Strike Prevention: Line Supervisors Are Key

A large appliance manufacturer in Ohio discovered serious problems in its employee relations while conducting contract talks with the union representing the workers.

Management found that line supervisors were making mistakes implementing the collective agreement, using a heavy-handed management style and allowing poor performers too much latitude. The lack of management consistency, training and knowledge was frustrating employees. A potential strike was brewing.

Several factors, including a recently downsized line management staff, little or no leadership and inadequate supervisor knowledge of the collective agreement, were exasperating workers.

Economic downturn and falling profits had spurred the neglect of line management. Under-developing or cutting line management cuts across sectors according to Terry Lineker, President and CEO of Forest Industrial Relations, a Vancouver-based bargaining agency that negotiates agreements for B.C. forestry employers.

Lineker said recently that while preventing strikes isn’t always possible (late last year he went through a coastal forestry strike that saw some 10,000 workers go off the job), management and unions could go a long way to solving serious issues that may lead to a work stoppage: develop line supervisor effectiveness.

First line supervisors are responsible for helping employees get the work done. For example, they manage the assembly line workers, or the support staff, the machine operators or the housekeeping personnel.

He suggests five ways line managers can stave off strikes and improve management and union relations.

Give Line Supervisor the Tools to Communicate with Employees About the Business/Industry

When a company is undergoing a major change, employee job security, wages and sometimes the very future of the industry are often up in the air. The B.C. coastal forest industry is a case in point, says Lineker: “The business environment on the coast changed dramatically over the past decade, due to a huge shift in markets, the (Canada- U.S.) softwood lumber agreement and the exchange rate translation”, he said.

The change was so massive, companies scrambled to keep up while employees often were left guessing about their fate. “It is absolutely fundamental that if we expect people to change they must understand why”, said Lineker. Understanding the reasons behind discussions concerning wage freezes or cuts, layoffs and the need for flexibility in contracts, requires openness on the part of senior and line management.

According to Lineker, while smaller employers are often better at imparting information about industry constraints, all organizations, regardless of size, need to make employees aware of the factors at play around the future of the business.

Companies are “more likely to achieve a settlement at the negotiating table”, says Lineker, if they realize that employee support depends on how much the firms share information. The line supervisor is often the person who translates information to employees from senior management, making communication skills, accurate information and strong interpersonal skills a must.

Recognizing that line supervisors are the buffer between employees and senior management – and the most likely to be trusted by staff is key. Helping supervisors personally communicate news about company performance, market factors that influence the business, the objectives and roles played by the supervisor’s division and the means by which division operations are designed to help the business succeed, is crucial.

Think Twice Before Cutting Line Management

“It seems the first group to get targeted during a major cutback are the line supervisors”, observed Lineker. Workers often trust their supervisor more than the CEO and “many organizations hurt themselves by losing the credibility and confidence corridors that supervisors provide.”

He advises companies to make maintaining the supervisor level a priority so information about the business reaches staff. Trusted supervisors can make all the difference, especially when a painful change is mandated. A lot of what supervisors must tell staff is out of either worker or management control, which makes a personal relationship with the bearer of bad news crucial, according to Lineker.

Train Line Management About the Collective Agreement

Supervisors should be fully conversant with the collective agreement so they can make good decisions. According to Lineker, many supervisors are not given the training to understand employee entitlements, which can result in some staff pushing boundaries, or management holding back entitlements. For example, a manager may fail to realize time off for counselling is legitimate or when staff think over- time is a “right”. When supervisors understand the collective agreement they “can be firm and fair, share responsibility (for the smooth operation of the business) and hold people accountable”, said Lineker.

Give Line Management Leadership Training

“First line managers have the toughest job because they’re under pressure from the top and under pressure from the bottom, yet they seem to be the last to get (leadership) training,” said Lineker, who says while the CEO is often a highly skilled communicator, supervisors need to develop these skills as well. The ability to be honest, open, empathic, firm and caring is essential in a supervisor.

Honestly telling employees about their situation can be difficult when supervisors know the effects will be difficult. While it may be a challenge to talk about the need for a wage cut or lay-off, first line supervisors are able to empathize with employees because they know them well.

Offering supervisors the tools to manage humanely is important. “Organizations that offer good severance packages, retirement options, relocation and retraining opportunities get credibility and help people adjust”, said Lineker.

Supervisors Mend Relationships Post-Strike

Once a strike has occurred the line supervisor is required to help mend relationships. While some hurt may exist, most workers are relieved that the strike is over, says Lineker. However, supervisors can communicate caring for workers by starting back slowly – conducting safety training, running equipment and easing slowly back into production. Supervisors need to continue to help people understand industry changes and the collective agreement. “If people understand the rationale for a wage freeze or schedule change they can accept the changes”, says Lineker.

Preventing strikes, helping a workforce cope with change and mending relationships post-strike often falls to supervisors. Preparing them for these tasks helps the company, the union and the employees to develop a common purpose – a viable business where wealth is created and sustained. And that means a bigger pie to share at the bargaining table.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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