Now is a good time to be empowering employees. Don’t take my word for it but take the words of the President of the United States in his speech announcing a$2tn infrastructure renewal plan. A speech in which he declared “I am a union man”. He views the unions as an important part of the post pandemic plan. And by unions he means employees.
You may think a Conservative government in this country would never make such a pro empowering employees statement but Theresa May shortly after becoming PM made a speech to the CBI in which she said company boards should have an employee representative to counteract the fact that boards were too narrow being made up of people from the ,” same narrow professional and social circles”. Germany, Denmark and Sweden all require large and medium size companies to have employee representatives on their boards, in the belief that the workers voice can help executive teams prioritise long term decision making ,ahead of short term financial considerations.
Employee representatives on boards are not a replacement for trade unions but simply another way of trying to empower employees. Having said that even organisations with a strong history of unionisation have seen membership fall to below 50% so giving a place on the board to employee reps gives a voice to those who are not in the union.
I am sure many managers will be surprised to hear me say it but in my experience it is in an organisation’s best interests to encourage and support trade union membership. Far from being a “ thorn in the side of management” they are a way of empowering employees making it far easier to engage and consult with staff. Plus as any experienced HR professional knows TU reps act as an effective break on some of the more rash and ill thought through actions of management. As a former HR colleague once said , “organisation’s get the Trade Union they deserve”. Meaning that the Trade Union wasn’t the problem, the problem was how the organisation went about treating its employees, if you don’t consult, if you act in an arbitrary way, if you don’t explain the thinking behind decisions then it’s hardly surprising that there is mistrust and conflict.
If we take this opportunity to empower employees then the biggest challenge will be changing the traditional thinking of many managers. A lot of managers think they know what their staff want and what they want is unreasonable or unrealistic. However they have not actually asked them. Middle managers in particular are reluctant to have open meetings with employees citing previous experience of such sessions simply turning into ,”moaning sessions”. I have also heard senior managers outline their business plan by stating their was no point in seeking the views of employees as we already knew that the proposals would be unpopular.
Whilst an organisation can impose changes and some have been prepared to dismiss staff who refuse to accept new contracts or make large sections of employees redundant and then rehire on new JD’s and new less favourable terms and conditions. For the creative and determined there are always ways to impose change. But if you alienate the very people you need to make the changes work then it’s unlikely to be a smooth process. Engaging and empowering employees doesn’t mean unpopular changes won’t be made it means those who have to carry out the work are in the best position to identify issues that may not have been fully explored and provide the opportunity for them to come up with solutions!
When we refer to empowering employees we tend not to be thinking of managers but managers are employees and if we want them to empower their staff we need to ensure the organisation is setting the right example in how it engages with managers.
As the project manager of a large complex project the Director asked me to attend quarterly meetings with Area and team managers. She said,”we don’t want these sessions to be you and me doing all the talking we need to get them working so an up date from you and me then divide them into groups and ask them to come up with their top 3 issues, their suggestions for resolving these and 3 positives outcomes from the project so far.