It’s a good time to create a satisfied work force

March 23, 2009
| By Tom Cole |
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(Editor's note: This is the second installment of a two-part series.)

In the upcoming months, legislation known as the Employee Free Choice Act may be enacted by congress. While this is viewed by many as "pro-union," the following expresses ways companies can be "pro-employee" and help retain an employee's "free choice" in the work place.

Demonstrating company support of employees

Some companies have the attitude that it's enough to provide a job with adequate pay and benefits and that employees should be happy. Pay and benefits represent a large part of employees' satisfaction, but these are "satisfiers" only to the extent they are perceived to be better than a minimum or necessary level.

There are many smaller things companies can do to keep employee loyalty. The following is not a complete list, or appropriate for everyone, but these things have proven effective in many settings: family gatherings, clothing with the company logo, sponsorship of recreational teams, employee discounts, special recognition awards, special parking privileges, meetings with senior management, lunches, senior management visits to employees work stations, and many more. These may seem frivolous; however, they recognize the employee as a whole person and not just a unit of labor.

Employer of Choice Index

All companies want to be considered a good place to work. Some apply to be considered as one of a Top 100 Employers in the Country annual list. Through a little-understood process, some are chosen and others are not. There is a presumption that those making the selection know what is best and one size fits all. Now may be an opportunity to change this selection process and meet the needs of specific employee groups.

Companies are unlikely to satisfy everyone's wants, but if they consistently make choices that balance the competing interests of the company and the employees, based on the circumstances at the time, they will demonstrate their commitment to employees.

Establishing an Employer of Choice Index system will show where a company stands on those items of importance to employees, and it will show the impact of changes in the conditions of employment and morale. It should also help employees make the best possible decisions and see what the impact will be, before changes are made.

A simplified version of how it works starts with a profile of where a company stands on a broad mix of employee-related matters. It then determines employee priorities related to change, and what changes will likely result in the most positive or negative impact on the company's index. Planning and decision-making then become more effective.

What really has strong impact is the commitment to employees of how much or how little change a company will strive for over a period of time. The communication associated with the Employer of Choice Index will be more effective than just rhetoric, take less time, and provide a clear picture to employees of the company's commitment to making it a "Top Employer." Most importantly, if employees believe they work for an "Employer of Choice," it will be relevant to consider with overtures of third-party representations by union.

Sharing company gains

Many companies large and small, public and private give bonuses to employees when things go well. Too often though, they are not based on true economic performance gains and become expected as deferred income. Establishing a "rewards" program based on real economic gains does not add to the cost of labor, but pays for itself. It is also a very effective way to communicate how the organization is doing. More importantly, when employees are rewarded with bonuses that are based on their efforts to increase revenue and reduce expenses, i.e. more profit, they will be less likely to want to increase labor costs by joining a union.

Describe what occurs with a union

There are laws and regulations that apply in the arena of employment. These are ever changing and open to interpretation and challenges, and are best left to competent legal counsel. However, honestly describing what occurs when employees are represented by others will give employees a better understanding of what their working environment might be. It will not merely be about wages and benefits, but will become part of their daily work lives as they encounter union representatives.

Company costs with a union

Typically this area only refers to "hard" labor costs (wages & benefits) and working conditions that will need to be factored into the pricing of products and services. However, there is a myriad of "soft" costs that often go unrecognized:

Meetings with management and union representatives will go on continuously. Depending on the issues, they can be daily, weekly and/or monthly. The people involved are usually paid for their time to attend meetings and do investigations, which can accumulate into many hours in a year that isn't necessarily focused on the growth of the business, which would result in better conditions for employees.

Replacement costs may occur if union activities require enough time and the need to hire more staff. In addition, investigating issues may require hours of administrative staff time in payroll, accounting, HR, purchasing, shipping, receiving, etc. 

Production slowdowns may occur during investigations by people missing work to participate and attend meetings.

Benefit costs can be impacted, not just on the program costs themselves but additional taxes and fees on the additional wages paid.

Attorney costs can be in the $300-$400 per hour range. These costs can quickly add up to amounts equal to hiring several employees.

Preparation of contracts, minutes of meetings and other documents may need to be produced and distributed.

There are many more, but the costs of dealing with a union, not to mention the shift in employees' attitudes about the company, go far beyond negotiation-related activities. Establishing a "pro employee" environment can be far less costly and actually enhance a company's performance, along with its employees.

With changes in the federal laws that are certain to occur with respect to union organizing, now is the time to consider and implement preventive practices to assure a satisfied and loyal work force.

Tom Cole is a principal with P3HR Consulting & Services LLC of Grand Rapids, which has more than 100 years of combined experience in HR management. See www.p3hrcs.com.

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