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March 2013 · Volume 95 · Number 2


Managing in a Labor Contract Void

by Alan Probst

The passage of Wisconsin Act 10 of 2011, which effectively neutralized union power in Wisconsin local governments, was probably as much a shock to local department heads and supervisors as it was to the union membership. Suddenly, the structure through which they guided employee’s activities, the labor contract, was no longer a legitimate document from which they could manage.

Since local government management teams had never experienced this environment, some began seeking advice and training through University of Wisconsin-Extension offices. This is where I come in.

While the Wisconsin Counties Association’s Budget Repair Bill Consortium is doing excellent work providing information and educational materials on producing personnel policies and personnel manuals, the need posed to UW-Extension was for training on the basics of managing, supervising, and leading without a labor contract to set the parameters.

In addressing this issue, I drew upon available literature, insight from colleagues who had served in leadership positions, and combined it with my 30 years of supervisory and leadership experience as a municipal manager, deputy state agency bureau director, and my career as an armed forces officer, where I taught leadership courses, to produce a resource that might help managers who are encountering this workplace challenge.

It is not the purpose of this article to denigrate or advocate for organized labor contracts in local governments, but merely to offer a discussion on how supervision and leadership might best be applied in an environment where the traditional labor contract has been nullified.

Opportunity for Improvement

While the loss of an approved labor contract to refer to for most management and labor issues can be somewhat traumatic for front-line managers and department directors, it can also be approached as an opportunity to improve effectiveness, efficiency, and manager/worker relations.

Few would disagree that there is some degree of an adversarial relationship in the management versus labor perspective inherent to all contractual arrangements in the workplace. One of the potential benefits that can be realized with the loss of a contractual structure is the opportunity to build a genuine team within a local department’s staff to focus everyone’s efforts on goals that benefit the entire team.

For managers, directors, and front-line supervisors, much of what they do every day remains the same. The same work must be done; the same reports must be filed; the same customer must be satisfied; and the methodology of doing the work of the department or section remains essentially the same.

What has changed is the manner in which the manager relates to his or her employees. The manager is no longer restricted to the provisions and limitations of the contract, but neither can the manager hide behind the contract and use its provisions to avoid making difficult people decisions.

Employees are no longer just “the union” but are now individuals who the manager must relate to as individuals with individual needs, desires, and abilities. Herein lays the opportunity to lead.

Know the Law

Employees, while no longer enjoying a formal labor contract, are certainly not without protection. Public employees still enjoy legal safeguards through a variety of state and federal laws:

  • The Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) establishes a minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards that affect employees in the private sector and in federal, state, and local governments.
  • The Social Security Act (1935) provides for retirement, survivors, and disability benefits.
  • The Civil Rights Act (1964) prohibits racial or sex discrimination in the workplace.
  • The Age Discrimination Act (1967) protects workers age 40 and older from discrimination.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970) is intended to ensure that employers provide employees with an environment free from such recognized hazards as exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive noise levels, mechanical dangers, heat or cold stress, or unsanitary conditions.
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Act (1972) prohibits employment discrimination in its programs on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, and marital or familial status.
  • The Employee Retirement Income Act (1974) establishes minimum standards for pension plans in private industry and provides for extensive rules on the federal income tax effects of transactions associated with employee benefit plans.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) prohibits, under certain circumstances, discrimination based on disability.
  • The Civil Rights Act (1991) amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to strengthen and improve federal civil rights laws, to provide for damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act (1993) requires employers to provide employees job-protected and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons.
  • The Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (WFEA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, race, creed, color, handicap, marital status, gender, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, arrest record, conviction record, membership in the National Guard, state defense force, or any military reserve unit.
  • The Worker’s Compensation Act (WCA) provides partial wage replacement, medical expenses, and temporary or permanent disability based on severity of injury.
  • The Equal Pay Act prohibits gender-based wage discrimination.

Additionally, numerous state provisions protect employee rights that apply to public employees.

Management vs. Leadership

In a discussion about supervision in a non-organized labor contract environment, it becomes necessary to make the distinction between management and leadership. The two are entirely different concepts.

Author Peter Drucker has defined management as “the organization and coordination of activities of an enterprise in accordance with certain policies and in achievement of defined objectives.” Note the lack of any reference to people.

