Employee relations: the definitive guide
There's more to employee relations than ice-breaking sessions and introductory lunches – it's about how a company diplomatically handles conflicts, makes decisions and solves issues. Here's how to nurture your employee relations strategy
What are employee relations?
Employee relations can be defined as the management of relationships between a company, its individuals and the staff as groups or a whole and the policies that surround them.
Let’s put that into everyday speak...
Essentially, it’s how much effort a company puts into making sure staff feel welcome and appreciated, as well as how diplomatically they handle conflicts, discussions with employees around workplace decisions, complaints and resolving work-related or personal issues between staff. For these efforts to be successful, the organisation has to view its employees as important stakeholders in the company, rather than just people who work for them.
Employee relations involves supporting employees, establishing trust-based relationships, assessing working conditions, pay and benefits. This also includes elements such as collective workplace rights, work-life balance, rewards and recognition.
Employee relations will often sit within the responsibility of Human Resources, but in some cases, companies may have a dedicated employee relations manager.
The types of employee relations
Relationships differ - saying there's just one type of employee relationship is similar to comparing your relationship with your friends to the one you have with your parents. Not only is the type of relationship different, but the dynamic is too.
Employee relationships are still relationships and have to be approached in the same way.
There are two types of employee relations:
An example of individual employee relations would be the rapport between a senior manager and a team leader, a team leader and a junior or between two juniors. It is any one-on-one relationship between different members of staff throughout an organisation.
Collective employee relations mainly involve collective bargaining - a method of distinguishing conflict in the office. Negotiations of conditions as well as employment terms usually take place (or are bargained) between employers and employee representatives, such as trade unions.
This means that employees feel like they have one voice together and employers are more likely to listen, because these bodies stand as a middle man, representing every workers' views and negotiating their intentions.
How to approach individual and collective relations
As mentioned above, the dynamic for working relationships differs from person to person, as well as for groups. Knowing the difference, as well as how to approach these types of employee relations will help to establish more meaningful and operational collaborations. This will create a more informed and ultimately, better office environment – which is all anyone can hope for when heading to work.
Communicating to individuals
Most importantly, you need to communicate frequently on a one-to-one level with your employees. When you discuss how you will work together, what they would like to get out of their relationship with the company, how they feel about their team, their position within that team and their relationship with the company culture - you’ll start to understand what they hope to gain from a working relationship and begin to work on how best to nurture and develop this relationship.
Individual needs vary from person to person – managers need to work to find out each employees' motivations, satisfaction levels, goals and objectives,
Communicating to a collective
Collective relationships should be approached in much the same way. A two-way communicative bond should not only be formed, but is crucial. This is especially if certain things like jobs, hours and pay negotiations are being made. You can encourage this by praising positive behaviours and urging everyone to get involved with problem-solving.
The importance of good employee relations
The workforce is still very much a force, and it is not a force to be reckoned with. Your employees have a voice and suppressing this valuable right will be detrimental to the success of their productivity, effort and overall satisfaction.
Workers are not just there to get in, do the job, and get out. And, scarily, this is how many businesses are still being run.
A positive working atmosphere is directly related to employee relations, as is lucrative business performance. This is because if a member of staff feels happy and comfortable where they work, they’re more likely to communicate openly, feel more motivated and give it their all, resulting in higher productivity.
This means that regular involvement, commitment and employee engagement all play a part in not only maintaining a place where everyone wants to work, but also ensures the smooth running of your business (and its level of profits).
Why you should focus on maintaining strong rapport with individuals
Not nurturing employee relations, even between workplace leaders and one other employee, can spark issues.
When you think about relationships between members of the team on the same working level for example, as they work on similar tasks and have similar responsibilities, it is likely that they have more loyalty towards one another. If they feel undervalued or unappreciated, they’re going to talk to the people who will understand the most – their closest colleagues.
This could leave a sour taste in their peer’s mouths and create a negative view on workplace leaders. It could also solidify an underlying feeling they’ve also been having and this could then encourage them to speak ill of the relationship they have with their manager or company as a whole.
This can then slowly spiral its way across the corridors and into different teams, and soon enough you’ve got complaints or even a mass exodus on your hands.
