Like almost everything that’s politically loaded, the subject of labor unions is a very touchy one. Regardless of your personal opinion about labor unions, as an HR leader you hold the obligation to keep the people side of your business solidly within your leaders’ control. With a very strong pro-labor administration in place in Washington, you may find that the gathering union strength will present an increasing challenge to your HR department’s efforts to help your company stay union-free.
This could be HR’s (and therefore your) best opportunity to demonstrate the real strategic value of the profession. And the good news is, says Tim Garrett, who, as the HR leader of Honda America Manufacturing, successfully fended off 15 unionization attempts over 30 years, as much as it is your responsibility, you also have the power to make an enduring difference to your business. The key, he says, is to use your power not to fight unions but to make your culture union -resistant.
These are your main power sources for keeping your company union free:
- Employee communications. Make your messaging about the business, competitiveness, the roles that your people play to helping the company meet its mission-critical objectives. Don’t talk down to your people or lecture them. Don’t be defensive. You absolutely don’t want to threaten or promise anything as a result of their union activities. That would be illegal. Don’t bad-mouth unions in general or in particular. Stay on the high road.
- Issues awareness. Find out what your peoples’ sources of dissatisfaction are. Consider this question: If a union were to come in, what would it do for my people that I’m not already doing? There are three ways you will address those issues. Do nothing (which would be disastrous); manage the issue (you help your people understand what business conditions lie behind their experience of the problem); or you fix the issue. Tim says that you don’t have to broadcast the news that you’ve resolved the issue. But I’m thinking that it couldn’t hurt to call your people’s attention to the fact that that particular pain has gone away.
- A culture of accountability. Your front-line leadership make the difference between motivated employees who are committed to your mission and unmotivated employees who are seething with resentment. When they treat their people with respect and dignity, when their people feel appreciated for what they do, you’re going to have a union-resistant workplace culture.
- Leadership awareness: Your senior leaders need to know that the labor movement has been gaining strength while they’ve been focused on other aspects of your business. Business has been especially white-knuckle in the past 18 months or so. And your senior leadership may have had to make some brutal talent decisions. Your people may be feeling especially vulnerable and especially receptive to union messaging. Combine this with a strengthening labor movement on the national level and your senior leadership may be surprised that your business is more vulnerable than they thought it would be.
After so many years helping Honda and its suppliers remain union resistant, Garrett emphasizes that the mission here is not to fight the unions. The mission is to create a workplace that is so engaging to your people that they would tell any union organizer, “You can’t give us anything we’re not already getting from our company’s leadership.”
Note: This article is an excerpt from an online audio interview with Tim Garrett. To hear the entire discussion or to download a free MP3 version of the full interview, visit Engagement Journeys.
Martha Finney, president and CEO of Engagement Journeys, helps companies build authentically engaging workplace cultures. She is the author of more than 15 books, including The Truth About Getting the Best From People.
Image credit, tacojim, via iStock