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Employee Engagement and Labor Unions – A Win-Win

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Lavigna
November 9, 2017

When my organization begins a new employee engagement survey, we conduct a kick-off meeting to explain the survey process to the key stakeholders in the agency or jurisdiction where we will be working. This is also an opportunity for us to explain what engagement is, and why it matters. Since we only get one chance to make a first impression, this is an important conversation.

We usually defer to the agency or jurisdiction to decide who the key stakeholders are, and who will attend the meeting. As far we we’re concerned, the more the better. We want the widest possible opportunity to discuss the engagement initiative. We especially like all-hands meetings.

One group we always suggest be invited is organized labor.

Despite the decline of labor union participation across the U.S. economy overall, unions still play an important role in the public sector. While only about six percent of private sector workers are represented by unions, more that 34 percent of government employees are represented. Then there’s all the public sector employees who are members of employee associations which perform many of the functions of organized labor. For example, in many public sector organizations, employers “meet and confer” with employee associations on workforce issues.

We want to speak to union leaders during kick-off meetings because these leaders have a strong influence on their members. We hope unions will be partners in the process of surveying employees and taking action on the results. In other words, we want labor inside the tent—as advocates—urging their members to complete the engagement survey. A high response rate creates the most valid and useful results.

The union leaders who attend these kick-off meetings usually ask important and sometimes tough questions.

Here are two examples:

During a kick-off meeting in a large city, a union president asked me (it was actually more of a statement than a question) whether this whole “employee engagement thing” was actually a ploy to squeeze more work out of his members.

While this one caught me a bit off guard, I quickly replied, “absolutely not.” Improving employee engagement is not about wringing more work out of public employees, many of whom are already struggling from budget cuts and the relentless criticism of government.

In contrast, I said, high-engagement organizations are more productive and effective because they treat their employees well. These employers care about factors like good supervision, fair pay and benefits, a positive work culture, adequate resources, employee development and work-life balance. As a result, employees deliver for these organizations — and the organizations therefore deliver for the people they serve. Done right, improving employee engagement is a win-win.

Another question from a union leader was a little tougher to answer. After I described the survey process, he stated the city didn’t need to do a survey to understand how employees feel about their work, their supervisors, their leaders and their organization. The survey was unnecessary because it was his job to keep his finger on the pulse of the workforce — and then tell management what the workforce issues are.

This was a tougher question because I needed to reinforce why the survey was necessary while also being respectful of the union leader’s key role.

I began my answer by saying that he and other leaders will continue to have important roles as spokespeople for their members. The engagement survey results would complement his feedback to management.

However, as I went on to say, the survey has some advantages, namely:

  • We would be asking the entire workforce to respond to the survey, thus giving every employee a voice, and signaling that leaders want to hear from each individual employee. This, by itself, can be a strong positive message to rank-and-file employees;
  • Each employee would be asked to respond to the same questions, thus allowing us to collect consistent and reliable data from the entire workforce. The survey would complement, not supplant, the union leader’s role as employee spokesperson;
  • We guarantee each employee’s survey response will be confidential, thus encouraging candid answers; and,
  • Our national database of benchmark data would enable the city to compare its results against other city employees across the nation. Plus, when the survey is repeated, the city would see if the needle of engagement is moving in the right direction.

My answer seemed to satisfy the union president.

We always hope union leaders will urge their members to complete the survey. That’s why we believe it’s important to meet with these leaders face-to-face at the beginning.

At one recent survey kick-off meeting (to which all city employees were invited), the union president stood up at the end and announced he was publicly urging his members to complete the survey. We achieved a very healthy 81 percent survey response rate, in part due to the support of our organized labor partners.

Will this always be the outcome? Although I’m an optimist, I’m not naïve, so probably not. However, it’s important to make the effort to partner with organized labor right from the start. That’s how to create a win-win outcome – for the agency or jurisdiction, and for its employees.

Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR Consulting, an independent government agency. Previously, he was assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin and VP-research at the Partnership for Public Service. Email: [email protected].

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