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Vehicles for Lawful Two-Way Communications

By Howard M. Bloom and Patrick L. Egan
  • December 9, 2001

The recent favorable ruling on employee committees by the National Labor Relations Board in the Crown Cork & Seal Company case is just the latest in a long line of decisions going both ways on the lawfulness of these vehicles for employee/management interaction. Given this apparent inconclusiveness on the legality of employee committees, employers should consider the following communication vehicles, which are generally considered to be lawful and effective in maintaining positive employee relations:

Rotating Suggestion Groups

To identify the issues concerning employees and, at the same time, meet the growing employee desire for a greater voice and more participation in matters affecting their jobs, the company might consider the establishment of a system of rotating suggestion groups. Usually, the groups consist of employees from different departments who meet and discuss job-related problems and concerns. Management participates generally in the form of the human resources department or supervisor for the purpose of overseeing and coordinating the meetings. Minutes are taken, and within a specified time period, management evaluates and responds to the suggestions, complaints, and questions raised at the previous meeting. If a suggestion is going to be acted upon, or a complaint remedied, management should attempt to provide employees with a time reference as to when they can expect action. If no action is going to be taken, the reasons should be communicated to employees and an alternative approach to the particular issue should be sought from them and explored by management on a continuing basis.

Rotating suggestion groups, or any other such plan, whether sophisticated or simple, is basically an attempt to eliminate the old-line hierarchical way of responding to the growing employee need for greater input into decision-making, and thereby, to eliminate root causes of dissatisfaction. The most important factor in any employee participation group is, perhaps, the group's legitimacy; that is, giving effect to the group's suggestions where possible, and taking employee complaints seriously.

One key legal factor in establishing this type of communication vehicle is to ensure no one employee serves for any specified term. Rather, employees should rotate each meeting. The ideal structure is to have different employees at each meeting.

Before the establishment of any regular "group meeting" communication vehicle, the advice of labor counsel should be sought to ensure that the establishment of the group and its operation does not run counter to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Group Meetings: Small and On-Schedule

Regularly scheduled meetings of relatively small groups of employees are an excellent vehicle for discovering possible sources of dissatisfaction and valuable suggestions, as well. Meetings also enable management to communicate recent business and industry developments, community news, policy and procedural changes, benefits, and the like to employees.

Certain group meetings should be conducted by someone other than the employees' immediate supervisor. This gives the employees an opportunity to open up with someone other than "their boss." Allowing an employee to express his/her views to another member of management can be all-important.

Complaints and suggestions from these meetings should be evaluated seriously and responded to promptly. Where problems can be resolved expeditiously, they should be. Where prompt resolution is not feasible, the reasons for the delay should be explained to the employee. Attention to follow-up is very important. It shows employees that management genuinely cares. The sincere expression of concern can be just as important as the actual resolution of a complaint.

Individual Conversations

One-to-one conversations with employees are another valuable means of communicating. Immediate supervisors should be aware of the importance of establishing a good rapport with the employees they supervise. As an integral part of their regular responsibilities, they should initiate conversations with employees, on an informal basis, such as on breaks or during lunch, and make an effort to learn about their employees' families, personal interests, job-related concerns, and the like. Everyone appreciates another person's show of concern and genuine interest in him/her and his/her well-being. Employees are certainly no different. The trusting relationship that can develop in this manner between supervisor and employee can prove invaluable to a company in a variety of ways.

One-to-one conversations can also take place on a more formal basis, such as during a scheduled interview when an employee is given a performance review, told of a change in salary or benefits, promoted, transferred, and so on. These occasions should be seized upon as excellent opportunities to learn more about the employees as individuals and discover new ways of developing a personal bond between the company and each of its employees.

Employee Handbooks

The employee handbook is the most valuable written form of communication between the company and its employees. It serves as the company "greeting card" for employees.

Other Written Communications

Due to the variety of shifts and schedules of many mail and fulfillment industry employers, regularly scheduled meetings are often difficult to arrange. Thus, written communications, such as the employee handbook, take on even greater significance. Accordingly, the utilization of additional kinds of written communications may also be well worthwhile. A monthly or bi-monthly newsletter, for instance, may be an effective way of communicating, particularly in larger, busier companies where it may sometimes be difficult to adhere to a pre-arranged schedule of group meetings, interviews, and the like. Similar types of information as would be communicated at a larger group meeting can be communicated through a newsletter, (i.e., company developments, relevant community affairs, changes in policy and procedure, and so forth). A newsletter also presents the opportunity to acknowledge individual employee achievements (service awards, academic accomplishments, etc.). Perhaps the major drawback of a newsletter is the lack of opportunity for feedback from employees. However, this can be somewhat compensated for by, for example, providing a "speak out" column, and following-up during group meetings.

Some companies have found that paycheck stuffers, providing information on company events and developments, are effective written communication vehicles. Some employers find letters mailed directly to employees' homes to be an extremely beneficial endeavor. Spouses and other family members appreciate the company's acknowledgment of them and recognition of their interest in their relative's job. The letter can state general information about what's going on at the company that may affect them as well as employees' relatives. The employees also derive a benefit; they feel a sense of pride in working for a company that shows an interest in their families. The ability of management to strengthen such feelings is the very essence of a successful, positive employee relations program.

Electronic Communications

Lastly, one of the most effective tools is the use of e-mail. Or consider developing an in-house company website dedicated to employee benefits, policies, and communications. Such electronic communications can be especially helpful in multi-state operations.

©2001 Jackson Lewis P.C. This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between Jackson Lewis and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material. This material may be considered attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

Reproduction of this material in whole or in part is prohibited without the express prior written consent of Jackson Lewis P.C., a law firm that built its reputation on providing workplace law representation to management. Founded in 1958, the firm has grown to more than 900 attorneys in major cities nationwide serving clients across a wide range of practices and industries including government relations, healthcare and sports law. More information about Jackson Lewis can be found at www.jacksonlewis.com.

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