I just spent a little bit better than a week on a road trip/vacation to the Southwest. I used a lot of my time there to think about the last few years and what has transpired since I published my first book in 2008.
My book was kind of a journal about my experiences as a human resources practitioner, executive, and consultant and why I thought there were way better models for the employer/employee relationship that we now refer to almost ubiquitously as employee engagement.
When I look back now somewhat wryly I think my timing could have been a little better.
When I started my career in the late seventies in a field then called Personnel one of the things that was very prevalent was the desire for employers who did not have union representation to remain unorganized.
We weren’t so gauche as to call it union avoidance; we referred to it as Positive Employee Relations.
It was taken pretty seriously, in fact at my employer there was an expectation that in the event your location was subjected to a representation election you were expected to submit your resignation, the outcome of the election determined whether or not that resignation would be accepted or not.
As things progressed we expanded the framework of our thinking to include creating an environment where our employees didn’t perceive a need to seek intervention from any third party. Our list of third parties was pretty extensive; it included plaintiff’s attorneys, government agencies, and special interest groups. Way beyond just unions.
The idea wasn’t punitive; it was to create alignment between ourselves and our employees.
That concept has stayed with me over three decades. When faced with the age old argument of who does HR represent my position has always been that we are there to create a bridge, a win-win environment.
The eighties and nineties saw the proliferation of things like the total quality movement, the beginnings or lean and other models that had some form of collaboration in the mix.
Unfortunately we also saw outsourcing, right sizing, and a fundamental change in the relationship between employers and their employees. This was the age where the concept of human capital took hold. Employees were assets to be deployed.
Competition and other factors caused some forward progress as employers had to compete for talent in the first decade of the new millennium, but the recession changed a lot of that. We slipped back to a lot of bad habits.
I think it is important that the human capital era coincides to an extent to when Gen X and the Millennials were growing up. They saw a model of a relationship between employers and employed that wasn’t terribly positive and they filed it away.
They understand the true concept of employment at will; that the intent is that relationship is balanced. They also snicker at the idea of lifetime employment and the traditional view of loyalty that employers still want to complain about.
Collective bargaining, the right of employees to join together to negotiate areas like wages, hours, and working conditions, has taken a pretty good beating over the past few decades.
I vastly prefer an environment where I am free to discuss these issues directly with my employees rather than through an intermediary, but I also aspire to the model where they perceive that third party intervention as unnecessary.
My colleague, Brad Federman published a post this morning about recent actions on the part of the National Labor Relations Board that give employers less time to react in the event they become aware that their employees are potentially seeking to join a union and bargain collectively. He points out as I do that your best defense should be an engaged workforce rather than a clever pre-election campaign.
We have some things in our favor. Millennials tend to be pretty independent. I am not sure they are going to be any more inclined to surrender their autonomy to a third party to negotiate on their behalf than they are to trust their employer blindly.
That being said there are sectors where unionization is making some inroads.
Unless you have been living in a cage the merits of an engaged and aligned workforce are pretty clear and pretty well documented. Creating an engagement culture is a process not an event and to my mind it is simple, but not easy.
Employees who are aligned with your values, your culture, and who feel valued are unlikely to feel the need to go to someone else to get that for them.
The majority of human resource practitioners would tell you that compliance with the myriad of regulations and laws that govern the employment relationship is their main priority- as you might suspect I disagree.
If you are doing the right things proactively you are playing win-win, not win–lose…..