Written by Liz D’Aloia

At the Global Best Practices Conference, we held a session entitled Focus on Labor. The session was moderated by James Fripp of Yum! Brands. Terry Dunn of Positive Management Leadership, Joe Kefauver of the Parquet Group, Peter Harrison of Snagajob, and Michael VanDervort of CUE Inc gave us excellent insight into the major labor trends that are impacting the restaurant industry.

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As a labor/employment attorney and HR professional, it occurred to me that the labor issues facing the restaurant industry aren’t unique. Employees want to be treated with dignity and respect, and they want to know that their issues are heard and swiftly resolved.

What has changed is that employees no longer believe they need to advocate for themselves. There are two significant changes that I think led to this change. First, employees have witnessed the power of social media. They’ve seen it overthrow dictators during the Arab Spring. They’ve also observed how social media can powerfully influence consumers’ attitude towards your brand.

Another factor that didn’t exist just a few years ago is crowdsourcing. Opinions are crowdsourced (Trip Advisor, Yelp). So is pay information (Pay Scale) and attitudes towards employers (GlassDoor).

This leads to an interesting dynamic in the workforce. If individuals can’t get their information redressed by a manager, they’ll seek to get it by collective action. This is especially true with younger workers who believe that there’s power in the collective that they can tap into. This is true. But while they may think of it as crowdsourcing a complaint, they’re probably involved in behavior that, under the National Labor Relations Act, falls under concerted protected activity. You probably already know that that the National Labor Relations Act covers your employees’ concerted protected activity even if they are not represented by a union. But your employees are probably unaware of this, and may not understand the ramifications of concerted protected activity, unionization, or collective bargaining.

Here are seven leadership behaviors you should implement to foster positive employee relations:

1. Carefully select employees and quickly build a relationship with them
Don’t just evaluate candidates for skills. Consider the candidate’s values as well by asking questions about how they handled peer and management interactions at other jobs. If you want to formalize this evaluation, there are some excellent values assessments on the market that can help you create a perfect candidate profile.

Go beyond traditional on-boarding and make sure that the employee’s new manager builds a strong relationship with the employee. This means learning about the employee’s family, interests, professional goals, and other aspirations. This is also the chance for the manager to explain expectations, remove barriers of communication, and explain how conflicts are resolved at the restaurant.

2. Distribute focused, credible communications
In order to build trust with your employees, you need to have regular, focused communications with your employees. Don’t forget that it’s 2015, and corporate-speak is officially dead. Your communications should be raw, real, and relevant. Don’t just disseminate data. Instead, tell compelling stories with memorable endings.

Terry 3. Make your leadership available
An engaging, accessible, and approachable leader is one of your most valuable assets. Your hourly employees will be comfortable approaching the leader with issues on a one-on-one basis, which is exactly what you want. On the other hand, if your district or regional leaders only interact with your restaurant managers, your employees won’t even know who they are or their role in the organization. Instead of going to them to appeal a decision they will turn to a lawyer, the EEOC, or a union.

4. Credible and consistent leadership
Consistent decisions help employees predict what the leader will decide to do if a situation is appealed to them. This foreknowledge will build trust. Your leaders should be vulnerable enough for people to know them on a human level and not just a corporate suit.

5. Employee advocacy isn’t just an HR function
Every organization has made its share of mistakes. Great organizations recognize the unintended consequences that occur and rapidly change them to make sure employees aren’t negatively impacted. But let’s take this to a higher level. True employee advocacy means proactively taking care of your people. This could be as simple as stockpiling supplies before a storm for employee use, or even just texting your employees after a storm passes to make sure they’re OK.

6. Make sure changes are equitable and fair
If you make a change, be sure that you can communicate a compelling business reason for it. Otherwise managers will become transparent and blame “corporate”. When this happens, “corporate” becomes a faceless, nameless entity and the only associate your employee has with it is their employee ID number. Passion and commitment go by the wayside.

7. Recognition for a job well done
Recognition doesn’t have to be wrapped around a complicated program. A simple thank you is often enough, especially when it’s said sincerely and often. When someone first starts a job, their first thought is, “How am I doing?” Make sure your managers continue to give them feedback throughout their employment, and not just when it’s time for performance reviews or when performance deteriorates to the point that documentation is required. Feedback should never be a surprise. If an employee does well, recognize them publicly. If they need coaching, do it privately.

There’s an old saying among labor lawyer: you get the union you deserve.
Put these fundamentals in to practice and you’ll do more than avoid union organization. You’ll see a reduction in turnover, an influx of candidate referrals from employees, greater customer satisfaction, and potentially a bigger profit margin.

Liz D’Aloia is the founder of HR Virtuoso, a mobile recruiting company based in Dallas, TX. She is an HR professional, employment attorney, speaker, and blogger. Prior to launching HR Virtuoso Liz worked at national transportation companies and at a global retailer. Connect with Liz on LinkedIn and follower her @hrvirtuoso.

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