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Labor Pains

Employees focus groups may seem like a good idea, but they could land you in court.

This story appears in the December 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

In the 1990s workplace, owners and their employees often sit at the same table to swap ideas and hammer out ways to improve quality and efficiency. Instead of maintaining an us/them mentality, employers try to foster teamwork through employee focus groups and involvement committees, working together to find solutions to daily business problems. The approach tends to work well. In fact, the Policy Foundation, a research and education organization in , DC, credits quality circles and employee involvement committees with as much as 70 percent of the productivity increase and growth in the U.S. in the early 1990s.

That's the good news. The bad news is the National Relations Board () deems some employee focus groups illegal employer-dominated unions. To the dismay of many human resources experts, federal courts have backed the NLRB's position. Indeed, in a 1996 case, the ruled that courts must defer to the NLRB's interpretation of the law in this area. Accordingly, employers who sponsor committees that cross the line into topics and strategies traditionally reserved for unions may have to answer for their actions in court--and be forced to disband their committees.

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