Besides not being a jerk, how can I be a labor-friendly boss?
November 11, 2020 6:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm a long-time civil service employee in a small org, newly appointed as a manager. How can I be pro-labor in my work now that I'm one of the bosses? Can I be?

I'm going to try to give as many details as possible. Please note that I am a total newb re: management and a relative newb re: the labor movement, so apologies if this is an asinine question.

I've been at my public library as a librarian for almost a decade. For about half that time, I was involved in our staff association (not a union but close). It's good that this association exists, but in general it's not very active - I think this is largely because worker-management relations have been generally good, so many staff don't see a need for it much of the time. We're also a civil service org, so there are some inherent protections for the majority of staff.

Recently, I took a job as a manager in this same library. I was ambivalent about this for a few reasons, one main reason being that as a manager I can no longer be a part of leading and promoting the staff association. Another reason is that obviously now there is potential for my professional duties to conflict with my pro-worker sensibilities.

I would have liked to stay in my former position, but for many reasons moving into management was the correct choice.

Is it possible to be a pro-worker boss? I'm not looking for ideas on how to be pro-labor in my personal/political life, but ideas for how I can continue to live these values in my professional life. Obviously, 1) be as humane a boss as possible; 2) know the law, relevant contracts, and other HR documents thoroughly and use them to support rather than tear down my employees...but is there anything else I should be doing?

Also, if there are any books or other resources on how to be a good manager while being pro-employee/pro-labor, please share them. As someone new to managing people, I'm kind of despairing at how corporate and impersonal all the relevant literature is...

And if the answer is "you can't be a manager and be pro-worker", I'm willing to hear that too.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Is it possible to be a pro-worker boss?

I think there are boss/managerial positions that would implicitly prohibit from you being pro-Labor. I do not think this is one of them. A library is a special kind of labor - there is no means of production, per se, and you aren't in control of them. Your job isn't like a small business owner or anything. You don't have a say in wages, in vacation, profits, etc. Its a decision-making position more than actually being petit-bourgeoise.
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:16 AM on November 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

Is it possible to be a pro-worker boss?

Just making sure that your reports are fully aware of whatever resources and training is available to them, and helping them take full advantage of them rather than being punitive when they ask, goes a very long way. Actively helping people with their career goals and fostering a nontoxic working culture as well. It’s very possible - and, in fact, not even all that hard - to create a workplace that champions fairness and accountability without being cruel or toxic.
posted by mhoye at 7:16 AM on November 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

The most important thing is to believe your workers when they say something.
Ask them what they need to better complete their work, then provide it.
Don’t blow off their concerns; These things alone will set you apart from 98% of usual management.
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:19 AM on November 11, 2020 [7 favorites]

I am a former public librarian (worked as staff and then management, like you) and current school librarian. While it's true that you're not going to be union organizing as a manager, so no you won't be "pro-worker" in that sense, I have absolutely had managers who were clearly supportive of our rights as workers (and as like, human beings).

Honestly, I think the two things you've listed are the big ones -- being humane (and in particular, as a person with chronic illness, managers who aren't dicks about sick leave are a huge deal) and knowing what your employees are legally entitled to (and then fighting for it).

Some other things good library managers do:

- being supportive of your employees to people higher up the chain if they get called out on nonsense (once a local cop came to complain about me to a board meeting for reasons you truly wouldn't believe, and my library director was right there next to me speaking in my defense)

- at least occasionally taking shitty shifts (libraries have lots of those, and I've had managers who literally never worked past 4, on a Saturday, or like a single day from December 15th through New Year's)

- offering us genuine professional development opportunities (giving other folks a chance to go to conferences, letting people develop their own programming, mentoring people in new tasks like collection development etc.)

- letting us have some say in how the workplace operates -- like, a collaborative approach to things like desk scheduling, programming, and other responsibilities

- doing the manager stuff -- dealing with employees who aren't pulling their weight or are treating their coworkers/patrons badly, communicating from higher levels of management to frontline staff and back again, figuring out the balance between giving folks enough autonomy and making sure that shit actually gets done
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:22 AM on November 11, 2020 [15 favorites]

Oh, and -- shielding your employees from stuff they don't get paid enough to do. I was not a great manager but I did work hard to intervene when patron situations got out of control. Most of my staff made $10 an hour (or less) and that is absolutely not enough money to deal with abusive patrons.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:23 AM on November 11, 2020 [14 favorites]

The best managers I ever worked with saw their role as threefold:

1. Employ competent people and then let them do their jobs with as little interference as possible.

2. Find out what your people's strengths are, and give them responsibilities that reflect those strengths.

3. Act as an umbrella for your team, protecting them to the best of your ability from the constant rain of bullshit coming down from the C suite.
posted by flabdablet at 7:27 AM on November 11, 2020 [11 favorites]

Be aware of your new privilege. You can’t interact in the same way you have, you can’t be pally, even if you think you can. You can no ore disavow yourself of this privilege than you can any other ones a person might have as a white person or a straight person or a man or whatever. No matter how much you try to honestly foster an openness and be the “you can come to me” person, a majority of your staff will likely say “sure, that’s great” and then not (listen to the person who does, they are likely unofficially speaking for more than themselves). Your opinion weighs heavier regardless of how little you want it to. It’s a bit miserable but try to find amen friends and mentors at the same level of responsibility to avoid feeling too lonely. Being aware of your privilege will hopefully let you be an ally to your workers.
posted by J.R. Hartley at 7:27 AM on November 11, 2020 [8 favorites]

-Schedule yourself into the desk rotation, so staff have more opportunity for off-desk back end work.

