The H.R. Employee Relations Function: A “Hygiene” Activity Or A Strategic Value?

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Employee Relations is one of the most important Human Resources activities in the company, because it is through the problem-solving and coaching, often in very difficult situations, that work relationships and trust can be built or broken.

Decisions and actions are made that demonstrate the organization’s real values and its philosophy about people. Employee Relations professionals tend to develop individual work relationships with employees as well as with teams, and are best positioned to have their fingers on the pulse of the workforce.

Traditionally, Employee Relations has been a primarily reactive function, responding when H.R. is called in by a manager or by an employee to help resolve a problem — a complaint of harassment, such as offensive behavior of a sexual, racial, or religious nature or a violation of a company policy i.e. safety, attendance/absenteeism, bullying, or drugs/alcohol or, a conflict between 2 people. It’s critical that the issue be looked into and addressed very quickly. Disciplinary action is a frequent resulting action by management, though not always. Sometimes it’s an issue of unacceptable employee performance, and a Performance Improvement Plan is put in place to help an employee get his/her performance on track to meet job expectations.

Employee Relations professionals are usually experts in company policy and employment law, and we have observed that the use of legal counsel has continued to grow over the past decade in management’s effort to ensure compliance with increasingly changing and often-complex legislation and workplace situations.  But, is that the sum total of the potential value of the Employee Relations function?

Today’s organizations have smaller Human Resources departments, and at the same time they need highly engaged employees to compete effectively. We have observed that Employee Relations can be a high value resource to organizations. Employee Relations people can build a wealth of knowledge about individuals and groups, including the following examples:

• Management/Leadership styles of supervisors and managers
• Leaders’ Credibility
• Work climate
• Training quality and quantity
• What motivates employees
• Receptiveness of leaders to employee suggestions
• What ideas employees have to improve products, processes and services
• How supervisors and managers guide people through change
• The frequency and content of communication to employees about the business , customers, competitors, and what unique value the company promises to customers that makes customers buy from the company
• Quality and frequency of performance feedback including metrics
• How sensitively and constructively leaders address performance or behavior issues
• Employees’ views on pay and benefits
• Employees’ views on training and advancement opportunities
• Fairness and Favoritism
• Who goes the extra mile, helps other people, and /or volunteers

This is a long list but it merely scratches the surface.  When Employee Relations is done as a proactive activity as well as reacting to problems, the organization can have access to important information that can guide initiatives, changes, and development programs.  In this scenario, Human Resources presents information and updates for discussion with organization leaders often, regularly. This information is used to identify appropriate actions to take and changes to make to build and sustain employee engagement and performance.

For example:
• Incentive programs may be created or revised
• Recognition programs may be developed
• Awards may be changed
• Career paths may be designed into the job hierarchy
• Training plans may be developed
• Gamification may be introduced
• Suggestion Programs may evolve
• Balanced metrics can be established to monitor engagement and its impact of the business

To become well-versed on the organization and the people, Employee Relations staff in this proactive environment orchestrates an effective array of activities, i.e.:
• Conducts 1x1s with employees
• Plans and facilitates focus groups on key business topics
• Puts in place small group sessions for employees to meet informally with senior managers
• Visits work areas
• Attends team safety and staff meetings, observing behavior and reading reactions.
• Understands the jobs that are done and the skills and personal qualities required
• Understand the business
• Provides feedback and coaching to supervisors and managers to help them improve their impact
• Supports managers in providing involvement opportunities to employees in improving products, processes and service delivery policies to better align these with the business strategy

By leveraging your Human Resources staff this way, management can remain in touch with the workforce and more confidently buy-in to engagement initiatives that can only succeed when they prioritize and practice them on a daily basis. When this happens, annual surveys add value by providing employees with opportunity to have a voice en mass. And, survey data is not surprising to managers because they are already aware of and acting on issues.

We believe strategic employee relations can be an integral component of engagement impacting an organization’s readiness and ability to deliver its unique value to its customers.

What do you believe Employee Relations can contribute? Should it be a hygiene activity or a strategic value adder? What is the current role of Employee Relations in your organization? What are the needs of your business? What changes might enable higher value from your Employee Relations function?