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Election year politics has a strange way of focusing employers and employees on the larger issues—such as jobs, wages and the economy. Every four years, Americans believe they can influence with their votes the large issues that affect their daily lives. 

This quadrennial political ritual contains more than its share of polls, punditry and pontification. Politicians, their staffers and handlers read these tea leaves daily to try to divine their prospects to learn what their futures hold.

HR pros should pay attention to election year buzz, too. Knowing what’s on people’s minds as they go to the polls can help savvy employers get a glimpse of the future workplace.

What Americans say they want

The nonpartisan Employment Law Alliance recently conducted a survey of 1,125 working Americans to identify the hot-button issues in this year’s presidential election campaign. The survey, known as the America at Work survey, asked what issues they would like the next president to focus on. At 87%, the top answer was “increasing the proportion of the work force earning at least a living wage.”

Americans also seem concerned about losing jobs to other countries. Eighty-six percent of respondents want the next president to make it harder for companies to outsource current U.S. jobs to foreign countries. Almost as many (83%) want the next president to find a way to provide health care coverage for all U.S. citizens.

Savvy employers read the subtext

Clearly, the survey results indicate workers are worried about economic security issues. They have heard the media drumbeat of doom on the economic, global trade and health care fronts. Employers may be feeling the same insecurity, but employee angst may be employer opportunity.

When employees fear losing their jobs, they see any change in the workplace as a potential threat. This may make them more likely to seek a job elsewhere, or may lead them to look for discriminatory patterns in employer actions. Employers must be sensitive to this insecurity and strive to reassure employees.

Now is a good time to reexamine policies and procedures to make sure they comply with federal and state law. Train supervisors about key anti-discrimination laws and how to handle tricky issues such as harassment and discrimination charges, FMLA leave requests and questions of overtime pay.

Also, understand that tough times may be the right time to innovate. If you are concerned about retention, address the issue in common sense, low-cost ways. Study after study shows employees appreciate being appreciated. Praise and thanks for jobs well done are priceless.

Note: It is possible, however, for employers to go too far in reassuring employees—and it can cost a bundle. Supervisors should never promise employees that they will never be laid off, or even that they won’t be laid off in the near future. This may be construed as a contract with the employee that would destroy the employee’s at-will status. If the subject comes up, employers should simply say that no layoffs are planned at that time. No one can guarantee the future.

Underlying concerns

The America at Work survey also revealed employees favor stronger employment law enforcement. In particular, 76% think workplace safety laws enforcement should be beefed up. Approximately 70% feel family leave should be expanded, and a similar number (69%) feel workplace discrimination laws should be more vigorously enforced.

Views about immigration laws varied widely by race and region. According to survey results, 55% of nonwhites support relaxing immigration laws for professionals; only 36% of whites feel that way. Regionally, workers in the West feel the next president should work to increase legal immigration, while only 25% of Midwestern workers support such initiatives.

The survey results suggest employees are looking for a larger government role in the workplace, something employers have typically opposed. If this support translates into electing a president and lawmakers with similar views, employers can look forward to increased regulation. This is all the more reason employers should make sure their policies and procedures are in order.

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