Managers, Did You Know Worker Voice Can Help You Too?

Last week as I was looking for information on the websites of three different think tanks I noticed all three were suggesting the same thing to help raise wages.  The Aspen Institute, The Roosevelt Institute and the Economic Policy Institute all said worker voice was needed for wages to increase and help workers but there was something they left out.  It’s also a benefit  to employers.  It’s not  just for one-side.  It helps managers, too!

At the Aspen Institute, a group of educators, business professionals, labor professionals and others met to come up with a plan to address the wage crisis.  There are two parts to their plan.  One is to learn more about best practices in worker voice and the other is to focus on updating labor laws.

The Roosevelt Institute recognizes the importance of worker voice  and says labor laws must be updated to help workers gain that voice. They believe worker voice not only impacts the work place but politics and the overall economy.  When workers have a voice there is opportunity to change society.  They look back at the 1930s and into the ‘60s when unions had a strong voice in the workplace especially in the auto plants.  It helped them to make a significant impact not just at Ford, GM and Chrysler but other workplaces, too. It also gave them some leverage in politics and helped families have good-paying jobs instead of families of today who are unsure if they have enough money to pay for food or utility bills.

Worker voice is more than negotiating wages and benefits says the Economic Policy Institute.  EPI says worker voice helps with better working conditions such as safety, work schedules and other issues.  In addition, when workers have a voice, conflicts can be better managed which can also help the employer.  When workers have a voice, it provides a model for democracy and it can provide a mechanism for problem solving and communication.

All three think tanks made excellent points about worker voice but they left  out some things. Whether it’s worker voice, employee engagement or labor-management cooperation, it’s the same thing and all are about working together.  We’ve worked with many different types of workplaces and both labor and management always have a voice on the issues being discussed.  In fact, we encourage it.  More often than not both sides have an interest in the issues either side will bring up.  For the process to be successful, it’s important to consider the interests and concerns of both sides.  Each side offers a perspective to the issue being discussed.  You need different perspectives because it provides more information and more ideas to resolve an issue.  It’s much better than one person or one side making the determination because there’s a greater chance of a REAL resolution.

For example, a couple of labor-management  committees looked at major changes in their workplaces with  the work they did.  In one workplace, the skills of workers were becoming outdated and it was apparent either they were going to need a new set of skills or at least update them.  Neither side  wanted a layoff or to replace employees with more skilled workers  so both management and labor looked at ideas on how to resolve the issue.  They decided to start with an educational fair.  It would be on-site and during a work day.  Employees would be allowed to leave their work to visit the vendors at the fair.  Labor leaders explained the situation to their co-workers.  Both sides worked to organize the  educational fair so people could  seek out the educational resources.  In addition, the labor side already had an educational reimbursement process in place so that also provided an added incentive to the employees.  Their education costs would either be none or very little!

In the other workplace, technology was causing major job changes which impacted the process of the work being performed.  In other words, some of the employees were faced with losing their job because of  technology.  There was an interest from both sides to make improvements but not necessarily for the same reasons.  They did come together in what needed to change.  First, both sides agreed it was  important to look at process.  Once they determined a process with the use of the new technology they could address the individual job.  When they finished their work on the process,  they came up with a new one that was more productive but something both sides liked and could support.  They all believed it would help them fulfill the mission they were required to do.  Next, came reviewing the job so it could fit into the new process. Everybody had a voice in reviewing the job description, including the employees.  They finished their review and made their changes.  Again, as with the process, everybody was in agreement with it and supported the outcome.  It took a voice from both sides to come up with an acceptable plan and implement it.  It took some patience and some work.  Some got frustrated with the amount of time it took but it was worth it because they came up with solutions that everybody liked and were willing to support.

Worker voice isn’t about giving in, or it shouldn’t be.  It’s about working together to come up with a solution that workers and management can support.  It’s not always easy but the outcomes can be so much better than one side imposing a decision on the other and creating conflict situations.

Managers shouldn’t lose their voice.  They deserve to  have a perspective, too.  In both of those two examples, the management perspective was absolutely needed just as the union or the employees needed to provide a perspective.  Everybody’s  input needs to be valued.  Each provides a different perspective based on their job, experience, background, maybe even gender, age plus many other things.  Workplaces need those different perspectives so they can survive and that’s one of the things managers do.  They work on the survival of the organization and allowing worker voice helps with that.

