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When workers want to organize: 4 ways management can respond

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Shuttered storefronts, disrupted operations, corporate reputations under public scrutiny.

Contentious unionization efforts are a threat to both employees and employers. But a recent report from MIT Sloan professorand the Worker Empowerment Research Network suggests that worker organization efforts don’t have to be something to fear.

“Highly adversarial labor management relations are not good for productivity. They create more restrictions, and workers are disengaged, and therefore their productivity goes down,” said Kochan, whose expertise includes U.S. work and employment policies, institutions, and practices.

“But if you work with the groups that are looking for a voice, work with their unions and treat them as real partners, then you can build a high-quality labor-management relationship. And you get a number of things,” including lower turnover, more engagement, and higher productivity, he said.

This is the first research report from WERN’s team of labor market experts. It was designed to educate stakeholders like union leaders, worker advocacy organizations, and business managers on the history and present-day efforts of workers to gain more voice and representation in their jobs.

Here are some takeaways for executive leadership and managers looking to better understand the employee organization landscape, and actions they can take to constructively address negotiations in their labor market.

Understand the terrain of today’s organized labor efforts

It may seem like unionization and labor relations are only recently making headlines, but that’s not actually the case.

There’s a history of pent-up demand among workers for a greater voice at work — tracked in national surveys and research.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sparked interest in rethinking work situations, and as employees returned to their jobs and labor inequalities and inequities became more obvious, “people are saying 'It’s time for us to have a stronger voice,'” Kochan said. “This is a natural phenomenon that's happening across the United States and across the world. It’s broad-based, and it's a reflection of the pressures for not addressing these issues effectively for a long time.”

Executives and managers don’t need to become experts on the history of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, but they should familiarize themselves with the mission and work of the National Labor Relations Board, as well as worker centers and other worker advocacy groups and institutions.

“We have a whole generation of human resource executives and staff that have no experience working with unions or any other form of collective group,” Kochan said. “That really makes it difficult for them to understand how they could build positive relations on the basis of a collective process.”

Approach employee engagement with an open mind

Whether or not unionization efforts are actively happening at an organization, leaders should have a basic understanding of employee advocacy and recognize that they can’t control shared interests of respect and worker voice from the top down.

Companies might be tempted to conduct engagement surveys, but that’s “no longer an adequate way of giving people voice,” Kochan said.

More broadly, businesses should invest in training for their staff. Some of this might be online, some of it will be interactive, other training might be done through an executive education course or a joint course for business and worker leaders.

If a union effort does start taking shape, Kochan advised leaders to not take the action personally. Instead, leaders should view organization efforts as a positive step toward change: Employees are demonstrating their commitment and energy to improving operations and organizational performance, and demanding respect and voice.

Bring transparency, inclusion to the negotiation table

When negotiating with a union, Kochan said managers should use the modern tools of interest-based negotiation like problem-solving and communicating clearly on where the two sides agree and might disagree. He also advised them to:

  • Provide thoughtful feedback. Consider the feasibility of employees’ ideas and proposals, then provide feedback on why something will or won’t work. “That kind of feedback is what people are looking for,” Kochan said. “They can respect an answer that doesn’t always give them exactly what they're looking for if it's well-reasoned and it's communicated.”
  • Be transparent. If there’s a development that will affect the negotiation, share that news as soon as possible with employees as a group, and with their labor representatives. Don’t let them find out something through a rumor or through the media. “Be honest,” Kochan said. “Be willing to communicate, even when it's not good news. That's what builds respect.”
  • Be inclusive. Make sure voices from people that reflect the full diversity of the workforce are heard, and show them respect as individuals with knowledge and skills, and dedication to their jobs. While some might not be the most vocal, Kochan said, they are often on the frontlines and can bring that overlooked perspective to the discussion.

Embrace the concept of distributed leadership

Engaging employees and tapping the skills and voices of everyone in an organization doesn’t automatically trigger a unionization effort. Those actions are part of distributed leadership, a model defined by MIT Sloan professoras collaborative, autonomous practices managed by a network of formal and informal leaders across an organization. And that model is largely what the modern workforce is looking for, Kochan said, not necessarily a full-blown union.

“You have to engage them, treat them with respect, learn how to draw on their expertise. Learn how to provide feedback — positive and negative if necessary — and move forward,” Kochan said. “It says everybody in the organization can be a leader.”

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216