I recently attended an end-of-year workshop on updating employee handbooks. I know, not exactly the most exciting year-end party for sure, but it was far more interesting than I expected. The presenter was Thomas Royall Smith, a shareholder with Jackson Lewis, one of the country’s preeminent workplace law firms. With over 40 years of labor law and labor litigation experience, and being named one of America’s best Lawyers, I thought I would pay attention to his explanation of the key issues. Up until now, my expertise was limited to tales an HR friend told me ten years ago.
The presentation went through dozens of sample issues that appear in typical employee handbooks. The class guessed which policies were lawful and which were not. We were wrong at least as often as we were correct. It is absolutely astonishing to me to learn the technical issues that can get an employer in trouble. This doesn’t just apply to large employers or union workplaces, but nearly all employers, including small shops. Even if you only have two employees, if you do more than $500,000 per year in interstate commerce, you qualify – so even many small retailers or service business can fall into this category. Even in states with employed at will laws, the Federal law prohibits you a wide array of policies that most employers in our workshop thought would be lawful. You don’t have to have unions to have a work slowdown, shutdown or walkout, and you still cannot terminate the employee. Even if you only have two employees, if they are educated more than you are about the law, they could walkout under circumstances that do not allow you to terminate them. In today’s legal environment, you cannot afford unhappy employees. All that said, let us not worry about the details of what applies and doesn’t technically apply to you, since I am sure you want to do the right thing by your employees anyway. With that in mind, what was most fascinating to me though was a comment the presenter made toward the end of the workshop that applies to absolutely anyone who has even one part time employee. “Employees unionize because of how they are treated and because of poor communication” ~ Thomas Royall Smith. That simple quote tells me that we might be better off if we skip the whole workshop, throw out the employee handbook and just treat people right, and learn to listen. If it were only that easy.
The complexity of defining “treating people right” and “listening” can get us into trouble as well. How we treat employees sometimes has little to do with their perceptions of how they are treated. The perception will drive their actions of course. Their perception is often held in secret until it’s too late to correct it. This means communication may be the most critical element of employee relations. Do your employees feel they have a voice? Do they feel seen, heard, valued and appreciated? If you easily answered yes to all the above, how do you know? We are talking about how you perceive their perception! This is almost impossible for you to be absolutely certain of, and if you have more than just a few close employees, it is impossible to be sure. When outside consultants interview employees, or 3rd party anonymous surveys are completed, the results are usually shocking and disappointing to management.
According to Gallup research, less than one-third (31.5%) of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs in 2014. This is up from 29.6% in 2013 and is the highest ranking since 2000, when Gallup began tracking engagement levels of the U.S. working population. However, a majority of employees, 51%, were still "not engaged" and 17.5% were "actively disengaged" in 2014. Can you afford to have almost a one out of every 2 employees not engaged and less than 1/3 actually engaged in their job? Apparently, some companies can, because that has become the norm, but I am guessing that if you have limited resources or higher ambitions that mere survival, you will want to do better.
As a leader, in any leadership position from shift supervisor to store manager to CEO or owner, every thriving, successful person I know, reflects and proactively works on their leadership and communication skills. Humility is at least as important as confidence to the successful leader. Being willing to solicit and value the wisdom and expertise of others, being willing to solicit and value honest feedback from subordinates as well as customers, clients and superiors, being coachable themselves and genuinely caring about their staff are all hallmarks of a leader who doesn’t need to worry so much about the technical legalities of handbooks. It seems to me, we would be better off by getting ourselves and our management team in good working order as leaders and coaches. This is far more proactive and productive than hiring lawyers to protect us from the damage we cause by not doing our own personal development work. Be kind, be fair and help your employees be successful. You’ll be fine.
Michael Kline is a Certified RIM Facilitator and Certified Success Trainer for personal and group transformation. You can reach him through his website www.intus.life, or e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.