Archive for April, 2011

The Predictable Decline of the Public Sector

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Organizations go through predictable stages or life cycles: start-up, growth, maturity, decline, and extinction. They can move backwards through these stages as well as forward (e.g., replacing a “mature” product or service with a more innovative one), and not all of them reach extinction. In order to avoid the decline or extinction stages, organizations must adapt to changes in their environments. We see various types of adaptation every day in the private sector: new products or services are offered while old ones are dropped, or companies merge or acquire others to provide a competitive advantage or enter a new market. We even see re-invention among individuals. A recent story in the Los Angeles Times noted that former (and likely future) presidential candidate Mitt Romney has re-invented himself – again. Why? What he was doing before wasn’t getting the results he wanted to achieve, so he’s trying something different. Most often we think of companies going through such life cycles. However, public sector agencies and government entities also experience them.

Many agencies and government entities today arguably are in the “decline” stage of the life cycle. The world has changed, and most public sector entities have not. Although current economic conditions did not cause the decline, they did bring it forcefully to people’s attention. Procedures, programs, processes, rules, regulations, systems, organizational structures, and policies, many of which are decades old, are not working any more. Individually and collectively, these organizations no longer are able to support the outcomes they initially were created to achieve. Without substantive change, public sector (government) organizations will continue their current downward spiral.

What will it take to reverse this decline? Here are some suggestions to get started:

    1. There must be a compelling and common “big picture” (i.e., vision or mission) that people can buy into. There is a serious dearth of such pictures once you get beyond the agency level. For example, how many cities have a clearly articulated vision?

    2. There must be a commitment to transformative change; incremental change is not sufficient. The current challenges did not arise overnight, nor will they go away quietly or quickly. Change takes time and requires an acceptance of prudent risk-taking.

    3. Begin with the end (i.e., the big picture) in mind; that must be the starting point. Then ask, “Given where we are now, how will we reach the desired end?” Examine closely what is being done, how it is done, and why it is done, then make purposeful choices about how to move forward.

While reversing course is not easy, the rewards are great. And considering the alternatives – e.g., mediocrity, service failures, inefficiency, wasted resources, despair, anger, frustration – one cannot possibly suggest that not trying at all is a viable option.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Labor Relations: Myths and Realities

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Recently I gave a presentation to a group of human resource professionals about labor relations. We covered a wide range of information, including the bases for U.S. labor laws, myths about labor relations, and what employers can do to ensure that employees are a high priority in their organizations. Here are six common labor relations myths, and the realities behind them. See how many of them you can dispel before reading my comments!

Myth #1: Labor relations laws apply only to non-unionized workplaces

Reality: With a few exceptions, non-management workers whose organizations are in the private and non-profit sectors and have one or more employees are covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and its amendments. Examples of exceptions are workers in the airline and railroad industries (who are covered under the Railway Labor Act), public sector workers (who are covered under different laws), domestic workers, agricultural workers, consultants, and those who work in family-owned businesses. In other words, federal labor laws apply to most workers in the U.S.

Myth #2: There are two interests represented in the labor-management relationship

Reality: There actually are three “players” in the labor-management relationship who have some divergent and some overlapping interests: employees, management, and unions. Although many people believe that the terms “union” and “employees” are synonymous, they are not.

Myth #3: Only Congress can change or amend federal labor laws

Reality: Unlike most other federal laws, labor laws are changed primarily outside of the halls of Congress. The issuance of presidential executive orders is one way to effect changes that apply to federal contractors and subcontractors. However, the most common way for these laws to be changed is through decisions issued by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is the regulatory agency responsible for administering the NLRA, as amended. The Board’s decisions, which are rendered based on cases that come before them for resolution, have the force of law. Importantly, NLRB decisions do NOT rely on or honor precedents set by decisions of previous Boards. As a result, labor law provisions can and do change. This means that compliance with federal labor laws requires one to keep a close eye on NLRB decisions, as they are subject to change.

Myth #4: The primary reason employees join unions is economic

Reality: Research consistently shows that the #1 reason why employees join unions is dissatisfaction with their immediate supervisors. Employers who make their workers a high priority ensure that their supervisors are well trained and have the support they need to take care of employees.

Myth #5: U.S. unions are too weak to effect meaningful change in the workplace

Reality: Although only 11.9% of workers in the U.S. were unionized in 2010 (per the Bureau of Labor Statistics), the current President, Secretary of Labor, and most Democrat members of Congress are union-friendly (which is not the same as being employee-friendly). Separately and together, people in these positions can use their respective powers to change the ways that management and employees interact in the workplace.

Myth #6: Employers should not discuss unionization unless/until a union organizing campaign begins

Reality: The worst thing employers can do is to hide their heads in the sand about this issue. Many are afraid that if they bring up the subject of unions, employees will start talking about joining a union. I’ve got news for them: employees will talk about unions irrespective of what management does or does not say. Ignoring the issue does not make it go away; what it does is cause employers to give up their important responsibility of educating their employees about their (workers’) rights and about management’s perspective. Importantly, employers that are subjected to employer neutrality clauses are prohibited from saying anything to their workers once a union organizing campaign begins, so if they have said nothing until then, they lose their right to do so going forward. As a result, employees will not be fully informed about the choice they must make.

The bottom line for labor relations can be assessed by answers to two questions:

    1. How high a priority are employees in your organization?
    2. Do your employees agree with your assessment?

If the answers are not “very high” and “yes,” then you have work to do.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.