On the other hand, author David Hakala has defined leadership as “one’s ability to get others to willingly follow.” You can manage things; you can manage systems; you can manage programs, but you have to lead people.

When a labor contract dictates how you respond to virtually any situation, the supervisor can simply “manage.” The programs are managed; the resources are managed; and the time is managed but most of the relationship with employees is viewed through the glass of the labor contract. As a local government manager or supervisor, you have to do both: manage and lead.

A common complaint about work environments that operate with labor contracts is that there is an inherent “us versus them” atmosphere in the workplace. In other words, you’re either labor or management, but the two are inherently adversarial and have differing motivations.

While neither agreeing nor disagreeing with this complaint, the fact is that leadership is different in the absence of a labor contract. Effective leadership is always of paramount importance.

Effective Leadership Practices

Actual leadership of employees is, in many ways, much like parenting—definitely not for the faint of heart but one of life’s most rewarding endeavors. Earning the respect and loyalty of employees is vital in building a team of excellence. In earning that respect and loyalty, some cardinal rules are widely accepted:

Praise publicly, criticize privately. Praising an employee publically enhances the employee’s self-image within the work group and implies “my boss actually appreciates me.” Criticizing in private avoids humiliation and resentment. It is human nature to look for opportunities to retaliate against someone who humiliates you. Avoid it and try to make every instance of criticism a learning experience, so the employee leaves the discussion feeling better about his or her job and intent on not repeating mistakes because the person doesn’t want to disappoint the boss. In my supervisory and leadership experience, I’ve long used three rules:

  1. Keep me informed.
  2. Never lie to me.
  3. Bad news doesn’t improve with age.

I’ve found over the years that, if these basic rules are followed, there’s not much that can go wrong that can’t be fixed. And by asking three basic questions when something does go wrong, a leader or supervisor can turn a potentially bad scenario into a teachable moment and team-building event:

  1. Was anyone killed?
  2. Was anyone seriously injured?
  3. Did you learn anything from it?

If I get two “No” and a “Yes” (in the proper order), I have found there’s little that can’t be fixed and something to be gained by the knowledge learned by the experience. Essentially, we’re eliminating fear from the workplace and encouraging innovation and thinking outside the box, which has become essential during these times of limited financial resources.

Share credit, absorb blame. When things go well, share the credit with your employees. In all but the rarest cases, your success wouldn’t have been possible without them and everyone already knows you were the leader of the effort. Why not give credit for work well done and reinforce the work group?

Conversely, when things go wrong, a true leader accepts the blame and tries to shield employees. To point the finger at people makes you appear petty and untrustworthy and destroys employee loyalty. Again, everyone already knows where the problems lie; nothing positive comes from trying to allocate blame.

Every employee is an individual. A good supervisor and leader recognizes all employees are individuals with differing concerns and goals. Recognize that each employee requires different approaches to motivation. What motivates one won’t necessarily motivate another to do a good job. This knowledge is critical to the supervisory/leader’s success.

This is especially important when dealing with employees from several generations. Baby boomers, Gen X’ers, and Millennials are all motivated by different goals and desires just as they possess different comfort levels with technology. While this presents a challenge to management, it also provides a valuable diversity in skills.

Develop employees. One theory on developing staff members is, if someone isn’t trying to hire them, you’re probably not developing them to their full potential. While this may seem a bit extreme, the fact remains that employees who receive skill-improvement training, who are taught how to understand the big picture, and who feel they are being helped to improve themselves, are more likely to be loyal, energetic team members.

Developing employees also provides versatility in staffing, allowing supervisors to avoid crisis when a key employee is absent because others will be able to step up, and it ensures employees will be more effective and efficient because they have been trained in the latest methods and techniques to augment their experience.

Often, training funds are some of the first funds cut from local budgets. Supervisors have to be innovative and think creatively to keep employees well trained.

Never micromanage. Part of building a team is building trust. If you micromanage–if you’re constantly looking over an employee’s shoulder—you’re effectively telling employees you don’t trust them to get the job done. You’re telling them you doubt their abilities or dedication and either one destroys morale.

Give employees the only direction and guidance they need, then step back and let them do their job. More often than not, they’ll surprise you with the quantity, quality, and timeliness of their work.