As we have blogged many times, worker voice helps managers increase productivity.  In the example above, managers were able to have a much more effective process not just because the group was looking at improving the process itself but because workers were involved in helping create a more effective process.  Instead of being told, employees had some input to create a better work environment.  Any time workers can be included in decision-making and their input is used it helps with productivity.

Worker voice also helps managers maintain trained staff so the costs of turnover can be avoided.  Employees that are more involved in the day-to-day decision making of the workplace are less likely to leave.  They feel they are part of the workplace and have a sense of “ownership.”  In fact, with the committees or groups we have worked with the employees were usually more demanding of themselves and their peers than management was.  Some managers think employees don’t understand the BIG picture of things but actually they do.  Another group we worked with had to make the difficult decision of outsourcing jobs. They didn’t lay people off but they did have to recognize the organization was fiscally better off to outsource a  few vacant jobs than to lay people off in the future.

Many managers today think employees have an inability to problem solve.  Worker voice can help with that.  It provides a training mechanism to help employees learn to solve problems in a practical approach.  In both of the examples, labor and management utilized problem solving tools to help determine solutions.  In our training, we use the interest-based problem solving model which is based on interest-based negotiations. This helps to resolve problems based on the concerns and interests of the parties involved plus allow for basic problem solving tools such as brainstorming, control charting and others to be used.  It can be used in non-unionized and non working environments.  It can be applied in many different situations.  Some have used it with customer service.

In addition, there are complaints workers don’t know how to be team players.  This is something worker voice can definitely help with  because workers feel more a part of the workplace when they’re included in resolving the issues impacting the workplace.  When we do our trainings, it’s interesting to watch the team development  occur throughout the training.  By the end of the training, the group is a team and eager to get started.  They may still have some skepticism but there’s also enough enthusiasm to motivate them.  If they don’t have a difficult item that they absolutely have to work on initially, we tell groups to start with small items first before working on more difficult items so they learn to work with each other.

For some managers, though, it may mean a change in management style and that can be  difficult.  An employee engagement or worker voice process is not a traditional approach.  With a traditional approach, managers tell employees what to do. With a worker voice process it’s more about helping employees determine what to do and how to do it.  That’s good news for managers because it helps with employee development and  frees up more time to do other things which helps any manager.

There also can be a fear of losing control if using a worker voice process.  Some are worried, too, it will threaten their job security.  When an employee engagement process or worker voice process is done correctly, jobs should not be threatened.  If they are, people, whether it’s employees or managers, will lose trust and the process won’t be effective or work for either side.  As far as control, that’s a huge myth that is out there. Control is somewhat of an illusion because it’s difficult to say what control is.  When we ask managers what control means they find it difficult to explain. Is it control over the workplace, or the worker, or the work? Nobody can answer.  Nobody really knows.

There also may be an element for risk which can frighten some managers.  What if something goes wrong?  What if there’s a mistake?  These are legitimate questions we receive and we say mistakes will happen.  They always do.  No one is perfect.  It’s how we deal with them that’s important.  Even though mistakes are sometimes uncomfortable, we survive.  Set up expectations ahead of time so everybody is aware of what they can and can’t do. Also, seek for clarification so everybody understands what is expected of them.  Both can help  some of the mistakes from occurring.

Worker voice is about everyone.  It’s not about being a labor person or a management person.  It’s about people, and as one of the think tanks said, worker voice provides democracy in the workplace.  When there are worker voice processes or employee engagement processes going on, people learn more about each other and there are fewer conflicts or grievances.  They learn they have some similar interests and concerns.  They also learn about different personalities and how every personality brings something to the process.

On the other hand, there are some cautions with this process.  It does take some patience and some work.  It’s about being  honest and respecting others and their opinions.  If none of those happen, the process will fail.  It’s not instantaneous like tv shows but maybe that’s good so everybody learns more about each other and really  explore the issues that are being considered.  Good problem solving, too, takes time.  Each time a group meets they work toward solving the problem.

It’s not easy to start especially if there’s been bad history.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  It’s a valuable tool and something that helps both the workplace and individuals.  It has saved money, jobs, and improved products and customer services.  The benefits are just too numerous to mention.    So, managers, try worker voice.  Remember, you get to have a voice, too!

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About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at http://calmc.org
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