Employee relations best practices
In life, there’s no one definitive answer to relationships, but in the world of work, you can loosely follow a pre-determined employee relations best practice. This can be catered to your environment and the workers within it to create your own bespoke policy.
Best practices include:
- Clear, consistent and prompt communication
- Creating a trusting environment
- Understanding employee perceptions
- Setting out clear expectations
- Resolving conflict ethically
- Employee involvement and feedback
- Regular training for managers
- Recognising and rewarding good work
Make sure your work ticks each of these and the culture will be a desirable place.
The issue with employee relations
The advantages and disadvantages of employee relations from an individual and collective perspective are a bit of a Catch 22.
On the one hand, individual employee relations have the disadvantage of if one employee voices their opinion and is not taken seriously, it can results in no change.
Whereas on the other hand, the main disadvantage of the collective approach is the deprivation of the individual and their right to have their voice heard on a singular level, when the relationship is based around the employees as a 'whole' instead.
Unless handled with care, you may get more than one person feeling like they’ve not got a say in how the workplace is run and on matters that effect them, which can lead to employees feeling undervalued and the knock-on effect can continue into high staff turnover and dissatisfied employees.
This is where policies come into play to navigate these situations.
Whose job is it to manage these?
Employee relations are a function of HR. People who enjoy solving problems, resolving conflict and negotiating will be perfect for this role.
The key tasks involved with a employee relations role include:
- Design and implementation of employee relation plans and procedures - Company policies will define how employees should conduct themselves within the workplace, while plans will be created to ensure fair and effective communication between the company and employees.
- Resolving workplace conflicts - If any issues arise between management and employees, those working within employee relations will be in charge with addressing these issues and working to create solutions. Employee relations managers will work to find a solution that is best for all parties involved.
- Listening to employees - It's important that employees have a say on what happens in the workplace and matters that affect them. Those within employee relations work to give employees a voice and analyse feedback to make required changes.
- Provide training for workplace leaders - Anyone in a position of responsibility for others' within the business, such as managers or supervisors, should be trained on how best to manage and support their employees, but also how best to handle conflict.
What if relations turn sour?
Sometimes, disputes happen. How a company deals with this is different depending on the type of dispute and the people involved. These grievances could be anything from attendance issues or annual leave disputes, to wage wars and safety in the workplace.
The company’s integrity needs to be preserved, while ensuring that everyone who is involved feels their points and opinions on the matter are being heard. Here is a formula you can follow when a dispute arises:
- Nip it in the bud – Address the situation between parties quickly, before it escalates.
- Delve deep – Create a detailed account of what has happened. Writing up each party’s side of the story remaining completely impartial. This not only keeps a record of the account, but allows each party to understand that their grievance is being taken seriously.
- Handle with care – Approach the situation with a degree of sensitivity.
Of course, each of these steps requires adequate training to ensure that each stage is handled with proper conduct. Your HR team should know how to carry out difficult conversations respectfully, propose helpful solutions, have universal procedures in place and consider help from third parties where necessary.
There isn’t a key to maintaining and creating strong relations, but there are some steps you can take.
If you’ve recognised some bugaboos in your workplace from this article and you think they need to be addressed, there are ways to tackle the issues and create better employee relationships with an effective employee relation strategy.
Evidence suggests that employees feel far more comfortable and open to understanding company decisions as well as forming relationships easier in an informal setting. By ensuring a degree of relaxation and peer-to-peer mentality, it is shown that employees have greater satisfaction and higher levels of commitment.
Creating a relaxed atmosphere doesn’t necessarily mean Ping-Pong tables and beers on a Friday, there are some behavioural steps that you can integrate into the office environment. Here are just a few:
- Keep employees informed on what is happening with the company. Make them feel like they’re a part of the bigger stuff. Transparency is underrated.
- Relate to them on a personal level by giving examples of what you went through at their stage, giving them tips on what helped you. Everyone is human and connections will grow stronger when everyone realises this.
- Listen to what they’re saying and consider their points carefully.
- Provide them with what you’re actionably going to do about it. This could be talking to their manager, or talking to a more senior member of staff, HR, or someone from a completely different team. This makes them feel heard and gives them something to look towards.