In my previous columns I discussed the way that the government is encouraging union organization through legislation and preferential treatment from the National Labor Relations Board. In the next few columns, we’ll discuss ways for employers to protect their own interests in this not-so-friendly legal environment.

In any war for the hearts and minds of your workers, the single most important warrior is the first line supervisor. It is the supervisors who represent the face of your organization to the workforce. A good supervisor will present an image that is fair, competent and caring; a bad supervisor will convince the workers that management is greedy, stupid and mean.

A smart employer understands that good supervisors are made, not born. Supervisors require careful selection and training so that they will project the image you want.

Selection is critical. Whether a supervisor oversees two employees or 20, the qualities required are the same: maturity, calm, dependability and a real team spirit. Remember that technical skills and expertise can be taught; personal qualities can’t. It is generally a mistake to promote somebody simply because they are the most senior or the most skilled. You want somebody who is the most respected.

Once you have selected the right person, take the time and effort to cultivate the skills they will need. Certainly technical expertise is part of it. More importantly however, is supervisory expertise. You must train the supervisor to understand how you want the workers to view the company. The supervisor must know and appreciate the company’s policies and positions. For example, if an employee approaches a supervisor that he likes and respects in order to ask whether or not the workers should join a union, that supervisor must know the employer’s position and the reasons for it.

If the supervisor is properly trained, he will respond to the worker with answers such as:

• “If you have a problem, you know my door is always open. We don’t need a stranger to come between us.”
• “If the union demands more than the company can afford to pay, there might be a strike and people won’t get paid.”
• “If the union gets in, there is no guarantee of increased wages or better benefits. There will, however, be a guarantee of union dues and assessments.”

If the supervisor is badly trained, he may have no answer or a bad answer. For example:

• “I don’t think unions are so bad. I would join myself if I could.”
• “If the union gets in, the boss will fire everybody who joined and will move the plant to Mexico.”

As you can see from these simple illustrations, what the supervisor says can have a radically different impact on the situation — for good or bad!

By the way, the law presumes that the supervisor speaks with the full weight of management behind him. Another way of saying that is: the company is legally responsible for what the supervisor says, whether he was authorized to say it or not.

If you, the employer, are going to be responsible for your supervisor’s words and actions, you better be sure he or she knows what to do and say. How to impart that knowledge will be the subject of my next column.

Perry Heidecker is senior counsel for Milman Labuda Law Group PLLC, Lake Success, N.Y. The firm is a full-service Employment Law practice focused on counseling, preventive advice and training, policy and procedure design, representation before administrative agencies, litigation, and appeals.