Don’t be afraid to delegate authority. Here again is the element of trust. No manager or supervisor can be everywhere and do everything. Delegating authority to subordinates is essential to 1) develop employee’s abilities, 2) build trust as part of team building, and 3) give the supervisor time to get his or her own work done.

Show confidence in people. They’ll probably surprise you with the quality and quantity of work they do when you give them both the responsibility and the authority to “make it happen.”

Be a good listener. Listening is not only critical to team building but it’s also one of the hallmarks of most efficiency initiatives. Whether it’s telling you about a personal issue that may affect work performance, offering a suggestion for improving work processes, or chatting about the weather, actually listening to what people say versus appearing interested can be easily differentiated by them.

Overall communication tends to shut down if employees feel you’re not really tuning in. Listen to what people say and, when appropriate, act on it. You’ll find your credibility as a leader grows immensely. Most of the popular government efficiency programs like Lean, Six Sigma, and Total Quality Management require employee involvement. How better to involve employees?

Building Effective Teams

There is an ever-increasing body of literature worth reading that addresses building effective work teams, harking back to 1965 when psychologist Bruce Tuckman coined the stages of team formation: forming, storming, norming, and performing. In the interest of providing an immediately usable tool, here are the basics.

Building a team is critical to success once the labor contract is no longer in play. Where people formerly associated with the union and union steward for support, now you have the opportunity to transfer that same association to a team of fellow workers, led by yourself, to provide the support while channeling the former union energy to productive work and efficiency within the team.

One outlook that works well with teams is to adopt the same mindset as the armed forces: “The mission comes first but your people are always a very close second.” Once employees recognize the value placed with them, they will form the loyalty and alliances within the work group that you seek.

When building a team, remember that everyone wants to be on the winning team. No one wants to be in second place. Capitalizing on that common desire, you can reinforce team cohesion by striving for excellence.

Seek that team identity of the best. Whether it’s the best section in a department, the most efficient department in the local government, or the recognized leader among similar departments, establishing the goal of being the best and providing achievable milestones toward that coveted status assists in establishing team identity.

Further enhance the team spirit by encouraging employees to be supportive of one another’s efforts and have each other’s back. A good leader and team supervisor will always stand behind and back employees when they are right, no matter how difficult. All of these concepts are integral to building a cohesive, efficient team.

Even in team building, a local government manager or supervisor cannot allow employees to forget there still are work rules and that their team leader remains the leader. In such situations, fairness equals respect and always being fair, while not always popular, earns the respect of the team members.

Possible Pitfalls

Without a labor contract and in a team-building environment, the leader must realize that he or she is more in the spotlight than when there was a functioning contract. Without a contract, true leadership is essential and lack of it is tantamount to failure.

Here are some critical pitfalls to avoid as a leader:

Never be at home watching television while employees are working late. The inevitable resentment destroys team leadership and eliminates any chance of employee loyalty. If people are working late, be there with them.

After hours, “If you have nothing to do, do it at home.” If you decide to work late, employees may feel they should stay too, even there is nothing productive for them to do. Send them home to their families. They’ll appreciate it and understand that you do truly care about their welfare.

Lead by example. Never adopt a “do as I say, not do as I do” attitude. You will appear insincere and untrustworthy.

Never play favorites. This is one of the hallmark issues perceived to indicate a need for a labor contract in the first place.

Display Moral Courage and Professionalism

No one ever said being a leader was easy. Have the moral courage to do what is right, both for and with employees, no matter what the personal consequences. Once you build a reputation for such behavior, word will spread and working for you will be a desirable goal even for employees from other departments.

A good leader models professionalism. Never criticize the elected officials you serve to employees or to the public. Explain, as much as is practical, why unpopular decisions were made. There’s an old saying in government that informed residents are happy residents. The same is true for public employees.

Talk with employees. Ask for their input. Open communication is critical to effective team building. Keep them informed. You’ll be amazed at how much useful information you can gain from people once you earn their trust.

Management and Leadership Style

Management style is frequently a question asked during job interviews for managerial positions. While an authoritarian management style works in some situations, it’s rarely comfortable. Coaching and mentoring are far more conducive to positive workplace dynamics.

A leader and supervisor who coaches employees to better work quality and quantity and acts as a mentor to help them overcome deficiencies and develop strengths can expect better employee loyalty and productivity. Developing employee skills through both in-house and outside training improves productivity and assists employees in moving up to the organization’s next level.

