On April 14, 2015, the National Labor Relations Board’s “ambush election” rules went into effect, making it easier for unions to organize in the retail setting and beyond. The next day, demonstrations against retailers and hospitality employers took place throughout the country, organized by several union-backed groups seeking to raise employee wages to $15 per hour.  According to the retailers who attended the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) spring meeting of the Committee on Employment Law last week, and based on feedback from our own retail clients, retailers have not yet seen a huge spike in the filing of union petitions in the wake of the implementation of the new rules. Retailers are, however, very concerned about the new ambush election rules and the possibility of more union campaigns, especially those seeking to certify smaller, discrete bargaining units.

At the NRF meeting last week, one preventative tactic that was raised and that sparked extensive discussion at the meeting was improving employee engagement. According to President Obama, American workers need a “strong voice” in the workplace, a “voice” which traditionally has been supplied by unions. The thinking of the retailers that are focusing on employee engagement as a key tactic in their union avoidance strategy is that they can take proactive steps to provide employees with the opportunity to have a voice in their organizations without the need for unions, thereby preventing the possibility of union elections in the first place. Dissatisfied employees result in a decline in employee engagement and organizational dysfunction, both of which provide an opening for union organizers. 

The strategies these retailers are using to improve employee engagement are far more extensive than the usual employee engagement surveys. Proactive retailers are stepping up their monitoring of social media and training their managers on how to develop their associates and their “voices,” as well as on how to identify and address vulnerable areas and problems in the workplace and fix them. They are not only setting up programs and mechanisms to allow associates to tell management what they think through hotlines and virtual suggestion boxes, but they are also creating associate groups to help filter through and act on the suggestions. They are also using in-house company advocates to publicize the steps the retailers are taking to improve the workplace, as well as to educate employees about what unions can and cannot do.

In a recent interview for our Employee Engagement blog, Kevin Kruse, a New York Times best-selling author who has written three books on employee engagement, including Employee Engagement 2.0: How to Motivate Your Team for High Performance (A Real-World Guide for Busy Managers), opined that the engagement level of American workers is so low that he considers it a “crisis.” Mr. Kruse explains that employee engagement is good for business and results in what he calls the “engagement-profit chain.”

“When employees are engaged and are giving discretionary effort, you see it result in an increase in productivity, service, quality, sales, and ultimately profit and share price,” Kruse says.

The retailers that are investing in employee engagement as a way to prevent ambush union elections may reap these additional benefits as well.