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Employee Engagement + Labor Relations

It is not unusual to hear managers say that employee engagement is important to their organization culture, and in the next breath offer a caveat – except for the bargaining unit. The sour tone of labor negotiations has either made management and labor want nothing to do with each other, or, the history of the relationship is simply viewed as “beyond hope”.

In this newsletter, I will briefly look at the roots of the meaning of employee engagement and labor negotiations and propose that they, in fact, can and should intersect. Understanding how they interface within the organization can lead to meaningful and important changes in your management approach.

At root, “engagement” is about a relationship that is built on a germ of trust and respect. Engagement has many shades of meaning, depending on the context. Even in war, we are “engaged”, but in every case, when we are engaged, we bring something of ourselves to the fore; we make a commitment, by word or deed.

“Negotiation”, on the other hand, involves discussion intended to produce agreement, or a coming to terms. Negotiation also has multiple meanings. The word “negotiation” is from the Latin expression, “negotiatus”, past participle of negotiare which means “to carry on business”. When we negotiate, we attempt to dialogue, resolve disputes, produce an agreement, bargain for advantage and satisfy interests.

Can we say, then, that engagement and negotiation are compatible terms? And by extension, that employee engagement and labor negotiations can intersect, or cross over in a meaningful way?

If we encourage a culture of employee engagement, can we also toe the hard line at the negotiation table? If we treat these two ideas as incompatible, and operate with two different sets of values, we are likely to produce an uneasy, uncomfortable work place. And this can lead to dissatisfaction.

So it is important that we get this right. One way to do this is to build a common framework for these two types of engagement. But first, we should examine where re-construction is necessary. If we are going to build a common framework, we will need common ground.

Here are two sets of definitions that are specific to our discussion:

Employee Engagement[i]

  • Measures of EE can be synonymous with measures of job satisfaction, including organizational commitment, psychological empowerment and job involvement.
  • An engaged person is often described by some combination of the following words:
  • Enthusiastic, passionate, committed, willing to invest in the organization, pro-active, persistent, consistent, attentive, alert, inspired, proud, determined, strong and active.
  • An engaged employee goes beyond what is typical or ordinarily expected and gives attention to a wider range of tasks than is typical or usual, and displays a positive emotional state directed toward the organization.[ii]

Labor Relations:

  • At root, LR is the exchange of positions, demands or arguments on behalf of a group of employees.
  • LR includes advocacy on behalf of a group to obtain the most favorable outcomes.
  • Traditionally in LR the “adversarial” winner takes all; but more recently understood as “mutual gains” or mutual problem solving.[iii]
  • Progressive LR models encompass creativity, dialogue and investment in personal relationships to extend mutual understanding of what is at stake.

It appears from this set of definitions, that if employee engagement is the aim of an organization, it follows that some form of progressive model of labor negotiations will be essential if it is going to “cohabit” within the same workplace. Both the union and the employer must look at the framework from which they currently operate, and achieve some understanding as to how that will need to change for mutual benefit.

If you have a traditional top down hierarchy in your organization, you are more likely to have a confrontational, adversarial relationship with your union in response to that environment. [iv]

This is true primarily because in a traditional framework, employees are dependent on their supervisors and managers to tell them what to do and solve their problems. The underlying assumption in the workplace is that employee interests are separate from that of management.

A different framework can be found in a model in which the workplace is viewed as an interdependent community, organized around a common purpose of providing a set of services or programs or products, to a set of stakeholders, with a distinct set of needs, economic and otherwise.[v] If both management and labor perceive the benefits of working toward a common purpose, and are both willing to alter the prevailing assumption that labor and management lack common interests, then a labor-management partnership might be a viable option.

However, labor negotiations, typically, is not the place where mutual in-depth exploration of underlying problems and solutions will take place. The relationship at the table must reflect work that has gone on behind the scenes in some form of a labor management partnership.

Within this new framework, the community must first be guided by a common purpose and a common set of values. This must include a recognition of and commitment to the needs of all stakeholders, internal and external. Labor and management must be seen as part of the same interrelated system. Learning and growth will propel and sustain a culture of employee engagement. A dynamic work environment will have feedback loops so that people know “how they are doing” and will be able to measure progress. Creative energy will be released through collaborative work on problem-solving.

Finally, the rules, boundaries and parameters of the labor negotiation process must be clearly communicated and perceived as fair, even if separate and apart from the normal day to day interactions. In this context, values do not need to be altered, even if the rules have changed and even if it requires being “tough” or toeing the hard line. Bargaining is another aspect of the engagement relationship, and if each side feels a sense of urgency to resolve matters for the whole of the community, the adversarial spirit will be less likely to arise. On the other hand, trust and respect do not exclude being tough. The hard work of negotiation will not be the center point of management labor relationship, but rather, the continuation of sustained efforts to achieve meaningful results.


[i] Macy and Schneider, “The Meaning of Employee Engagement”, Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Feb 2008.

[ii] In “A Historical Perspective of Employee Engagement: An Emerging Definition”, Michael Bradley Shuck and Karen K. Wollard, Oct 2009

[iii] Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury, 1981, Revised 1991.

[iv] Bodine, Neil. “Rethinking the Workplace”. Center for Collaborative Solutions. www.CCSCenter.org

[v] ibid

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