The Three Biggest Blunders Dealing With Unions

By Amy Lee

Mar. 16, 2009

With card-check legislation on the horizon, employers need to open up communication with their workers now more than ever, says Bill Adams, CEO of labor management consultancy Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan in Fort Wright, Kentucky.

    Letting problems and grievances fester, he says, is a good way to drive workers to unionize.

    “The bottom line is, if the issues are common and fixable and they’re not addressed, they’ll soon be sitting down with a union. It’s that simple,” Adams says.

    Some employers assume they’ll never have to deal with a union. Others panic at the first sign that workers are organizing. Both reactions can lead to painful and costly mistakes, Adams says.

Ignoring the possibility
   Many business owners adopt an “ostrich” mentality and assume their workers will not seek union representation, says Stephen Cabot, chairman of the Cabot Institute for Labor Relations Inc. in Pennsylvania.

    “They think, ‘It won’t happen. I’m a good employer. Everybody loves me.’ But waiting is a death knell,” Cabot says. “If you don’t step back and find out how your employees feel and get addressing those concerns now, you’re dead in the water.”

    Employees are particularly tuned in to issues of fairness, especially regarding pay, and discrepancies over time do not go unnoticed, he warns. Wise employers seek feedback and try to resolve problems.

Tolerating lax, inept or corrupt behavior from supervisors or managers
   Employers that overlook bad seeds among management ranks leave themselves vulnerable. Accepting or ignoring malevolent behavior from supervisors kills morale and breeds resentment, Adams says.

    “If you have allowed a supervisor to behave in that way, you must fire him or get him out of there,” he says.

    Look for clues in body language.

    “Pay attention to your employees. Do they look you in the eye, or are their eyes downcast? You can tell when something’s wrong,” he advises. “Get to the root of the issue.”

Assuming executives can freely discuss union matters with employees
   There are rules about what employers can and cannot say to employees, especially to those who are attempting to organize or are in the process of reaching their first collectively bargained contract. In particular, asking questions about a worker’s interest in union representation is off limits.

    Become familiar with acceptable discourse.

    “A useful general rule is that an employer can be a dispenser of information, but not a collector,” according to the nonprofit National Federation of Independent Business, which has published a guide for small-business owners facing organizing efforts on its Web site:

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