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Right Way, Wrong Way: The Art of Employee Engagement

EmployeeThoughts_billboardEach day, millions of employees show up for work, with millions of different thoughts and experiences. While many workers are satisfied with their employers, 68 percent of the workforce are disengaged, making these employees prime targets for unions. The difference between satisfied and engaged employees in a union-proof organization, and dissatisfied and disengaged employees who think unions could be their salvation, can be summed up in one word: leadership.

We’re talking about union avoidance, but this time we’re not talking about executive leadership or broad concepts like corporate mission and goals. We’re talking about the nitty-gritty, day-to-day, front-line leadership — the people who work with your organization’s producers, whether they are nurses using sophisticated medical equipment, retail clerks working at department store counters or production line workers operating robotic machinery in order to manufacture goods. Developing an engaged workforce and a union-proofed organization begins on the supervisory front line.

It is good to set organizational goals for avoiding unions, hold training sessions and establish a system of employee feedback. However, all is for naught if, throughout the day, the front-line supervisors and managers are not utilizing good leadership skills and building positive employee relations. It’s the front-line managers who have excellent opportunities to engage employees and promote a positive organizational culture, but they have to be able to recognize when they are promoting employee engagement or adding to your organization’s union vulnerability.

Thoughts Going Down the Wrong Path…

Let’s listen in to some thoughts that go through the heads of employees within an organization where front-line supervisors are undoing all of senior management’s efforts to engage the workforce. Then, take a look at the self-assessment questions to address these concepts within your organization.

8:00 a.m. – “I dread going to work today. I used to enjoy my job, but my supervisor is so unreasonable. I think I will try to speak to him today and explain the departmental difficulties we are having in getting the work done on time.”
Self Assessment: Are your supervisors good listeners?

8:45 a.m. – “Wow! That did not go well. He told me that I needed to just follow orders and meet my deadlines, and he would see if he had time later to go over it all again, implying I’m stupid. Too bad he never gave us any explanations as to how to complete the work in the first place.”
Self Assessment: Do your supervisors use an antiquated command-and-control leadership style?

10:00 a.m. “Did he really just bark an order at me? Does he think I’m a dog? He’s always saying to just do what we are told. He never has anything nice to say and never recognizes my good work.”
Self Assessment: Do your supervisors know how to deliver instructions in an effective and respectful manner, and do they recognize and reward employees for good performance?

11:00 a.m. “Why did the general manager just breeze through here and order us to keep the door to the hallway closed? She doesn’t have to work in this hot, stuffy area all day like us. It gets too hot in here when the door is closed because the air conditioner doesn’t work well. That’s why we leave it open. If she had asked, I would have told her, too.”
Self Assessment: Do your supervisors make an effort to explain their actions and decisions, like a fire department requirement saying the door must be kept closed, and share plans to address employee concerns?

1:00 p.m. “I hope I get the promotion and pay increase this afternoon. I know I have the most seniority in the department, and I’ve had good performance reviews. There is no reason for this company to give it to anyone else. I really need the money, too, because my wife is unable to work right now due to family issues.”
Self Assessment: Do your supervisors follow a transparent and equitable promotion process?

2:00 p.m. “I told them that someone was going to get hurt on that piece of equipment if they didn’t get the blade guard installed. I have put six reminders in the suggestion box, but management keeps ignoring the requests. They don’t really care if we get hurt or not.” Self Assessment: Do your supervisors respond quickly to issues that employees bring to their attention? Or are they “too busy” to pay attention?

3:30 p.m. “I can’t believe they are giving the promotion to Jim. He has less seniority, and I am the one who fills in for him during his many absences. This is so unfair. Jim must have some kind of “in” with this company. I heard he regularly goes drinking with the supervisor after work.”
Self Assessment: Do any employees believe some coworkers are favored by their supervisor?

5:00 p.m. “We have to go to yet another meeting tomorrow?! All they ever do is hand out papers and lecture us on how a union leads to violence, and how union dues will eat up part of our check, and how the company will never agree to anything during contract negotiations, and on and on and on. I think they are paranoid about unions. Hmmm… I wonder why? Maybe unions are something we should look into. They never have meetings to explain company policies or to ask us lowly workers for input. These meetings make me fall behind on production, and they hold ME responsible. I’ll show them. I will make sure the work does not get done on time for several days.”
Self Assessment: Do your employees feel part of the process, do they feel “in on things,” as a part of the effort to remain union-free? Make sure your messages make you an employer of choice, covering everything of importance to employees – from orientation to job training to benefits to company policies, and work to develop positive employee relations along the way.

5:15 p.m. “This company doesn’t care about us or what we think! We need a voice around here! When I get home, I’m going to call that union rep back and see what he thinks.”
Self Assessment: Are your managers’ actions and words today giving a union the foot inside the door it has been waiting for?

Changing Employee Thoughts

Each one of these thoughts represent a company vulnerability to unionization — a vulnerability that can be corrected with training and communication. If an employee is unhappy about their inability to offer input, the command-and-control management style, the lack of transparency and equity in the promotion system, the lack of employer concern for the safety of employees, and the lack of training except to demean unions. It doesn’t matter how many policies are put in place by senior management if they are not enforced at the front line by supervisors. There is nothing positive in this list of grievances. The employee is now actively disengaged and actually planning a work slowdown.

Most employees have little interaction with senior managers, but they have daily contact with immediate supervisors. Each of the previous employee thoughts represents an opportunity to improve the organization. Effective employee communication is a major element of an engaging organizational culture. Supervisors need training on collaborative leadership skills. Barking orders or refusing to discuss employee workflows or issues is a sure path to unionization. Employees need to have input into, and a clear understanding of, policies and procedures that are carefully followed by supervisors. Transparency is critical. Developing an engaged workforce requires transparency in the promotion process (no surprises!) and, on major changes like layoffs, compliance requirements, work requirements and management decision-making.

One of the best ways to engage employees today is through technology. Consistent messaging, customized training and interactive communication are possible through video, web training and eLearning, and will benefit supervisors as well as their employees. These solutions reinforce transparency, give employees the information they need to do a good job, establish an ongoing connection between the workforce and management, and make it much easier to present information in a variety of languages in a multicultural workforce.

Don’t Make Employee Engagement a Buzz Term

The term “employee engagement” is in danger of becoming a “buzz term” because it is difficult to pin down exactly what it means and how it is expressed. Every organization is unique. In fact, there are now a variety of engagement categories used in surveys, like “not engaged,” “somewhat engaged,” “engaged” and “actively engaged.” Every employee is at a certain level of engagement. To union proof a company, the leadership at all levels must be able to reach people at all levels — all the way to the front line. Thank goodness technology can make this process much smoother and easier.

Is your company alienating employees at the front line? If so, this is the kind of company that unions target and the kind of organization where management is the last to know about union efforts. To begin union proofing your company, evaluate the entire communication and training system from the C-suite to the front line supervisors. Change the employee’s negative thoughts to ones that reflect enthusiasm and support for your organization. What you really want your employees to be thinking is, “This is a great place to work!”