The definitive guide to employee relations

Emily Rodgers, Content Writer · 30 Aug

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

For many, forming a relationship with co-workers induces memories of ‘ice breakers’ and awkward lunches. However, this could also invite fondness of going to work with your best friends, not being afraid to call a meeting and be heard as well as feeling comfortable around your boss. 

Strangely, the way your mind may have swayed when thinking about this is dependent on a little thing called employee relations. 

What is employee relations?

Employee relations can be defined as the regulatory 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, the employees discussions around workplace decisions, complaints and resolving work-related or personal issues between staff.

An employee relation involves support for employees, establishing trust-based relationships, assessing working conditions, pay and benefits. This is a base level policy, but this notion also includes stuff like collective workplace rights, work-life balance, rewards and recognition.

Employee relations

The types of employee relations

Yes, there’s more than one. Saying there’s one umbrella employee relationship is like like saying your relationship with your group of pals is the same as the one with your mum. 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:

- Individual
- Collective

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 a couple of members of staff throughout an organisation. 

Collective employee relations mainly involve collective bargaining. It is 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 relationships

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 establish more meaningful and operational collaborations, thus creating a more informed and ultimately better office environment, which is all anyone can hope for when heading to work. 

Think of a time...

When you think of a job you really enjoyed, thoughts should come flooding back of being surrounding by a support network of teammates, a feeling of importance from regular praise or maybe from the success you made for the company. 

Communicating to individuals

By communicating on a one-to-one level with your employees, discussing your relationship with them and their relationship within the team and with others, you’ll start to understand what they hope to gain from a working relationship, whether it matters to them and begin to gage your own unique employee relationship with them.

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. This communication could involve more of a proactive tactic, praising positive behaviours and urging everyone to get involved with problem solving.

Employee relations

The importance of 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 to their workplace environment 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 a 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). 

The butterfly effect

Not nurturing employee relations, even between you and one other employee, can spark issues. 

Take a look at camaraderie between the ranks, for instance. This is the relationship between juniors. They have more in common, are probably more of a similar age and therefore have shared interests and 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 you. 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 you. 

A knock-on effect of underground proportions is then slowly spiraling its way across the corridors and into different teams and soon enough you’ve got complaints or even a mass exodus on your hands. 

The issues with employee relations

The advantages and disadvantages of employee relations from an individual and collective perspective are a bit of a Catch 22. 

One the one hand, the individual’s disadvantages lie within that one employee voicing their opinion and not being taken seriously, which results in no change. 

Whereas one 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. 

Unless handled with care, you may get more than one person feeling like they’ve not got a say, which can lead to them feeling undervalued and the knock on effect continues.

This is where policies come into play to navigate these situations. But, whose job is it to manage employee relations?

Employee relations hr

Taking responsibility 

Employee relations are a function of HR. While it is not something that they solely deal with (pay role, hiring and training are among some of their most important tasks), it is of crucial importance. They should have employee relation policies in place to make them the best they can be for your particular business.

The signs of good employee relations

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.

The key signs include:

  • Continuous communication
  • A trusting environment
  • Understanding employee perceptions
  • Setting out clear expectations
  • Resolving conflict ethically

Make sure your work ticks each of these and the culture will be a desirable place.

What if employee relationships go 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.

Little and large: How the approach to employee relations differs for varying organisations...

No matter how big or small, building relationships should be at the forefront of creating a well-meaning workplace. Small businesses can benefit from a close-knit team on a macro level, while larger companies can form micro teams within the organisation that fuse to create an all-encompassing team.

Let’s start with SMEs

SME’s are more likely to have a focus on individual employee relations. Being smaller means they’re less likely to have trade unions, but instead take a more centralised decision-making approach. The size of the office is generally smaller, meaning CEOs and directors are more likely to directly communicate with everyone in the office. This social proximity also promotes a more informal way of working, with relationships taking a casual stance and practices being changed quickly and easily. 

SME employee relations

What about the big guns?

Unsurprisingly, larger companies usually have a standardised formation when it comes to employee relations. Vast groups of people spanning across multiple teams would be hard to manage without this. However, this standarised way of conducting things could mean that nuances in employee behaviours are missed, potentially resulting in disputes not being addressed from the very beginning. 

The key to successful employee relations

There isn’t a key, I’m afraid, but there are some steps you can take (see what I did there?). 

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. 

And relax...

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, even if you don’t agree with them. 
  • 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.

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