Fire Politics: Employee Relations: The Relationship Is Changing

Difficult economic times have had a significant effect on many aspects of our society. One of the most obvious has been in the area of employment – not just whether people have jobs, but also the overall relationship between employers and their employees.

Many would say the private and public sectors have been experiencing a relationship adjustment between employers and their employees for some time. Salaries and benefits are being reduced and, in some cases, there seems to be a message being sent from many employers that their employees should be happy just to have jobs. Looking forward, one can’t help but think that this evolving relationship between employers and their employees could alter important things such as the level of commitment by employees to do their work, as well as their sense of loyalty to their employers. In the long term, this will not bode well for the productivity of private-sector or public-sector organizations, or our country as a whole.


A profound shift in attitude

In the not-so-distant past, and in some cases still today, quality employers worked to create an environment that encouraged long-term productive relationships with their employees. They wanted their employees to be positive, productive and healthy contributors to providing quality work with the hope that their organizations would prosper. The shift away from this pro-employee philosophy and approach in the public sector over the past few years has been profound. Primarily at the state and local levels of government, firefighters, police officers, teachers and other public employees in many parts of the country have experienced significant changes in the relationship between them and their employers. They have been on the receiving end of salary and benefit reductions, including attacks on their pension plans.

Some of this is to be expected in the current economy because of reductions in revenue that have necessarily resulted in budget cuts. However, public employees have found themselves at the epicenter of our nation’s financial crisis, even to the point of being publicly blamed for the nation’s economic woes. This anti-employee philosophy and approach is quickly changing the relationship between public employers and their employees, and not in ways that foster a quality work environment.

Employees can’t help but wonder what to expect from their employers in the future. We all know that in difficult times, the true character of individuals usually comes to the surface. The same is true with organizations, and this includes elected and appointed public officials. In difficult times, the true character of those who lead organizations, including the leaders’ level of commitment to their people, becomes very clear.

Some public officials are using the current budget challenges as a tool to carry out old political agendas. For example, elected and appointed officials who are in policy-making positions sometimes use budget woes to act out their long-standing opposition to unions and government employees in general. In situations where dramatic budget reductions have been necessary, some leaders have agonized over the layoffs, pay reductions, benefit changes and pension reforms that were necessary, but frankly there are other leaders who seem to enjoy making these cuts.


Taking aim at public workers

Public-sector employer/employee relationships have actually become part of the political agenda of some candidates running for elected office at all levels of government. In order to get elected, political platforms of candidates in the past have revolved around positions such as being strong on public safety, strong on education, strong on parks and strong on transportation. Now, there are candidates running on a platform of being strong against firefighters, police officers, teachers and other public employees. This new environment is sure to change employer/employee relations, and not for the better. In fact, it’s already happening.

How all of this will impact the workplace and the relationships people have with their jobs is yet to be seen. If the future relationship between employers and employees lacks commitment to each other and becomes primarily confrontational, the result may be a lack of commitment to serving the best interests of the organization and the customers. As one example, if employers will not reasonably contribute to the retirement needs of employees during their years of employment, this can fundamentally change the commitment and loyalty people will have to their jobs.


Balancing expectations

Bottom line, there must be some degree of balance between the expectations employers and employees have of each other in the workplace. It seems that much of the risk in the employment world is shifting away from the employers and moving more toward the employees. In the public sector, some elected officials and managers are sending the message that workers should be happy just to have a job and they should not expect anything in return but a paycheck. This is a slippery slope that is not in the best interest of government and will not have long-term public support.

The change in the relationship between employers and employees is surely being altered and this could create insurmountable challenges for those trying to lead organizations in the future. It’s not too late for people to come to their senses and realize that there must be a balance in the employer/employee relationship. If not, there will be a negative impact on the bottom line. If relationships between employers and employees are evolving, then let’s work cooperatively as employers and employees to change things for the better instead of taking such huge steps backwards. It will be much easier to prevent this workplace disaster from happening than to repair it later. n