From political talk to workplace reality

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson

Jerald F. RobinsonOctober has been a memorable month on many fronts. The macroeconomic news has been good — more and more people have become employed; micro news is less so  — the employment growth is not evenly distributed across the country.

Hurricane Matthew kept those of us on the East Coast glued to the TV and amazed us with the force of nature. And the presidential campaign has gone from more than 20 candidates to four. You know who they are by now. As the campaign has evolved over the last year plus, numerous workplace issues have surfaced for discussion and inclusion in party platforms for the November election. Most of them will likely develop into policy action items at the workplace level in the next several years. Let’s see which of them you and your fellow managers are prepared for.

We know nothing is free, whether it comes from a government action or from employee-employer interaction or solely by employer action. Although most of the following issues were originally developed within the Sanders campaign, the Clinton or the Trump operation has borrowed them.

Within the Sanders campaign, the issues were heavily pushed by millennials and disaffected white men (similar folks have been attracted to the Trump campaign). You will likely see the issues emerge in many workplaces during the next few years. Let’s consider a few and see how your company and your thoughts and preparation plans stack up.

GENDER DISCRIMINATION: This is a continual issue: Men often wonder why, and women are quick to argue their case. Is there a glass ceiling? A glass ceiling is a ceiling based on attitudinal or organizational bias in the workplace that prevents minority-group members and women from advancing to leadership positions. Twenty-five years ago this was a major problem at the company level and at the individual manager/supervisor level. During the intervening years there have been government and industry seminars and workshops devoted to overcoming these biases. A major reason for the reduced bias today is the replacement of company executives and managers in the intervening 25 years with a new generation of managers who are more sensitive to discrimination in all of its forms. Does your firm have female executives? As managers and supervisors? Do women and men at each level earn the same pay? The same can be asked about your employment of minority-group members, and not only African Americans. Do you employ undocumented workers? Are any workers paid “off the books” (often undocumented workers)? Many employers have to answer yes to the last question; they are unable to find workers at the stated pay other than undocumented workers. This is a practice that likely will be highlighted in the next two years.

MINIMUM WAGE: Is it too low or too high? It all comes down to pay scales. Many pay scales in manufacturing and in small businesses start at or near the minimum wage and use that foundation on which to build a scale of brackets or steps. What about the proposed $10 minimum wage or the campaign goal of $15?

Even though we don’t yet know who will be the next president, the minimum-wage issue probably will not go away. A good leader makes contingency plans. What would a minimum-wage increase do to your wage scale, your employment level, your pricing structure? Consider the potential now rather than wait until it faces you as public policy.

FREE COLLEGE? College tuition has grown significantly in the past 25 years. Each college concentrates on recruiting from a wider and wider geographic area. Recruiters have learned that it is difficult to compare the quality of the teaching; however, it is easy to compare the ancillary features of college.

In the spring and summer (visitation period), it is critical that the campus look attractive — flowers, freshly paved roads, banners, renovated/new athletic facilities and the like. Food service is highly rated by students as a selection criteria — no more routine cafeteria lines. Instead, you see gourmet meals and a variety of restaurants on campus, including some of the national franchises.

Should tuition be free to all below a certain income level? Both major candidates have alluded to possible changes in public policy. Perhaps your company is already ahead of the politicians. Do you offer any college aid to the children of employees (or even to employees) — perhaps with some specified level of academic achievement?

Some companies find this is an investment that brings a return. It can be a strong motivator to persuade employees to remain with the company, knowing their children can get financial assistance. Another approach can be to offer college assistance to a community college/technical institute for students who want to pursue a vocational/technology program. The financial aid can be in the form of a no/low interest loan that would be canceled if the student returns to the company and takes a critical, hard-to-fill job.

FAMILY LEAVE: Both major-party candidates are promoting paid family leave in cases of childbirth. Although this is the pattern in many industrialized nations, employers have always rejected it. Today it appears on the ‘to-do” list of whoever is president. How will you plan for this eventuality? Will there be an actual cost, or can staffing be arranged to handle such an absence, such as is often done when someone is on vacation? Should you not have your contingency plan ready?

COMMUNITY ANGER: Now let’s turn to an issue that is a community issue that could well affect your business. The issue might be labeled “anger in the community.” Each February we have Fire Prevention Week and are asked to look at all of the possible fire starters and fire warnings in our home. Perhaps now is a good time to look at anger prevention in the community, or even in your company. It all began as “Black Lives Matter,” which led to “All Lives Matter.”

Expressed another way, what is the proper public reaction to the police handling of disturbances involving members of minority groups? Do police need to shoot to kill? Is there too much militarization in the police department? Do all police receive “de-escalation” training? Now that your blood pressure has been raised, consider the impact on your own company of tragic events that have occurred in numerous cities in the past few years. In my own community, where the killing of 32 college students and faculty by a mentally ill student several years ago dominated national TV news for weeks, police and the community have worked together to promote the concept of community policing as one means of defusing anger in communities, often concentrated with minority-group members.

There is much more discussion now between police and angry citizens. There is a building of trust, and confrontations on the streets are less likely to occur. If they do, the police are better prepared to anticipate and de-escalate the situation.

The driving force can be the existing business community encouraging political leaders and police leaders to work together to create more dialogue among “angry” groups and the community leaders and police.

Perhaps if your company managers encourage police leaders to speak more to community clubs and civic organizations about how they are changing to meet this “anger,” you can be a positive force.

WHAT NOW? Will you and others in your company assume the leadership mantle and move ahead on one or more of these potential public policy mandates during the next few years? Which will possibly be most important for your company? I hope you and your managerial colleagues will spend time considering these possibilities. “Self-preservation is the first law of nature!!”

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue.

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