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What’s the world coming to when employees are moving to unionize at some of today’s most well-regarded brands? These are companies that have had a track record of being good, if not great, places to work? Starbucks stores in upstate New York and elsewhere have been unionizing in increasing numbers, currently totaling 200 locations and counting. And Apple, Chipotle and Trader Joe’s have been in the news lately as well for their workers’ efforts to unionize.
Behind this trend toward unionization are lessons for employers large and small. These reminders are about understanding what employees need.
Many large companies in the retail sector rely on the flexibility of part-time, rather than full-time, employees. That works well for employers and some employees, but if you need to support a household, let alone seek a career, part-time hourly work isn’t a viable solution.
Related: Unionizing Isn’t the Only Way to Restore Workers’ Bargaining Power
And while the minimum wage has been on the rise in some states and among certain retailers, it’s still not enough — so people work more than one job to make ends meet. The pandemic only accelerated these issues: Retail workers and others designated “essential” dealt with unpredictable schedules, colleagues calling out sick and decreased hours, as well as layoffs and furloughs. Workers need psychological safety to perform their best at work. That safety is diminished by an unstable environment or the stress of juggling multiple jobs.
Additionally, the new generation of workers are in tune with social injustice issues in an era when these challenges are front and center. As noted in the Washington Post about a recent push to unionize at a Starbucks in Maryland, recent unionization efforts have been led by women, Black men and LGBTQ+ workers. A Gallup poll in August 2022 found 71% of Americans approve of unions, the highest since 1965.
There is also a serious need for empathy among management at all levels. If you read (or listen to) employee stories about why they want union representation, it isn’t just about money or stability in schedules.
One employee at the first store to unionize in Buffalo felt “resentment and anger” at the company’s strong opposition. A few weeks later, workers at the store walked out over management’s refusal to address Covid-related safety issues and staffing shortages. In other words, managers haven’t shown empathy for the situations their employees are facing. And if they do have empathy, they aren’t integrating it into their communications and decision-making. This lack of empathy breaks the bonds of trust, and the resulting personal financial pressure makes employees turn to unions for help.
Related: Amazon Workers Fight to Improve Working Conditions
What’s left when there is no empathy? Transactional relationships where employees feel undervalued and management isn’t trusted.
A deficit of empathy at the management level is a driving factor in the Great Resignation among white-collar knowledge workers. It appears to also be a motivating force in this “Great Unionization.”
Here are three lessons from the “Great Unionization” that any employer can utilize to help improve employee satisfaction.
1. Think lifestyle, not just benefits and perks
Job satisfaction is not all about salary and benefits — it’s about understanding how employees look at a job in a holistic manner. People want to work with companies that meet their values. They want to be treated as valued members of a team and they want to have their voices heard. They want to make a difference. But most of all, they want to be able to integrate work as part of life, rather than having work be their life.
Many companies fail to understand these things. Take, for example, Trader Joe’s, a company traditionally generous with benefits. They have decreased retirement contributions and increased the number of hours needed to qualify for benefits from 20 to 30. That put many workers below the threshold. Trader Joe’s actions don’t meet the standard for empathetic leadership. Is it any wonder that this creates pushback?
Related: How To Regain Work/Life Balance
2. Align what you say with what you do
For those who say, “hourly jobs like that aren’t meant to be your sole source of income,” simply consider this: Why do these companies offer management tracks if they don’t expect to train, promote and retain employees over the long term? The simple answer is that they need and expect employees to have the company as their primary focus. As long as there are employees who want to make that commitment to their job on a full-time basis, why not let them?
3. Practice a culture of empathy
Unions are another way for employees to be seen, heard and feel valued. The past three years have been difficult for employers and employees at all levels as we’ve collectively had to navigate our way through the pandemic, social unrest, supply chain issues and now inflation. Reinforce the importance of an empathetic culture.
This means building cognitive empathy by following five steps to empathy: 1) dismantle judgment, 2) ask good questions, 3) actively listen, 4) integrate into understanding and 5) use solution imagination. Employees that report having empathetic leaders are more innovative, handle work-life balance more easily and are less likely to leave their organization. That’s a win for everyone.
In this post-pandemic, Great Resignation world, companies everywhere and of every size are faced with rethinking how to “compensate” employees. In addition to safe workplaces, fair compensation and decent benefits, unions allow employees to advocate for the basic rights and respect that can be lacking in transactional relationships between companies and workers. Unions allow workers to ask their employers to meet them halfway in a negotiation and to do so from a place of strength. That will help them with their sense of safety and feeling that their employer “gets them.”
Whether it’s the Great Resignation or this “Great Unionization,” companies that embrace the practice of empathy throughout their organization, at all levels, will thrive in this new alignment in employee relations. It just takes a greater effort with your employees, listening to and understanding their concerns, and then taking action using the empathy you’ve built toward a positive resolution. Whether you are pro-union or not, that sentiment is something we should all be able to get behind.
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