No small business owner welcomes a labor dispute, especially when operations are running smoothly and sales are up. When the union knocks on your door and your workers threaten to walk out, resist the temptation to unleash a few hot blooded words and close the door in their face. Instead, understand that most labor disputes are a result of poor communications and that some constructive two-way dialogue can probably help you to achieve an amicable resolution.
Communication is not barking orders. It’s listening, understanding, interpreting, and remembering. These distinctions — and the tact and sensitivity required of strong communication — are especially important when dealing with something as turbulent as a labor dispute. Research shows that successful small business owners spend as much as 80 percent of their time communicating with clients, staff members, and colleagues: all the more reason for your communication skills to be top notch during this time.
Labor disputes can happen for a variety of reasons, but they never arise because your employees are happy with the current system. Before you respond to your employees’ particular requests or demands, ask yourself why they have complaints or are making demands. According to About.com, the top four reasons for union organization and labor disputes all stem from employee desires.
- Higher wages: Do your workers earn enough to meet the cost of living? Are they paid a fair and competitive wage given their skill set, productivity levels, and education?
- Better benefits: What do your employees pay for health care? How comprehensive are the plans that your company offers? What do you feel is a fair price for coverage?
- Better working conditions: Does your business conform to regulations on workplace safety? Do you go above and beyond these conditions? Are your employees given time for breaks? Flexibility of schedule? Adequate vacation time?
- Increased job security: Do your employees understand that they will only be fired for just cause? Does your employee handbook outline your policies for job termination?
Precisely because labor disputes are so often personal and deep-rooted, it is crucial to listen with respect and understand effectively. Your employees want to believe that they have a voice, that they can trust their employer, and that they will be treated fairly.
Follow these six tips to polish your communication skills and avoid the threat of labor disputes:
- Don’t give conflicting verbal and nonverbal messages. Nonverbal communication includes your posture, facial expression, mannerisms, and any other form of body language. It has been proved that when an employee receives a verbal message and a nonverbal message at the same time, they usually listen to the nonverbal one. So say what you mean and act like you mean it.
- Give your employees the tools they need to do their jobs. If your employees can’t get the job done because they lack the proper tools (or training), who’s really at fault? Make sure the proper equipment is available before handing out that next assignment.
- Learn to lead from the background. You don’t have to be a Napoleonic boss in order to be an effective one. Delegate authority properly and provide the instructions, tools, and equipment your employees need to get their jobs done. Then step well enough away. If problems or issues arise, you can always step back in to help.
- Meet regularly with union representatives. If you consistently cancel union meetings and avoid union representatives, the next time contract negotiations are on the table you might be surprised to learn that you’ve become the enemy. Keep the lines of communication open year-round by meeting with union employee reps on a regular basis. Doing so will help you overcome workplace issues while they’re still small and easily manageable.
- Be fair, but don’t give away the farm. There may be times when you’ll be tempted to say yes to every union demand, simply to get them off your back. Don’t do it. Instead, understand that it’s the nature of bargaining for each party to ask for more than they’re willing to accept. As long as you’re being reasonable and following the rules and guidelines of collective bargaining, there’s no need to give away the keys to your business.
Owning and managing a business can be a daunting task. With careful planning, excellent communication skills, and the right attitude, you can avoid the miscommunication and missteps that can lead to labor disputes. Be sure to read the insightful case study A Labor-Management Partnership.
Also be sure to check out The Gentle Art of Agreement Making for more valuable information.