In 2019, HR professionals will experience a new paradigm in employee relations and the strategies they’ve used for the last 25 years will no longer be effective; old strategies will actually create more employer risk in 2019.
Why? Because we are experiencing rapidly changing socio-economic conditions right now, similar to the turbulence experienced in the Industrial Revolution. A century ago, that turbulence led to employees organizing and striking for better working conditions, and ultimately to the rise of the union movement. We are at a similar crossroads in 2019.
Our society and economy are changing, driven by three primary conditions. First, economic power is concentrated in a small group of people, similar to the Industrial Revolution. Second, employers have designed processes that focus on legal risk-management rather than creating an equitable, healthy workplace culture—and that strategy is now backfiring. And finally, millennials, who have greater workforce and employee expectations than prior generations, are the largest segment of the workforce, outnumbering the Gen Xers since 2016.
The revolt of the 99%
Similar to the Industrial Revolution, our wealthiest 1 percent control 90 percent of the wealth. Historically, when that happens, there’s social unrest. While tech workers get a lot of press for their lavish perks and above average salaries, they and other workers are still experiencing poor working conditions, difficult living standards, and a lack of upward mobility, all of which result in social strife.
CEO pay in the last few years has skyrocketed to 361 times the pay of their average worker based on 2017 public company disclosures. As a comparison, a typical CEO in the 1950s made 20 times the salary of his or her average employee. The difference between 20 times the salary and 361 times the salary reflects the shrinking middle class and the polarization of the haves and have nots. Those who forget the past are bound to relive it. And for people who know the history of the Industrial Revolution, we know what comes next—workers organizing and fighting back. We are living in a powder keg that is ready to explode.
The end of employer/employee loyalty
In addition to social strife, people are fed up with self-serving employer procedures. Policies that are in name only like zero tolerance to harassment or a commitment to diversity or a commitment to integrity and ethics. HR departments that do not advise employees of their rights, such as their right to take leave, request an accommodation, discuss pay and working conditions, get overtime, etc. HR staffers that appear biased and pro-employer.
Unfortunately, these aren’t just misconceptions or miscommunications on the employee’s part either. In fact, HR professionals have been trained to focus first and foremost on creating a paper trail that defends employers against employee claims. In the past, Boomer and Gen X employees put up with policies and procedures being stacked in the employer’s favor because they still believed the overall employer-employee relationship was fair in terms of working conditions, compensation, and career development. But as employers continue to amass huge wealth at the expense of their employees, employees no longer feel employer loyalty and aren’t willing to put up with unfair incidents that they may have brushed off or tolerated in the past.
Millennials killed the toxic workplace
Every day brings a new headline about things millennials have killed. But perhaps the most important one is the acceptance of the toxic workplace culture. Millennials outnumber Gen Xers and are far more comfortable speaking out and voicing concerns as compared to prior generations. Social media further amplifies this dynamic. Millennials and Gen Zers are digital natives and used to sharing information about their life online and to broad, public audiences. So it’s unrealistic to think these younger employees will refrain from sharing their work life online and discussing details of it with broad, public audiences.
The combination of these three factors will drive rapid change in employee relations in 2019, including:
- Efforts to balance management power through unions or employee groups
- Seeking employee representation or influence at the Board level
- Increased employee demand for DIY tools to solve workplace conflicts
- Democratized access to information about employee rights and responsibilities
Employers can either be proactive and manage these dynamics, or they can wait and react to possible walkouts or demands for representation.
In 2019, savvy employee relations professionals will seek to proactively release that pressure by sponsoring employee groups, suggesting an employee observer at some executive or Board meetings, providing more information about employee rights, and providing DIY tools to empower employees to resolve conflicts and improve their workplace experience.