In HR Dive's Mailbag series, we answer HR professionals' questions about all things work. Have a question? Send it to [email protected].
Q: I'm hearing rumors about unionization efforts. How do I respond?
Here's what HR pros usually do when faced with rumors of a union: They get on Google and start looking up union or anti-union efforts. This move is a mistake, according to HR pro, employment law attorney and consultant Kate Bischoff.
"What you're going to find [on Google] is the traditional labor handbook," Bischoff told HR Dive in an interview. "And that's not working anymore."
The traditional approach to union efforts fails because unions aren't forming for the traditional reasons in the traditional way, Bischoff said. Bischoff recommended employers swap the old methods for a renewed commitment to listening. This approach allows them to determine whether they can address any of the issues behind the union efforts — and potentially quell the campaign along the way.
Where the traditional response fails
Generally, the traditional response to union efforts starts with meetings — a lot of meetings. The employer begins with a captive audience meeting where it tells workers to bring issues to leaders. It's also a moment for the employer to downplay the benefits of third-party communication. Bischoff noted that National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo believes these meetings to be in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
Next, employers hold one-on-one meetings to "get the message out."
To demonstrate why this response often fails, Bischoff pointed to high-profile employers. "Starbucks has won so few of the hundreds of petitions that have come up," she said. "They've been using a very traditional labor firm to help them navigate this, but that traditional handbook is not working for Starbucks. It didn't work for Amazon, either."
Bischoff attributed the failure of the traditional response to the developments in unionization efforts. "Unionizing isn't about traditional issues anymore," she said. Efforts forgo once-typical issues like bigger wages and better benefits. Instead, they focus on internal and external culture issues ranging from diversity, equity and inclusion commitments to environmental impact efforts.
As workers band together for new reasons, employees look to atypical unions, as well, Bischoff observed. "They're not going to the big, traditional unions," she said. "They're banding together to force employers to make decisions about things they're asking for. It means that they really want you to make the change they've likely asked you for already."
Out with the old, in with the new
In Bischoff's mind, this shift should send a clear signal to employers: Listen to employees and engage with their requests.
"If you were an employee and you had people who listened to you, who explained why or why not they could take action, would you need a third party?" Bischoff asked. "Probably not."
Employee listening is "the most effective thing" employers can do to prevent unionization, Bischoff said. Employers must listen actively to reap any benefits, however. Employers can signal good listening by providing what employees ask for or explaining why the request is impossible to fulfill.
HR pros generally know what employees want — union campaign or not, Bischoff pointed out. "Every campaign I've been involved in, the HR person already knows why the campaign is happening," she said. But if practitioners are looking for data points to back up their observations, they can typically look to employee engagement surveys, pulse surveys, anonymous reporting, and formal and informal complaints.
HR pros should look to these resources and ask themselves whether their organizations responded to the information employees provided. If they didn't, and they encounter unionizing rumors or efforts, they will know why those sentiments exist, Bischoff said. And they may have an opportunity to correct course before efforts grow more serious.
Steps to support listening
Bischoff identified a few steps HR pros should take to support their listening efforts when they hear rumors about unionization:
- Tell the leaders: "Absolutely involve the top," Bischoff said. "Tell them right away. And then say: Here's where I think we can make some progress." Some leaders may need to take on more accessibility, especially in environments where workers feel unheard and unseen. "If you're in manufacturing and your CEO has never been on the factory floor before, that's going to be cool, especially if the CEO is asking about your experience."
- Get an attorney involved. Employers will need an attorney's help when facing union efforts. "It's always good to know what you can't say," Bischoff said. HR pros who are attempting to up listening efforts may feel tempted to affirm employees' every want. "But that could be a promise that you can't make during a unionizing campaign," Bischoff pointed out. Still, HR pros may need to push attorneys a little, especially if they hand out the traditional playbook.
- Remain impersonal: HR pros may feel offended or worried when they hear about union efforts, Bischoff noted. "In a lot of ways, HR's always been told that if a union comes in, we'll lose our jobs," she said. "It is wrapped up in our being successful, but we can't take it personally if we haven't been listening, if we haven't convinced leadership on the issues we already know are prevalent."
Start listening now
Bischoff's last tip is the one she spoke most ardently about.
"If you haven't heard about union efforts, this is the perfect time to go to leadership and point to your competitors, to the big ones that make the news, and say, ‘This is where we're seeing this happen,'" Bischoff said. “’This is what employees have told us. This is what we haven't responded to. Maybe we should take a look at this.'"
HR pros should go through the feedback they already have access to and reach out to employees they know well to ask what they would improve. Bischoff's favorite question to ask an employee: Would you accept another job offer from us?
"If they would, that's great information. If they wouldn't, figure out why," she said. "Checking in with them is important, even in remote settings."