-Actively ask staff if they have gotten their 15 minute breaks.

-Give yourself a similar schedule to staff (if they work nights and weekends make sure you do too).

-Advocate for your staff to admin.

Also read Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series! Gamache is a great example of positive leadership and was recommended to me by one of the best library managers I've had in 7 years in public libraries.
posted by donut_princess at 7:58 AM on November 11, 2020 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you're asking a different question than how to be a good boss. You're asking how to be a labor-friendly boss. So my answers are about that only.

Is there a contract? Follow it. You can gently encourage workers to think in terms of their contractual rights by referring to the contract in front of them and encouraging them to do the same. So when an employee asks if they can take a 2 week leave, look it up in the contract in front of them and answer, "It looks like the contract says you can!"

Make room for any activities of the 'staff association'. Like if they want to use a bulletin board or use a meeting room for their gatherings.

Think in terms of supporting workers to establish precedents that - if you are in future replaced by a labor-unfriendly boss - can be referred to as a past practice. You want future workers to be able to say, "For 5 years we've been released from work duties to participate in union meetings. If you fail to release me for that now you are violating the past practice we have had here"

Read labor stuff to get more ideas of what a labor-friendly workplace actually looks like. LaborNotes is a good place to start for quick reads.
posted by latkes at 9:39 AM on November 11, 2020 [11 favorites]

Oh yeah I'd echo suggestion above to establish a culture of ensuring people take their breaks, leave on time, and never ever work off the clock.
posted by latkes at 9:40 AM on November 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

One of the things that I've repeatedly done is to voice my opinion when I feel that policies are not labor-friendly. I once was a manager in a library for an institution that penalized you for taking more than 6 sick days, even though everyone actually got at least 12. I began by telling my staff that I thought it was an unfair policy and making sure they were aware if they were getting close to the number. I also was very proactive at making sure they knew to take vacation instead of sick if they could.
Then I started lobbying with upper management. I made sure to mention in meetings how punitive it was, and how we were actually losing good staff members because of the system. When a call went out for managers to get together to discuss the new policy, I made sure I let everyone know that the existing policy was out dated and unnecessary. When my fellow managers complained that people would just take every Friday off with a headache, I pointed out that if they could complete all the work they needed to do and still take off every Friday, it didn't matter.

We got the better policy and even though I'm no longer there, I am close with my staff that remained and they've benefited from it a good deal.

Advocate for your people. Be willing to fight for them. And if you can get bad policies changed, do everything you can to do so.

I also make sure my staff know the whys of certain policies that seem unfair or silly. Want to check your email on the weekend? Well, you're hourly so you can't. It's not because we think you are incompetent, it's because you are too valuable to do work for free. If somebody needs to not be hourly, so they can work all hours, I make damn sure the pay compensates for the expectations. I also do everything I can to keep from assigning more complex work without compensation and when I do so, I make sure I explain why.
posted by teleri025 at 2:09 PM on November 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Unless you are the only manager, I think organically advocating for the staff association with your peers might be helpful. Be clear that you think it has an important role to play in your workplace and in the end, benefits everyone.
posted by plonkee at 2:48 PM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

In addition to making sure you're treating your staff fairly, make sure your peers and other upper management are treating their own staffs fairly and are generally thinking of staff as "people" and not "cogs." I have a similar trajectory and outlook in local government, and I make sure to speak up in managers meetings in favor of workers. Lately that has meant being a constant reminder that workers are not working from home because they have the perfect set-up but because we imposed it on them and we can't penalize them for, like, having children at home, because schools here are not open either. And I just generally speak up when HR questions come up and managers seems to be whining about employees wanting stuff they're entitled to, either contractually or morally, to make sure that the "worker's voice" is represented.

I'm actually really annoyed with my former union and think it's being ridiculous currently, but I strongly believe in worker protections and make sure I speak up for them and I don't badmouth the union in public places. Like others have said, this is actually a pretty easy -- and very valuable! -- thing you can do in public service, unlike, say, factory ownership. You're really not the big-bad-boss in that sense -- my current issue with my former union is that they keep trying to paint local-government middle-management as if we are morally and practically equivalent to a for-profit factory owner, so if that's happening and that's why you think you can no longer advocate for workers, then paradoxically, ignoring the union rhetoric may be your best way of advocating for the union on these issues. You're really still as much of a worker as they are, and some countries would still allow you to be part of a union.
posted by lapis at 9:41 PM on November 11, 2020

Seconding letting workers know what their rights are. Which means, first of all, that you have to know what their rights are, in detail — you'd be startled how many managers don't — and then share that information proactively.

(I'm imagining, for instance, what it would be like to go to my boss with a question about pay and be reminded that I'm allowed to discuss my pay with other workers too. That information may not be necessary to answer my question. But it's pertinent, it's empowering, and it teaches me both that I have rights and that you will respect them.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:15 AM on November 12, 2020

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