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Sometimes, It Just Takes a Conversation


It’s funny how when something gets out of whack with employee relations, or at least seems to, we frequently attempt to solve the problem as it appears to us, rather than look beneath the surface to see what’s really going on. But sometimes all it takes to resolve a problem is having the right conversation.

Shortly before I started my own consulting practice in 1979, I received an assignment from my manager that turned out to reflect this phenomenon of the power associated with simply having the right conversation. In the fall of that same year, I received a call from my manager asking me to come by his office. When I arrived, he had several brochures on the desk in front of him. He asked me to take a seat, and proceeded to explain that he wanted me to do a comparison of the healthcare benefits described in the brochures and our own healthcare plan—which one was better, and why? At the time, I wasn’t particularly busy and the opportunity to do the analysis seemed somewhat interesting, so I gathered up the brochures and headed back to my office. (Remember, this was 1979, so no computers—this work would be done with a pen, paper, and accounting pad.)

Since I was primarily responsible for benefits administration in that particular location for my employer, I had all the information I needed stored in my desk already. One thing you should know about me is that I am good with analysis, but I don’t have a lot of patience for what I might view as busywork. Shortly after I began my review of the two healthcare plans, it became obvious that most of the differences between the plans were minor. If anything, the total coverage available for our employees was noticeably better with our existing plan. Something about this project didn’t feel right. I realized I had not really questioned my manager on the “why” behind the assignment, and assumed his experience had suggested that it might be time to consider making a change of some sort.

I headed back to my manager’s office and sat down with a need to know. What was going on?

The location I worked in was a large non-union facility in the U.S., an important fact to my employer since it reflected the overall commitment to solid employee relations and satisfaction by our company’s leadership, especially since our industry was highly unionized. This priority was, at least in the minds of our management, jeopardized by the fact that our facility was surrounded by several similarly sized plants with union representation. These plants were all in different industries than ours, but they represented competition nonetheless. In a relatively small town, our employees lived and socialized alongside employees from these other plants, making topics like benefits, wages, and working conditions of frequent discussion.

A couple of days prior to this, a frustrated plant employee had showed up at my manager’s office, alleging that the plant across the street had better healthcare, and that several of the employees agreed it was time for our company to make a change.

Keep in mind that in 1979, “employee engagement” was not yet established, and for most employers, employee satisfaction was barely recognized. There was no talk of “authenticity,” and if you brought up “trust” or “shared values,” you would’ve been met with a number of blank stares. In a non-union working environment within a heavily unionized industry, management was always on the watch for signs of a movement to unionize. Smart employees knew this, and they also knew that if they simply “rattled the sword” a little bit, hypersensitive managements would likely jump to respond to any expressed concerns. That’s what had happened in this instance. When the employee, known to be something of a rabble rouser, expressed his concerns, the alarm bells sounded.

So being the simple-minded soul that I was, not grounded in the traditional cynicism that was pervasive in those days, I asked if I could speak with the frustrated employee. My manager said, “Well, it probably can’t hurt,” and so off I went. The following day, I asked the employee to have coffee so that we could discuss his concerns. As expected, he began with a blustery outpouring which I patiently listened to. When he was finished, I asked if he could be more specific with his complaints—which areas did he and his colleagues find to be lacking?

After a bit of stumbling around, the truth finally came to light. The wife of a worker from the other plant was talking with the wife of a man from our facility, and pulled out her prescription medication card during the conversation. The wife of our employee shared this concept with her husband, and wondered why our plan couldn’t do the same thing.

I understood that having a prescription medication card was a nice feature, but it didn’t seem worthy of considering a whole new healthcare plan—I was suspicious. So I asked our employee if that was all, and he shrugged before explaining that in our part of the country, most of the wives of our plant employees stayed home with the children, and were also responsible for handling things like filing medical claims. While our medical coverage was top notch, filing claims was a bit more complex, involving receipts and filling out forms via mail—a lengthy process at best. The wives would often ask our plant workers questions about the healthcare plan and the claim forms, which neither party knew how to answer in order to meet their needs. Having used the very same process he was describing, I empathized with their complaints to a certain extent.

While I agreed with our employee that the process was inconvenient, I knew that we wouldn’t be able to make company-wide changes overnight, even if there was a good reason for it. As I sat there, I could see that the employee was embarrassed to even have to admit what the problem really was.

So I asked, “What if I could help?” The employee looked surprised, but asked what I had in mind. I explained that I could get to work on changing the process, but it would likely take months, and wasn’t something that would be visible to our employees. What if I offered to conduct training sessions for employees’ wives in the evenings, invited them to the plant, and guided them through the claim filing process to help simplify things and answer any questions.

“You would really do that?” our employee asked. I assured him that it would probably be a win all the way around. The wives would be happier, which meant the employees would be happier. Management would also be happy and relieved, and it would ultimately lighten my workload since I was handling the call-in questions from the wives.

Once we agreed on that course of action, I told the employee I had one condition: instead of complaining to senior manager, he had to start encouraging his fellow employees to bring their questions and concerns directly to me. He agreed, and then I said there was one more thing. I picked up the phone and asked my manager to come down for a moment. When he arrived, I told the employee that he needed to explain our plan to my manager, and let him know that things had been resolved. After the employee left, my manager stayed behind and asked what I had done to produce this miracle. After explaining our conversation, my manager admitted that because he was so focused on his concern about potential unionization, he had failed to even address the issue his employee was bringing to him.

Employees need to feel that their employer treats them with respect and transparency when it comes to any type of issue. When this is lacking, employee behavior can often take on a confusing path, especially when trying to avoid any type of vulnerability. Sometimes, it just takes a conversation.

For more about employee engagement and creating a winning culture for your organization, check out Emplify’s Q3 Engagement Trends & Indexes Report.


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