Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Employee Engagement: Learn to Walk the Line

A couple of years ago, I interviewed for a job as a General Manager for a manufacturing company.

When I was briefed about the position, I was told their employees were on strike and that I'd have to cross the picket line for my first interview.  I'd never crossed a picket line before, but there had to be a first time.

On the day of the interview, I drove out to the plant, and allowed some time to get there early enough that I could see the picket line and observe the procedure for crossing it.  The company had told me to allow 15-20 minutes just to get through the picket line.

The strike was an issue for the company.  They asked me if it would have any impact on their ability to acquire new customers. I told them it would, in my opinion, convey a company that was dysfunctional.  Even more so because the strike had gone on for two years without a settlement. The union involved in this case was the steelworkers, and I knew they had a reputation for being nasty.

I approached the picket line with trepidation.  One of the picketers came over to my car and formally told me there was a strike in effect and that I would have to wait for 15 minutes before I could proceed to the parking lot.

At this point, I thought about what I should do.  These picketers could potentially be employees I would have to work with on a day-to-day basis.  I could stay in my car for the 15 minutes or get out and talk to the picketers to see what I could learn about the strike.  I chose the latter.

Having told one of the picketers I was there for a job interview, I asked what the strike was all about.  They were very open in explaining the key issues behind the strike.  I asked them how they managed to cope with living having been out on the strike for such a long time and I heard stories about how some moved into other jobs or companies to be able to support their families.  They told me about what they had to sacrifice to make ends meet.  Somehow our conversation segued into talk about golf, football and other things.

The 15 minutes went by pretty quickly and the picketers gave me the go ahead to drive to the parking lot and gave me directions on how to find the entrance to the office.

The formal part of the interview was comparatively tame - a plant tour and discussion with the plant manager and the company's HR manager.  I was subsequently invited for a round of interviews at the company's corporate offices.

For this phase of interviewing, I met with people from R&D, Finance and Sales.  My final interview of the day was with the CEO.

He asked me how the day had gone and about my interest in the position.  Eventually, he got round to asking about the strike. The CEO proudly stated the company had brought on replacement workers who were exceeding the productivity of the union employees and the company was able to keep pace with demands of exiting customers.  He asked, as I'd been asked before, if I felt the strike would adversely impact their ability to attract new business.  

I told him the strike definitely WOULD give potential customers some concerns about the company's ability to supply them in a reliable manner.  Settling the strike had to be the top priority for the new GM.

The CEO told me, in no uncertain terms, he had absolutely NO intention of settling the strike.  They'd made offers to the union and the union was unable to sell those terms to their members, so the union was the problem.

From my viewpoint, I now had a clearer idea of why the strike had gone on as long as it had and who was responsible for that situation - and it wasn't the union.  At this point, I made up my mind that this was not a position or company I wanted to work for.

The Leadership of a company sets the tone for how it runs.  In this case, the leadership of this company was confrontational and this had created an atmosphere of distrust among the employees.  As it turned out, the plant I interviewed at was closed down and sold off within a year of my visit there.

They may be picketers, but they still are people.  If you treat strikers on an adversarial basis, you'll probably get a lot of push-back. Approaching them as people and showing some empathy helped me make the best of what could have been a bad situation. My approach was to treat crossing the picket line as a first interview.  I was almost 100% certain there would be some feedback to the company about how I behaved on the line, and I wanted that feedback to be positive.  I think I took the right approach.

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