Want to Keep Unions Away? Develop Your Front-line Leaders

 A good article in the Washington Post. 


Union organizing is picking up steam in the US just as the economy is getting ready to surge. Position your company to take advantage of the upturn without the risk of a disruptive organizing campaign. 

Front-line leadership matters now more than ever. Front-line leaders are the face of your company to most of your employees. Employees who trust their front-line leaders trust the company and don’t feel the need to bring in a union. 

Read my latest blog about why developing front-line leaders is a company’s best union avoidance strategy. 

Leadership Development for Every Leader 

According to a 2019 article in Forbes, leadership development is a $366 billion industry. But not all development dollars are spent evenly across levels of leadership. Organizations spend much more on senior leader development than on front-line supervisor development. A recent survey showed that 58% of organizations spend $1000 or more per learner on senior leadership; 32% spend $1,000 or more on mid-level leadership and only 23% spend $1,000 or more on supervisory-level leadership. 

I’m all for developing senior leaders who can develop successful strategies and build strong teams to execute them. When it comes down to it though, most strategy is executed at the front line of the organization by people who make the products, provide the service, and sell directly to customers. If these front-line employees don’t have leaders who can engage them, communicate with them, and help them succeed, then the strategy will never really deliver on its promise. Companies should consider upping their investment in front-line leadership development. 

The Importance of Front-Line Leaders 

The front-line leader is one of the most important jobs in any organization. In most companies, front-line leaders are the face of the company to over 90% of its employees. Front-line leaders touch, communicate with, affect, and influence the vast majority of employees in any company on any given day. That’s a huge influence and a huge responsibility. 

As companies grow, front-line leaders become even more important. In large and mid-sized companies, front line employees rarely, if ever, talk to a senior executive, but they talk to their front-line leaders multiple times every day. For all intents and purposes, the front-line leader is the company to most employees. 

Front-line leadership has an outsized effect on employee engagement, retention, attitudes, discipline, productivity, and most importantly, employees’ perception of whether or not the company cares about people. If employees believe their front-line leaders aren’t trustworthy, don’t listen, or don’t care about their concerns, they will assume the entire company and its leaders are like that too, and they may begin thinking that a union could help. 

An Opening for Unions 

Today, union organizing is rarely about wages and benefits. Most companies have figured out that providing competitive wages and benefits can leave unions with little added value to offer. If money isn’t the issue, why do employees organize? Most organizing campaigns I have personally experienced, and those I’ve read about recently, are driven less by money than by employee perceptions of leadership that is unfair, uncaring, and unwilling to listen to and address employee concerns. It’s all about leadership. 

When employees start to believe that their front-line leaders and their company don’t care about them, they become much more open to the overtures of union organizers. Many times, as is the case with the current Amazon campaign in Alabama, employees seek out representation on their own. When your employees go looking for a union, there are issues in your organization. 

Unions are more than happy to fill a void of trust between employees and their leaders. The pitch from the union can be very attractive; we really care about you, we’ll fight for your dignity, we’ll give you a voice that management must listen to, we’ll protect you from management that doesn’t care about you. Anyone who has participated in an organizing campaign will tell you that they’ve had a lot more discussions with employees about local leadership than about wages and benefits. 

The Best Union Avoidance Strategy 

Given the outsized influence front-line supervisors have on employee attitudes toward the company, and why they might consider a union, an effective union avoidance strategy should include doing two things consistently and exceptionally well; 1) select great front-line leaders, 2) develop front-line leaders to effectively lead people. 

Select front line leaders based on their ability to deal with people and get results through others, not their ability to run a machine better, or sell more, than everyone else. Invest in front-line leader development at the same level as senior leaders. Train front-line leaders in 

proven fundamental leadership skills; selection and hiring, building trust-based relationships, communication, fair and equitable work practices, and effective performance management. 

Fighting an organizing campaign typically costs between $100,000 and $500,000. When it’s over, there is only one of two things to show for the money, time and disruption; an upcoming contract negotiation or a big repair job to regain your employees’ trust. Neither is worth the cost and aggravation. 

Developing front-line leaders costs significantly less than an organizing campaign and it has been proven that front-line leaders who consistently apply positive people leadership practices make it impossible for a union to offer any value to your employees. That’s worth investing in.