Employee relations is an often-used and overarching term that has different implications for different people in the workplace. To employers with unions, it may be synonymous with labor relations. To non-union employers, employee relations may be a constructive strategic tool, or it could solely focus on negative reactive issues such as theft, harassment investigations, or problem employees. To employees, it may have a positive or negative connotation, depending on their management’s view of their value.
Employee relations is a field that has evolved over the years. It was originally known during the period of history where trade unions existed as “industrial relations.” Throughout the evolution of employee relations, the focus of the more general relationship between employers and employees has narrowed to encompass individual employees and employer relationships as well.
The topic of employee relations is most often considered a discipline in the human resources realm, much like talent acquisition and performance management. It is typically defined in a transactional manner by day-to-day tasks, such as conflict management, timekeeping and attendance issues, or investigations of sexual harassment or performance-related issues. However, the term employee relations, in a broader sense, impacts all facets of human resources and the full life cycle of employees.
Many employers recognize that employees are the most important asset for an organization and good employee relations profits both the employers and the employees. The goal of employee relations is to build positive relationships with employees, keep employees engaged, and ensure employee productivity in the workplace. Good employee relations is demonstrated by positive supervisor/direct report relationships and a healthy culture that proactively values employees instead of reactively dealing with transactional workplace issues. Employee relations may be easily hindered and even destroyed through careless acts and the lack of management training. According to Bamboo HR, “To maintain positive employee relations, an employer must first view employees as stakeholders and contributors in the company rather than simply as paid laborers. This perspective encourages those in management and executive roles to seek employee feedback, to value their input more highly, and to consider the employee experience when making decisions that affect the entire company.” https://www.bamboohr.com/hr-glossary/employee-relations/.
As highlighted by Bamboo HR, one of the foundations of a good employee relations program is communication. This includes the development of a two-way communications strategy that includes a proactive up and down flow of communication, as well as intentional active listening to and interacting with employees. This allows for employers to hear what is important to employees and employees to benefit from a bigger picture view of what is happening in the organization. This two-way communication, in addition to an employee handbook, is a valuable combination of tools for defining expectations and providing guidance to both managers and employees for a range of topics including employee conduct, problem resolution, and even termination. In the reopening of many workplaces after the pandemic, this communication is especially vital as many employees are struggling with increased anxiety and fear. In this context, employers may have to navigate honest discussions regarding COVID-19 vaccinations and return precautions.
While often a human resources department is tasked with employee relations, this must be a value and focus first from executive leadership that cascades down through the organization. Employers that engage with employees and provide for employees demonstrate that employees are valued. In smaller organizations with a human resources department of one or without a dedicated human resources department, this is more complex because employee relations may simply be transactional unless leadership fills the gap.
Building and maintaining good employee relations has not been easily navigated over the course of the past year. However, between operating under the strain of a pandemic, political divisiveness, and racial tensions, this past year may provide employers with both a microscopic view of how well employee relations is functioning within their organization and an opportunity to initiate positive employee relations in moving forward. Intentional positive employee relations may benefit both the employer and employee in many ways. It will lead to a higher employee engagement rate as well as higher motivation and productivity, as well as a reduction in workplace conflict. As employee loyalty builds, there will be a reduction in turnover, but when positions need to be filled, a positive brand will draw talented employees to the organization.
For additional information on employee relations, please contact us at www.newfocushr.com .
Written by: Kathi Walker, SHRM-SCP, PHR
Sr. HR Consultant