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What Are Employee Relations (ER)?
Employee relations encompasses the way employees feel about the entire employment lifecycle — from the moment they begin to fill out the first application until after they leave the company and represent their opinions about the company to the public as a prior employee. The employee lifecycle includes some positive elements like the candidate experience and promotions, but it may also include some negative things like demotions or workplace investigations. How employees get along with each other and with managers plays a large part in employee relations as well.
Why a Positive Employer-Employee Relationship Is So Important
According to Gallup, only 15% of employees world-wide are engaged at work. It is time to fix this. We all deserve better, no matter where we work. There are also benefits to the company for improving employee relations, such as:
- Mutual Respect. Employee engagement is less about planning parties and giving away stuff and more about ensuring the employees and the company understand each other and feel like the workplace is a fair and just place. This includes creating a culture of belonging and inclusivity.
- Employee Retention. Happier employees stick around and invite their friends to apply too.
- Productivity. Happy employees are more productive employees. The many statistics about the effect of employee engagement on productivity are clear. Engaged employees give discretionary effort and their best ideas, and that has a huge impact on the company’s bottom line.
- Communication. Communication is at the heart of ER. Clearly communicate workplace expectations with the employees. Provide timely feedback with both positive and constructive criticism, keep transparent policies and procedures, and help everyone understand the decision-making that affects them. Communication is essential to having a fair and just workplace.
- Security=Innovation. Employees that feel psychologically safe are more comfortable with experimentation because they know failure will be dealt with constructively instead of punitively. Build a culture that includes psychological safety and encourage a culture of being secure in vulnerability to learn from each other’s mistakes without judgement.
Common Issues in Employee Relations
Working in HR means you are occasionally going to discover an employee is unsatisfied with your company or their job — at least hopefully you’ll find out because that is when you can take action to improve either the situation or the perception that is making the employee dissatisfied. Because ER covers every touch point an employee has with your company, from recruitment to beyond employment, it is nearly impossible to list all the issues that might arise, but these are some of the most common you’ll encounter.
Money is an emotional issue for people no matter how intrinsically motivated they are. If your employees do not feel like they are being paid fairly or rewarded enough, or if they feel that they are being held back in their career (whether by a malicious manager, lack of visibility, lack of opportunity, etc.), then it will affect their opinion of the company and tarnish an otherwise healthy relationship.
ER is about making sure everyone has the best kind of workplace so that we can all focus on doing great work and want to do great work. When someone isn’t doing their part for one reason or another, the team feels it when they have to pick up the slack, and this situation drives dissatisfaction. If left unattended, it will become dissatisfaction with leadership and HR for not managing the situation sooner. Dissatisfaction erodes willingness to expend discretionary effort, and that means that engaged employees become less engaged and less productive.
Investigations happen when there are allegations that could result in discipline. Typically investigations relate to allegations of broken policies. These could be safety policies, IT policies, financial policies, HR policies and more. They may include threats of violence, theft, harassment, conflict of interest, misallocation of funds, misuse of assets or many other topics. First, dealing with these issues is generally the legal or fiscal responsibility of company representatives such as HR or management. Second, these are issues that harm other employees and their relationship with the company if not addressed. There are no victimless crimes at work. Someone is stressed because they know or think they know about it. Everyone’s merit increase is diminished if the company performance isn’t as great. Any way you look at it, someone is being hurt in some fashion if you are called to do an investigation.
We have probably all told at least two employees, “You don’t have to like each other. You don’t have to smile. You do have to be respectful.” There will always be personality conflicts and misunderstandings because humans are human. But we don’t want interpersonal conflict to get to the point that people are no longer living their best lives because they don’t get along with someone at work. Worse yet, they may not be able to successfully communicate with their manager. These situations are stressful to everyone in the vicinity of the disagreement because having to manage these employees or listen to them bicker is stressful to their supervisor and team.
How To Improve Employee Relations at Your Organization
Every suggestion here is predicated by the assumption that every interaction with every candidate, employee and ex-employee is handled with respect and authenticity.
Employee Relations issues are always easiest to manage the sooner you get to them. If you can get managers or other employees to tell you what is going on, you may be able to change someone’s perspective and/or behavior with a heart-to-heart conversation instead of having to go through an investigation, etc. You might be able to correct something before someone becomes upset about a clerical error that they felt was something much bigger and intentional.
Communication is the critical component in proactiveness, but it usually requires some degree of credibility as well. They have to trust you first.
Have a system in place to track ER issues, responses and outcomes. If you are a lone HR professional, this will let you review what you have done before in similar situations to ensure you aren’t getting more lenient or strict as time passes. For multiple HR people working in a team, this provides a method to understand “the company level response” as opposed to your own judgement of the correct response severity so that responses are consistent both across all team members and as time progresses. This also allows you to borrow wording from previous similar issues when writing warnings, memos of understanding or PIPs.
Make the effort to review your system from time to time to see if your track record indicates you are effective and successful or if you need to try something different. Review for possible adverse action (unintentional discrimination) or bias too.
Sadly, when things go awry, they can be complex and emotional issues, and that means there is a greater likelihood of misunderstandings and hurt feelings. In turn, that means the situation is more likely to go to court. But it may not go to court for a year or two. What will you remember about the finer details or why you made certain decisions by then? Write it down while it is fresh.
Understand when you are creating a record what the company’s record retention policy is and what laws govern records retention for these kinds of records.
When someone comes to talk to you about an issue, listen intently without making judgement or thinking about how you will respond. Listen while they search for words (without finishing their sentences for them). Listen patiently while they repeat themselves (because it means they really want you to hear that part). Stay completely focused on what they are saying, what they are not saying, watch their body language, try to understand how they feel and why they might feel that way. In short, use your emotional intelligence and be an active listener.
Listening is the core skill in HR because we cannot do our jobs well if we aren’t listening hard. Feeling heard is one of the simplest and most influential things you can do to make your employees feel respected by you and thus by the company.
Some people won’t tell you everything until you ask them a question. They have to be invited to tell you what is wrong or how they feel. So keep asking questions. Always end with a question similar to, “Is there anything else you want to share with me?” This question is important whether you’re talking with someone who’s upset and wants to discuss a situation or whether it’s the last question in an investigation interview. You never know what people will come up with when you ask that question. Sometimes what they answer results in another investigation, and sometimes they don’t have anything else to say.
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Angela Livingston, SHRM-CP, MBA has nearly a decade of HR experience in high regulated, high tech companies that are Federal Contractors and supported people in other states. She’s worked for an international company with ~20K US employees that did a lot of immigration work, and she’s worked for a company with ~3500 US employees that doesn’t support work visas. One constant is that she’s always working with people empathetically with an eye on integrity.
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