As noted earlier, if employees aren’t being promoted or recruited, you’re not doing everything you can to develop them. If you occasionally lose an employee who moves to a better position because you developed their skills, you suffer the inconvenience of finding a replacement but you also reinforce the loyalty of those employees who remain and enhance your reputation as a good leader.

Without a labor contract, the supervisor must also now act as the broker for competing interests once addressed by the contract. Not only does the supervisor have to broker conflicts within the work unit but must protect the employees from undue interference from elected officials, as the contract had previously done, and achieve a reasonable balance between the desires of elected officials and employee’s actual capabilities.

It is not uncommon for the two to be vastly different. Without the labor contract to rely on, change can occur in a fast and furious manner. Employees need to rely on their team leader or supervisor to minimize the adverse effects of those changes, keep them informed, and protect their interests where the contract formerly had done so.

Part of this is the need to be a timely decisionmaker. A good leader can and will anticipate what answers people will need when an issue arises and ensures they have the answers they need as soon as their supervisor has them. Uncertainty is a great destroyer of morale and a leader who understands this can diminish its negative effect.

Attention must also be given to consistency. Previously, the contract provided consistency for the employees in the workplace: consistency in duties, consistency in application of work rules and disciplinary policies, and in how they were treated in general. Inconsistency goes hand-in-hand with uncertainty in causing low morale and confusion.

A successful supervisor is consistent and predictable in how work is assigned, praise is given, and discipline applied. Avoid any impression of favoritism or the effectiveness of the work unit will suffer.

Maintain Distance

We’ve discussed the positive relationship-building aspects of supervision and leadership at some length. There are areas, however, where caution must be exercised.

Being in a leadership position is inherently lonely. Caring for staff members and looking out for their welfare cannot cross the line to being “one of the gang.” Maintaining an arms-length distance from subordinates is necessary in social matters as well as in the workplace.

A leader cannot possibly expect to be able to effectively mediate workplace conflicts if that leader has become too close personally with employees. Neither can an effective supervisory relationship be maintained if social involvement with employees occurs.

Having a drink with subordinates on such a special occasion as the promotion of an employee or the birth of an employee’s child is acceptable, but a cordial exit after the congratulatory expressions are made will keep the leader in a position of retaining the respect and credibility of the employees.

Disciplinary Actions

One of the more difficult duties of any leader is disciplinary actions. With unions now eliminated from the process, the leader now has more discretion, providing he or she complies with adopted work rules and personnel policies.

The key with disciplinary actions is to make every effort to ensure fairness in the process. Most employees can accept disciplinary action for their transgressions provided they feel they have been dealt with fairly. Hopefully, if leadership practices and principles have been adopted, the ability to address disciplinary issues will become easier.

Keep Informed

For leaders confronted with the “sans contract” world, I highly recommend reading organizational effectiveness materials. Essays, for example, by Jerry Harvey in his book The Abilene Paradox, (Jossey-Bass, August 1988) while somewhat dated are most useful in organizational development and communications. UW-Extension resources on responsibility-based culture and similar tools are available at www.uwex.edu.

Finally, a good leader genuinely cares about staff members. This is something that can’t be faked. If you’re insincere in caring about people, they’ll see through the façade almost immediately, and you’ll have no credibility with them.

Those who can’t relate to employees as a caring leader will probably never be truly successful. Being a leader is challenging, but it can be incredibly gratifying if one tackles the job with informed, effective practices at hand.


“Effective Supervisory Practices: Better Results through Teamwork,” 4th Edition, ICMA Press and the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, Scot Worthington, 2005.
“Human Resource Management in Local Government: An Essential Guide,” Third Edition, Siegrun Fox Freyss, ICMA Press, 2007.
“What’s the Difference between Management and Leadership,” The Wall Street Journal, Alan Murray, 2009.
“The Top 10 Leadership Qualities,” HR World, David Hakala, 2008.
“Peter Drucker on the Profession of Management,” Harvard Business Review, P. F. Drucker (2003a).

Alan Probst is local government specialist, Local Government Center, University of Wisconsin-Extension, Madison, Wisconsin (alan.probst@ces.uwex.edu; lgc.uwex.edu).

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