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Labor: What unions know that you don’t

3 pieces of advice for keeping employees happy and avoiding union organizing campaigns

In light of the numerous stories about declining union membership in the U.S., it is easy to overlook the fact that unions still win a significant number of representation elections each year. Although employers may be reluctant to admit it, unions can teach employers important lessons that will strengthen an employer’s bonds with its employees. Paying attention to these lessons now can make it less likely that you will learn them the hard way, through a union organizing campaign.

1.      You are not the only one who takes work home

It is unlikely your hourly employees literally take their work home with them, but figuratively they do. Our society places a premium on occupational accomplishments. All workers, regardless of position and pay scale, identify themselves largely by their occupation. When we meet someone for the first time and he or she asks us what we do, we do not respond by saying we garden, we play golf or we donate our time to a charity—we tell the person about our job. When we receive such a question, we want our answer to be a source of pride. 

Developing an employee’s pride in his or her job is not accomplished merely by giving the employee a positive formal evaluation every year and providing him or her with a merit pay raise. It is not even accomplished by giving the employee an occasional pat on the back. Rather, it is developed by praising when appropriate, criticizing when necessary and, most importantly, making the employee understand that his or her performance matters to the overall success of the business. Praise without an underlying sense of significance rings hollow; criticism without an underlying sense of significance is ignored.

2.      Employees know how you treat their co-workers

In defending an employer that is the subject of a claim of discrimination, or in attempting to prevent such a claim in the first place, attorneys will ask management how the employer has treated similarly-situated employees. Although generally it is neither practical nor advisable for managers to ask their subordinates to verify their responses to this question, the institutional knowledge of hourly employees frequently exceeds the memories of decision makers.

Put another way, you may not remember that you discharged an employee five years ago for repeated violations of the dress code policy and have only warned a current employee for similar violations, but the co-workers of those employees do. They know if you treat two employees differently, they will talk about it and they will hold it against you if it strikes them as unfair.

By the way, do you recall the policy in your personnel manual prohibiting employees from discussing their wages with each other? Employees violate it with regularity, and the National Labor Relations Board deems it illegal.

3.      Employees have questions, and they will get answers somewhere

We all undergo particularly busy periods that demand our attention and keep us from communicating with our employees as frequently and as thoroughly as we would like. Further, you may be reluctant to communicate details to employees out of a fear of sharing too much information. When the gap between the business information held by an employer and the information held by employees becomes too great, however, someone, a union organizer, perhaps, will fill that gap. If you do not provide sufficient information to employees, you cannot control the message they receive. If you do not control the message, it is highly probable that you will not like the message.

Note, too, that while it may be helpful to schedule time to meet with your employees and listen to their concerns, one-sided communications are not sufficient. To earn the trust of employees and satisfy them, you must be willing to open up and share some information that you would rather not share.

A final reminder, which may be unnecessary to those of you with children: “Because I can” is not a satisfactory answer to employees’ concerns.

Contributing Author

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Craig Oliver

Craig Oliver is a partner with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP (Nashville, Tenn.) and serves as vice-chair of the firm’s Labor and Employment Practice. His...

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