Getting Down to Business
EANE Has Been a Resource for Nearly 100 YearsIt was well over a century ago when a group of business owners in manufacturing decided that, rather than hold on to the unique workforce solutions they had formed within their own firms, they would share this information and, in the process, benefit their entire industry.
This group of businessmen was originally based in Connecticut, but in 1913, a branch of similar visionary mill owners in Western Mass. saw the wisdom of this way of doing things and joined the movement. That, Meredith Wise told BusinessWest, is how the Employers Association of the NorthEast got its start.
“They felt that they could do better in their businesses if they shared all manner of interests, best practices, how they could be doing things,” said Wise, the group’s president. “Part of it at that point in time was to combat union organizations. But when you look back at the records, it wasn’t militant, or ‘keep the unions out at all costs.’ Instead, it was, ‘how do we make our workforce better so that they’re not interested in unions?’”
Today, the EANE has broadened both its member base and its geographic scope. Where once manufacturing was the only sector served, today the 830-plus members range across New England and into Eastern New York, with virtually every industry represented.
The smallest of companies on up to firms with a workforce numbering in the thousands benefit from the combined wisdom of the organization, which Wise said simply exists “to provide the best human resources, training and development information, and services to our members so that they can improve their business and meet their overall goals.”
That early mythology of ‘union busting’ is one that Wise again dismissed. “What we’re doing is trying to improve the relationship between an employer and their employees,” she explained, “so that there’s not a need for any third parties — whether that’s a union or an employee going to the Mass. Commission Against Discrimination, or to an attorney. What we want to do is work with our members to provide a better workplace for their employees.
“The idea,” she continued, “is to keep good communication, before something becomes a problem.”
In an increasingly volatile business climate featuring outsourcing, ‘rightsizing,’ fluctuations within the economy, and information technology entering the workplace at light speed, Wise said her organization is there to provide assistance and advice to its members, with the expectation of bolstering each company’s strengths and bettering its bottom line.
And that is where Wise and her staff at the EANE are getting down to business. Often a company lacks the ability to devote time or resources to changing compliance regulations and the complications of business in the fast-paced technology arena. While there are times she hears from new clients, more often, she works with businesses that understand the long history of EANE’s assistance, and seek to get their own share of its experience in the marketplace.
While the agency’s name puts the spotlight on the employers themselves, Wise said that much of what her organization focuses on is the workforce.
“The thought is that, in order for companies to reach what they want to achieve, they have to make sure that they’ve got the right people in the right spots with the right talent and skills, all to do what needs to get done,” she explained. “Without those people, and without that motivation and competency, a business isn’t going to meet its bottom line.”
Here, she said the EANE is engaged to assist with the HR departments of its members to fine-tune industry, legal, and regulatory compliances, but without forgetting those individuals on the floor, and always with the goal of attracting, retaining, and motivating the employee base to keep the business moving in a progressive fashion.
“We do a lot of passing along of best practices in human-resource areas — what other companies are doing around retention, engagement, what they’re doing to keep people motivated in the economic climate that we’ve got, how they’re keeping people motivated when they’re asking them to do more with less,” Wise said.
To achieve such goals, she said the EANE spends a significant amount of time in training for leadership, management development, customer service, and teamwork — either in seminars or at roundtable discussions. “We provide all of the skills that people need in order to help their businesses grow,” she added.
But rather than an outsourced model of HR, she said the EANE acts as a partner, or addition, to the existing departments within member businesses.
“Everything has gotten so complicated, and changes so fast, that it’s hard for one person to have all the resources and all the skills that they need,” she continued, “even for a few people in the HR department. So we look at ourselves as augmenting that function within an organization.”
Such complications arise as the very nature of business hierarchy has been shifting away from a purely top-down model. In generations past, a president, CEO, CFO, or senior management team were the people who made all the decisions within a company.
“That fit the environment that was there,” Wise went on. “But nowadays, so much is changing in the business sphere that almost everyone within an organization has to have some decision-making capability. It is increasingly important to be sure that people have the training, the skills, that they’re onboard with the mission and vision of the organization, that they’re held accountable for their decisions, that they have the knowledge to make those decisions. That gets complicated for an organization to do.”
Sometimes, this can be a difficult decision for business leadership to make. But the EANE helps each client take a look at its practices, policies, benefits programs, and employee engagement, and shares the best practices from other employers as well as helping to design strategies unique to that organization.
It’s not always about putting out a fire, Wise said. “Lots of times where we get that call, it happens when a CFO, CEO, or an HR person is out in a group and they’re kibitzing with their peers. That person may ask their colleagues about pain points in their own business — starting to see some turnover, maybe losing some good people. Sometimes it’s just about a number of workers ready to retire. They’ll ask who you are using as a resource. Then our name comes up.”
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There are still people who say the EANE aims to keep unions out of the workplace, Wise said. Further explaining her dismissal of this notion, an aim of her organization is instead to ensure that her clients’ workforce gets valued attention and recognition.
“We’re not stepping into the middle of that relationship — getting between the employer and the worker,” she continued. “We’re not the employer’s voice to the employee, or vice versa. What we’re trying to do is coach the employer so that their practices and procedures are positive.
“It’s not that we want to keep out unions,” she continued, “but to improve that relationship so that the employee doesn’t feel the need for a union, or that they don’t feel discriminated against, or that, if there’s a harassment issue, that the employee feels comfortable walking into that HR director’s office, the CEO’s office, and telling them about issues that are important to talk about.”
But that’s not as much of an issue, she said, as the nature of the modern workplace, which is evolving on a near-constant basis. And her advice to all business owners and managers is to work within the changes that have taken place rather than try make older ways of doing things work is this changed environment.
Speaking of the Baby Boomer generation as an example, she said that there are many who are nearing or at retirement age. “Some of them may not be able to retire now,” Wise said, “as their savings may have been decimated through the recession. But what is happening within the workplace is that those in their late 50s or 60s, maybe they’re not at a place where they can retire, but they can step back from the 50-hour workweeks. How can an employer meet the needs of that population?”
Here, the unfolding technology that increasingly drives the office could be utilized for Boomers to work from remote locations or work more flexibly outside of a traditional workweek. Such models are also advantageous to newly minted college graduates, for whom a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday schedule might not work effectively.
“This is an example of a good lesson from the last few years on how business needs to better leverage technology,” she said.
As she reflected on the long history of her organization and a century of providing assistance to area businesses, Wise said it’s important to note that the EANE is based in the region it serves.
“What we try to get across to our members is that we’re not just their partner, and not just their resource,” she said. “We’re local, and we’re tied into the communities that are here — which means we understand the environments in which they’re working.
“We’ve been here for over 100 years,” she added with a smile, “and I hope we can continue to be helping organizations for another 100.”