Dealing with Employees Consistently

My experience in manufacturing began in a UAW union plant. I was part of a turnover of the management team designed to bring a fresh approach to dealing with a number of issues that the manufacturing team was struggling with. The most significant issue was the number of outstanding grievances that existed between the bargaining unit and management which consumed a great deal of “productive” time on a daily basis.

Why were there so many grievances?
There were issues on both sides. Initial recruiting standards for employees and supervision were poorly defined and cronyism existed where friends and family were often employed without regard to qualifications, temperament or character. This was most evident in the supervision ranks which were the primary interface between management and union employees. Individual supervisors were given a wide birth in what they were allowed to do and how to do it with regard to how they used and directed people. Consequently many “inconsistencies” existed which led to a great deal of complaints as to how discipline issues were dealt with on a daily basis – both good and bad! The union stewards had a field day highlighting and comparing good examples with bad examples and the previous management team responded in a defensive way which further exacerbated the situation.

How was the situation brought under control?
Our new management team took on the issue of dealing with employee issues in a proactive way with emphasis from the top down and that consistency was the new way to deal with complaints and discipline throughout the plant. Top and middle level management were constantly on the floor observing, coaching and available to assist front line supervisors as they applied the new supervision process. In some cases “hard” headed supervisors who resisted the new direction needed to move on. Recruiting standards for new supervisors were raised to measure the supervision attributes, temperament and desire to work in a manufacturing line environment. In a few cases, line employees stepped forward and moved into supervision and this also included the first female line supervisors (a rarity in the ‘70’s).

Changes were also made in the recruiting of line employees as well requiring minimal education accomplishments as a way to measure the interest of the prospective employee to advance themselves. This was most effective when a slow down and protracted strike resulted in a number or early employees hired when the plant was first staffed, who were poorly prepared for a work environment, did not have to be brought back and they were replaced with new, motivated employees.

Slowly the contentious work environment changed. Incidents of on-the-line disputes reduced to zero. The triple digit number of grievances dropped to double and then to single digit. The time spent disputing (negotiating) grievances dropped from hours per day to a couple of hours or less per week. The productive climate in the plant changed dramatically and the plant became a top performer reversing the reputation that it had when the new management team arrived.

While there were a number of changes throughout the plant to cause this change in performance the most significant was the change in dealing with people and it had a great impact on me. As I moved on to other management positions with companies that were non-union it was obvious that many of the other managers did not appreciate the management environment of a non-union business.

I would always address the “violations” that I noticed in my departments to be more employee focused and measuring how consistent our practices were in dealing with performance, discipline and behavior and ultimately the quality of the work environment. Again, this often required people to make major changes in the way they viewed their subordinates and in a few cases changes in personnel. However, the result of dealing with employees consistently was always rewarded with an increase in productivity, reduction in turn over and a positive work environment that attracted high achievers.

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