management. A non-competitive pay schedule and benefits influence employee turnover too.

Some employees take on compensation and benefits as a social cause. Who better to help with the effort than union representatives?

Transparency with benefits and pay

One of the frequent discussions taking place today concerns transparency. Should you be transparent about your company's pay schedule? One approach is to be transparent about the factors that go into determining pay for different levels and not publish details for employee job titles — instead, show bands of compensation for different levels. Be clear about how salaries and wages are determined, but before doing so, make sure the company policies and practices are easily understood, and justifiable. If they aren't, employees may be more likely to start union organizing.

Benefits are another major source of concern for employees. The workers at Fiesta Henderson Hotel & Casino voted to unionize to get better health insurance and pensions. This was the seventh Station Casinos Las Vegas property to vote in a union since 2016. Health insurance and pensions are two common specific points of contention among employees, especially hourly workers.

Weak Frontline Leadership

First-line leaders have a lot of power; more than many upper managers recognize. They serve as liaisons between upper management levels and employees. They implement and enforce company policies, implement strategies handed down by higher levels of leadership, manage employee schedules, conduct performance reviews, and hear the grievances or complaints circulating in the workforce.

What makes weak frontline leadership? They are the supervisors who are poor communicators or play favorites with some employees. They may seldom provide constructive feedback on employee performance, never share information about business goals, or are unfamiliar with HR policies and procedures.

It only takes a few employees to ignite dissent and dissatisfaction in the workplace, and dissatisfaction can lead to union organizing. Unfortunately, many employers shrug off the obvious employee relations problems by convincing themselves the issues are due to trouble-making employees and not due to workplace conditions, lack of effective management, or HR policies. Allowing employee relations problems to fester is never wise. You have to support your team.

Less Common Employee Relations Issues

Many employee relations issues can lead to union organizing and they aren't always as obvious as those listed above. They include:

  • Resentment over supervisor favoritism – A lack of consistent application of HR policies will create an undercurrent of complaints, often not publicly vocalized. Most people won't complain about coworkers who get favorite treatment (i.e. certain employees who "get away" with abusing time off, or receive a promotion over someone more qualified, etc) because of fear of the consequences.
  • No open door policy/weak grievance procedures – Employees need to know they can approach management with any concerns. An open-door policy can often stop a small issue from becoming a major grievance. The open-door policy should be backed up with a formal grievance policy that ensures employees are heard and receive a resolution.
  • Low-quality leadership communication – Lack of an effective employee communication system leads to employee relations issues because people will believe management thinks their employees are not important to share information with.

Technology makes it possible to regularly communicate with employees via video, web and eLearning solutions; social media; emails; and webinars. Make sure employees have access to a platform they can use to communicate any concerns. Technology tools can be supplemented with activities like in-house or online information-sharing meetings, or employee surveys.

Employees at IKEA Distribution Centers in Illinois voted to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union. The union campaign, said the IAM organizer, was "mostly about fairness and voice on the job, and ensuring that the profits they create also benefit their families and communities." This was another step in the union's increasingly successful effort to organize global IKEA workers.

Of course, this list is not all-encompassing. The goal of management is to identify specific employee relations issues within their organization that need attention.

Show You Care About Your Employees

Many, if not all, employee relations issues can potentially lead to union organizing. People need to feel appreciated and valued. They want to know that management cares about what they do, how they contribute to organizational success, their safety, and receive fair treatment. These are the most common employer relations problems that unions use to attract employees. Don't wait to diagnose the issues that can lead to employee interest in union organizing. 

Final Thoughts

Are you giving your employees a voice? Do your supervisors maintain an ongoing dialogue with employees, and do they promote the benefits of working for the company? Do employees understand the consequences of unionizing? We hope that you can answer some, if not all of these questions with certainty. Be proactive and address potential employer relations issues head-on. We can help you build a strong company culture where a union isn't necessary.

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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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