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Reducing the Threat of Labor Problems

July 1, 2004
by root
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Treating your employees with the dignity of colleagues can go a long way, says this labor relations expert by Stephen J. Cabot, Esq.

Reducing the threat of labor problems

Effectively communicating concern for and appreciation of employees builds a firm foundation for successful labor relations As a labor-relations attorney with more than 35 years of experience representing management in all facets of labor relations, I have emphasized to my long-term care clients that a written strategic communications action plan can be one of the most important steps to ending adversarial relationships with employees and reducing the threat of labor problems. Although the importance of open communication is well understood and sounds simple and easy, few long-term care facilities implement a communications plan that specifies responsibilities and imposes a schedule.

A successful communications plan must have an "asking" strategy, based upon listening, responding, and acting, so that employees become stakeholders. (Often a management team does not have an "asking" strategy because its members believe they have all the answers.) To get practical answers, the plan must contain critical questions. The most important questions are: What? When? Where? How? Unless these questions are answered specifically, the action plan will not be implemented properly-or it might not be implemented at all because other priorities may take precedence.

If management does not have a scheduled, ongoing action plan addressing these questions, it will be perceived by employees as being insular, secretive, and uncaring. Therefore, the employees will feel alienated, and management will have succeeded in maintaining and furthering an adversarial relationship that ultimately will take its toll on the bottom line.

In contrast, a scenario in which management and employees talk and listen to one another and resolve problems together will increase employees' trust in management. If employees are to believe management's words, there must be open and ongoing communication, both verbal and written, based upon a specific strategic action plan. Employee award programs will also bolster employees' positive perceptions of their employer's concern and appreciation.

Timing Is Everything
One of the biggest mistakes administrators and managers make is failing to open the doors of communication before a labor problem arises. Faced with negotiating a new union contract or dealing with a union-organizing effort or difficult operational issues, management may suddenly decide it's time to talk with workers. By then it's too late. At this point, workers naturally will suspect management's motives and regard everything managers say with cynical disbelief. It is essential that open communication be ongoing, not something that is initiated at the first threat of labor problems.

Building Trust by Building Credibility
An ongoing strategic communications plan will demonstrate management's credibility; it will be built upon a foundation of asking, listening, talking, and acting in response to employees' needs and issues. Managers cannot sincerely ask, listen, and talk if they do not know anything about those with whom they are having a conversation. Therefore, they should know each worker's name, job description, and family background, and be familiar with each worker's performance rec-ord. Such basic knowledge implies a level of care and concern.

The employer's concern for employees' welfare goes a long way toward establishing trust, and there are many ways to communicate that concern. Each is a necessary ingredient for a successful communications action plan. I have helped management communicate concern for employees not only by creating an asking program, but also by creating a variety of cost-effective benefits. One example is providing small, short-term, interest-free loans to employees in case of emergencies. I have also helped organizations implement regularly scheduled actions that communicate goodwill and have a positive impact on morale, such as sending employees anniversary and birthday cards, paying for birthday and/or anniversary dinners for them and their spouses, and facilitating child-care arrangements.

Other ways to communicate concern include providing financial information about retirement investments, offering fitness and stress-reduction classes, and having a guidance counselor available to advise parents about college admissions and costs. In addition to showing management's interest and concern, these extra benefits make employees feel like valued stakeholders in the company.

Having successfully communicated its concern for its employees, management can open more direct channels of communication, knowing that its credibility is secure. Communication Takes Many Forms
Nothing is more effective than one-on-one discussions in which management asks, listens, and talks, encouraging employees to do the same. The chats may take only seconds or minutes, but they should be a requirement of the strategic communications action plan. During these discussions, managers can ask such basic questions as, "How are you?" and "Can I help you?" This gives employees multifaceted opportunities to address issues in an open and friendly environment.

More structured meetings also can keep the doors of communication open. Among the various kinds of meetings where management and employees can engage in direct and forthright communication are group meetings, compliance sessions, quality circles, and meetings for senior employees.