Employee relations focuses on both individual and collective relationships in the workplace. It’s a significant shift from the term “industrial relations”, which, historically, has been used to describe the relationship between employees and employers. In this article, I will discuss the meaning of employee relations in modern terms and how leaders can effectively respond when there’s an employee relations issue.
What does ‘employee relations’ mean?
Often when we think of employee relations we focus on issues such as grievances, disciplinary's and managing absence or performance. The time this takes shouldn't be sniffed at - according to CIPD research, the average disciplinary consumes 16 days of management and HR time, and the average grievance, 12 days.
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But managing conflict and disputes are not all that employee relations is about. Employee relations is now seen as securing employee commitment and engagement.
Many HR practitioners see employee relations as ‘managing and developing employees’ so as a way to release employees’ potential and to drive performance. I tend to agree with this description of employee relations in the modern workplace.
So, what does leadership have to do with employee relations?
If we agree that employee relations is not just about dealing with problems, then it must encompass much more. For example, as a leader, it involves things like how you are improving employee engagement and ensuring that your business reaps the benefits through increased employee productivity.
A 2013 Huffington Post article, People don’t leave companies – They leave leaders is one of the first articles to suggest that people leave their managers and not the companies they work for. In 2015, a Forbes article with a similar title provided some research to prove it. It noted that 60%-70% of employees were not engaged at work. In essence, they weren’t working as hard as they could be or putting in that discretionary effort that they might do if they were truly engaged. The central relationship between employee and manager played a crucial role.
I’d say that this is still very much the case in the workplace. If there’s a breakdown in the relationship between an employee and his/her manager, the employee may well decide to leave. If they don’t leave then they may be “actively disengaged” – definitely not giving their best, and probably having a significant negative impact on those they work with. I’ve found that even in well-established organisations, an employee’s experience of “management” can vary vastly depending on the individual that is managing them.
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Each manager needs the skills to be effective in managing these relationships. Companies cannot assume that a new manager will already know how to have difficult conversations, for instance.
How do economic downturns impact employee relations?
In a downturn, companies tend to look more closely at performance management. This can be for a variety of purposes, but often due to the fact that when workforces reduce in size, they need the employees that remain to be performing at their absolute best - this isn't always the case.
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If employees are not used to having their performance so closely managed/reviewed, it can cause issues in the workplace. There could be feelings of being a target or managers treating them unfairly. In some cases, employees raise grievances with HR as a result.
Therefore, it is common to find that, during a downturn, there’s more resistance towards managing performance. In these circumstances, employees see performance management as a tool to get rid of people rather than a means to identify areas of development.
What can leaders do if an employee has an issue at work?
First of all, don’t bury your head in the sand. If there’s an issue, it’s only going to get worse if you ignore it.
If you’re supporting a manager, make sure that the manager has the skills to have difficult conversations with direct reports. Managers should have these conversations with empathy.
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Often, formal processes and policies about how to deal with grievances can trigger breakdowns in relationships. One reason is that formal processes take control away from the individuals that are involved. Generally, all parties come out of these processes not feeling any better. This is because formal processes don’t tackle relationships.
Consider alternative ways for conflict resolution such as mediation or just sitting down with the employee to have a chat – this can be really useful. Do this before it becomes a formal proceeding.
Do leaders have the skills and inclination to manage conflict?
When I moved into HR with Mars, I was based in the factory that I supported. Besides the positive effect of the smell of baking biscuit on the Twix line, if people had an issue, I could easily chat with them informally because I was there.
These days a lot of HR support has been centralised or reduced. So, you are less likely to find someone in HR saying, “Let’s just have a grown-up conversation.” If you’re a small business, it’s very likely that a majority of the ‘on-the-ground’ employee issues fall to leaders.
That’s why it is critical for leaders to develop the skills for effectively managing employee relations. Ask yourself, “Can I manage difficult conversations and conflict resolution?”
Part of my role as an HR consultant is to help leaders develop these skills. I coach leaders in having difficult conversations with their staff and to effectively ‘sit two people down in a room’ to help them resolve their differences. Leaders can learn to do this without having to go down a formal process.
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What can employers do to drive effective employee relations?
Small businesses might instinctively talk to their lawyer as the first port of call. But this doesn’t need to be the first step. Going to a lawyer every time there’s an issue can be very expensive!
I work closely with employment lawyers so that when I’m unsure about something, they can provide guidance. This way, I can give the best possible advice to my clients.
Policies with heart
I’d typically conduct an HR audit to identify the gaps that might exist for the business. The audit will look at the business’ contracts and policies.
One of the challenges with HR policies is that it’s often not ‘black and white’. You can’t just put a policy in place. It’s less about what the policy is and more about how it’s done. So much about employment law hedges on what’s reasonable and what’s foreseeable. Often, what an employment tribunal might see as reasonable in one organisation would be different for another organisation.
That’s where experience comes in, being able to balance policies and contracts using seasoned approaches. This is usually why my clients come to me, because of my experience in HR and in corporate environments.
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Culture around feedback
A good starting point is to look at the culture of your organisation. Do you have a culture that enables honest feedback and genuine empathy? Feedback needs to be in all directions – upwards, downwards and sideways.
Employees need to able to answer “yes” to questions like,
“Do I feel like I can give feedback to my manager and will my manager receive it in a constructive way?” People can often get defensive.
Employees need to also consider the reverse i.e. do they take feedback from their managers in a constructive way? Part of my role as an HR consultant is to provide training on giving and receiving feedback.
Peer support matters
As a business leader, it is important to have people inside and outside your organisation that you can turn to for support. This can be a real source of support.
Having a mentor or coach could be a way to get advice about issues like employee relations. That mentor could be another business owner with more experience. Or you could turn to a peer who has managed similar issues in their organisation.
As part of my role as an HR consultant, I often coach leaders, providing much-needed support on several organisational issues including employee relations.
Other available sources of support include ACAS where leaders can get a lot of advice about dealing with employee issues. ACAS leads the standard for employment policies. Tribunal courts will check that you’ve followed the ACAS standard in an employment tribunal.
A consistent thread throughout a 2012 CIPD research report on Managing Employee Relations in Difficult Times is that employers are putting in more effort into communicating with their employees. In the end, this is what employee relations is all about. It is also about building relationships. After all, the key is in the name: Employee Relations.
If you’d like to find out more about how I can help you to effectively manage employee relations, please get in touch by phoning 07980 838945 or 01224 460444, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for an informal chat.
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