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Is the Human Resources Department the Union of the 21st Century?

Has the Human Resources Department Become the Union of the 21st Century? Every Labor Day I reminisce about my 24 years as a labor attorney and union official of an 8,000 member national union. It was a great job and I enjoyed it immensely. However, after an election defeat in 1992, I went over to the “dark side” and founded The Glover Group on the premise Employees and Employers had to work together to thrive in the WorkQuake ©of the Knowledge Economy.

Has the Human Resources Department Become the Union of the 21st Century?

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Every Labor Day I reminisce about my 24 years as a labor attorney and union official of an 8,000 member national union. It was a great job and I enjoyed it immensely. However, after an election defeat in 1992, I went over to the “dark side” and founded The Glover Group on the premise Employees and Employers had to work together to thrive in the WorkQuake ©of the Knowledge Economy.

When I was a union leader, the primary objection most employers had about their employees joining a union was not increased wages and benefits but the loss of control over the company’s employees. Companies hated the restrictions placed on their ability to manage employees because of union contractual regulations like seniority provisions, rigid job descriptions/job classifications, and the grievance & arbitration process that, from the employer’s perspective, protected unproductive and disruptive employees (“The Others”) from discipline and discharge.

Things have changed in the sixteen years since I was a union official. Union membership in the private sector is below 8% of the workforce and the power of the union to unreasonably restrict an employer operation has been tempered by the loss of jobs due to outsourcing and the competitive nature of the domestic marketplace. But the complaints of Front Line Leaders, managerial employees who are in the trenches daily, haven’t changed. Only instead of complaining about the union, today’s Front Line Leaders are complaining about how the Human Resources Department is restricting their ability to get the job done by placing barriers in their way in the form of restrictive employee policies and procedures and protection for The Others, preventing the Front Line Leaders from effectively doing their jobs. Apparently, the HR Department has evolved into the Union of the Knowledge Economy!

In most instances, the HR Department is only reacting to the concerns of the company’s lawyers. As a “recovering” lawyer, I absolutely understand the company lawyer’s mindset: restrict the greedom of Front Line Leaders as much as possible so they will not make a mistake with an employee and cost the company money. To this end, the company’s lawyers have impressed upon the HR Department the need to have as many procedures and policies as possible in place to eliminate as much latitude as possible and ensure no Front Line Leader makes a mistake when it comes to dealing with an employee – especially a “difficult” employee.

This overly restrictive control of Front Line Leaders made sense in the bad old days of the Industrial Economy when Command & Control was the order of the day and Front Line Supervisors were all Theory X guys. Then the workforce needed to be protected from the harsh unreasonable actions of Supervisors who were prejudiced, untrained, and managed through intimidation and threats, who violated Wage & Hour Laws, discriminated on the base of race, religion, age and disability in violation of Title VII, and tolerated, if not participated in, the sexual harassment of female employees. The restrictive provisions of the union contract provided the necessary restraints on Supervisory abusive conduct and protected the work force and the employer from overly zealous Supervisors.

But that was back in the day! Today’s Front Line Leaders are Theory Y in their relationship to the workforce, they understand diversity and the need to follow the law, and they are becoming coaches not bosses. Because of these changes in the Front Line Leaders’ managerial mindset and the need of every company in the WorkQuake© to compete with High Performance Work Teams and where every Front Line Leader is expected to get the job done by doing more with less, the HR Department needs to stop being the union and give Front Line Leaders more discretionary freedom to get the job done. The HR Department and the company’s lawyers concerns about the conduct of the company’s Front Line Leaders, expressed through restrictive policies and procedures, is as much an impediment to improved workplace performance today as were the unreasonable union imposed restrictions of thirty years ago.

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The failure of the HR Department to give Front Line Leaders discretionary freedom (excluding them from the hiring process; opposing Righteous Firings that gets rid of The Others), frustrates and de-motivates the Front Line Leaders, who can’t understand why the company fails to acknowledge that they are now capable of making the right decisions. The Bottom Line: Having the HR Department functioning as the union of the 21st Century puts companies at a competitive disadvantage in the WorkQuake© of the Knowledge Economy.

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