Collaborative Labor Relations: The First Line Is the Bottom Line

By Pennington, Randy | Personnel, March 1989 | Go to article overview
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Collaborative Labor Relations: The First Line Is the Bottom Line


Pennington, Randy, Personnel


Collaborative Labor Relations: The First Line Is the Bottom Line

Several years ago, a friend of mine was flying cross-country in the company of a Japanese businessman. Browsing through the in-flight magazine, my friend saw an ad for a new American car that "set a new standard for quality because it was examined by 34 different quality inspectors." He showed the ad to his Japanese friend and said, "Now, this is what we need to compete with you. Imagine: Thirty-four quality inspectors!"

The Japanese looked at the ad, smiled, and said, "You don't need 34 inspectors to get quality. You just need everyone who works on the car to be proud of the work. Then you'll need only one inspector!" In that succinct remark, the Japanese businessman made the case for collaborative labor relations: The first line is the bottom line.

The first line of quality in any organization is the people at the bottom of the organization chart. When those people care about job performance, you don't need an elaborate safety net: Quality comes naturally.

Today both corporate managers and union leaders are recognizing the need to include the line worker in the decision-making process. R. Timothy Epps, vice-president of personnel for General Motors Europe, is one such manager. Referring to employee participation at G.M.'s new Saturn plant, Mr. Epps said, "Obviously this structure will be a far cry from the old system where managers made the decisions and workers took the orders. If such a system ever did work, it certainly won't work in today's world." In the February 1987 issue of Management Review, Larry Reynolds wrote, "Labor leaders are changing to meet the times. Rather than seeking confrontation with management, they are talking about cooperation. Instead of increased wages and strict job descriptions, the main bargaining goals on the union agenda are employment security . . . and more input into how the job is done." (Italics ours.) Lynn Williams, president of the Steel Workers of America, voices the labor leaders' new concerns: "Employees are entitled to participate in decisions that affect their working and personal lives." Clearly, collaborative labor relations is a concept whose time has come. What remains is simply for management to put it into a system that works.

How It Works

Having worked with dozens of corporations to install collaborative labor relations systems, I've had the opportunity to see the concept work in a variety of environments.

Basically, we're talking about a management approach that makes good performance a matter of choice on the part of supervisors and workers, and that holds people accountable for the choices they make. The traditional system treats employees like children, with managers saying, "Let's find out who's doing something wrong and punish them!" The collaborative approach, by contrast, treats employees like adults. It not only gives employees a say, but also holds them responsible and accountable for their performance.

Some critics feel that this approach is "softer" than the traditional performance management method--but the reverse is true. If an employee exhibits immature behavior, punishment--the mainstay of traditional management--is likely to reinforce his or her childish conduct. The toughest thing you can do to an immature, disruptive employee is to hold that person accountable for his or her behavior.

Like any system, of course, collaborative performance management won't work if it's little more than a policy statement and a staff position. In order to be effective, it must be a hands on, day-by-day approach in which management confronts problems early and recognizes accomplishments swiftly. Successful performance management gives workers a hand in the decision-making process and also gives them instant recognition for a job well done. It gives line supervisors viable tools for motivating employees and step-by-step guidance on handling problems.

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