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Employee relations: definition, examples and strategies

man and woman shaking hands expressing employee relations

Every employer wants happy employees. Satisfied workers perform better and are more loyal to the company. Because of this, you cannot afford to neglect the important area of employee relations, but between the chaos of the pandemic and global unrest we experienced throughout 2020 and now in 2021, it often gets pushed to the back burner. 

It's understandable that this happens; employee relations does not seem like an urgent priority when compared to everything else going on. But in times like these, employee relations takes on an even greater importance than normal. And if neglected for too long, it can have undesired consequences for your company and team.

Table of contents
First, what is employee relations?
Employee relations statistics you should know
What are examples of employee relations?
Is employee relations the same as HR?
How can HR improve employee relations?
How will you improve your employee relations?

First, what is employee relations?

Employee relations focuses on ensuring that employees are happy, engaged and productive. Its role is to foster a good relationship between an employer and its employees. ER professionals track issues and investigate cases related to a wide range of topics, such as work policy violations, behavioral issues, coworker conflict, discrimination, performance problems and sexual harassment allegations.

Investigations make up a large chunk of an ER professional’s workload. According to HR Acuity’s 2019 Employee Relations Benchmark Study, the most common topics investigated by employee relations professionals are:

  • Performance issues
  • Policy violations
  • Behavioral issues
  • Discrimination, harassment, or retaliation allegations
  • EEOC or other federal/state/local agency changes

Before we dive more into what employee relations is and how you can improve it, let’s look at some workplace statistics that highlight why ER is so essential right now.

Employee relations statistics you should know

  • Only 36% of employees are engaged in their jobs. That’s based on Gallup’s latest measurement of the metric between July and September 2020. And while that number has been trending upward annually since Gallup began tracking it in 2000, it’s certainly not a victory when the majority of employees are not “highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace,” as Gallup defines “engaged.” [1]
  • 57% of employees have left a job because of their boss. And 32% have “seriously considered” quitting because of their boss. This just goes to show how crucial it is to improve the relationship between managers and their subordinates. [2]
  • In 2020, 59% of people cried at work—up from 48% in 2019. Yes, many workers are stressed to the brink of tears. Employee relations professionals need to brainstorm ways to provide extra mental health support during this time. [3]
  • When asked about their biggest challenges, ER professionals mostly cited a lack of data-collecting technology and a lack of a streamlined process. It’s tough to do your job when you lack the right tools. Later in this article, we’ll talk about what HR can do to rectify this. [4]
  • People in leadership roles have shown an increasing interest in employee relations data. This may indicate the growing importance of employee relations to companies. The HR Acuity report noted: “Respondents report a major increase in requests from leadership for tracking metrics, suggesting that tracking data is increasingly valued within organizations as well.” [4]
  • Many ER professionals still lack the necessary tools to effectively collect and track data. The report explains: “Many respondents express frustration that their existing resources to track employee relations data are manual, bulky and time consuming, indicating a need for more effective tracking and management tools.” [4] 
  • The employee relations cases that increased the most in 2019 were job performance, accommodation cases and policy violations. [4]
  • 81% of employees want to work harder when they receive appreciation for their work from their boss. [5]

What are examples of employee relations?

Some examples of tasks that an ER professional might carry out:

  • Identify and document issues that need to be investigated.
  • Investigate a potential policy violation. 
  • Talk to an employee who has been habitually late to work and skips meetings.
  • Track employee engagement and offer solutions for improving it.
  • Counsel a manager whose team’s performance is lagging.
  • Assess the needs of someone requesting accommodations due to a disability.
  • Resolve conflicts between employees.
  • Advise the company on when it’s necessary to obtain legal advice regarding a workplace issue.
  • Determine and carry out any necessary disciplinary actions or termination of employment.

Is employee relations the same as HR?

Employee relations is usually a part of the human resources department, so it does have some overlapping tasks and responsibilities. For example, an employee relations specialist might handle payroll and leaves of absence, much like an HR generalist would.

While there is a lot of overlap between human resources and employee relations, strictly speaking—unlike an HR generalist who would handle recruiting, training and many admin tasks—an ER specialist would deal specifically with relationships between employees and their employer, always with the goal of keeping employees satisfied and engaged.

So, bottom line: ER is HR, but HR is not always ER.

How can HR improve employee relations?

If you’re looking to improve employee relations at your company, here are seven ways to get started.

Improve communication between your organization and its employees.

What good is a policy if no one knows it? How helpful is a resource that no one is aware exists? If HR wants to improve employee relations, it’s essential to improve communication with employees.

One area that can often be better communicated is the employee complaint or grievance policy. If an employee has a problem or concern, they need a way to voice it (or they risk growing resentful, and your company will suffer overall). In your employee handbook, outline a clear process for bringing a complaint forward and getting it resolved. Eliminate any confusion about how to proceed when a problem arises for an employee.

Conduct regular employee surveys.

Not sure what your employees need? Ask. Many companies conduct quarterly or annual employee surveys to measure employee engagement as well as collect valuable feedback and opinions. Spend a good amount of time crafting the questions. The way you word a question has a huge impact on how helpful the answer is.

Review policies that may be harmful to employees (and implement better ones).

Part of an employee relations professional’s role is to develop policies that improve the employer-employee relationship and promote employee well-being. In your position, you’ll pay close attention to trends in data and respond by analyzing what they mean.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you noticed that working hours policy violations have been on the rise since Q1 of 2020. That’s when the pandemic began, and your company (like most others) switched to remote working. Your company’s standard working hours are from 9 a.m to 5 p.m. with one hour for a lunch break. But according to your employee monitoring software, many of your workers aren’t actually working at those times.

When you dig a little deeper, you find that—far from slacking off—your employees who are parents are juggling working for you remotely while homeschooling their children. 

As an employee relations professional, you make the case to managers and HR that it is in the company’s best interest to adopt a flexible working hours policy so that employees can better manage work-life balance.

Show appreciation for employees.

O.C. Tanner's 2019 Global Culture Report found that when leadership doesn't acknowledge accomplishments, employees are 74% less likely to stick with the company. When an employee feels unappreciated, engagement and loyalty will plummet.

Here are some ideas for praising and recognizing employees:

  • Encourage managers to give informal praise. Managers shouldn’t wait for the annual performance review to give positive feedback to their direct reports. Train and encourage managers to recognize and praise good work as it happens. Research from OC Tanner found that the more closely the praise is given to the event that induced the praise, the better. So, for example, if an employee stays half an hour late to resolve a payroll software issue, thank her then and there instead of waiting for the weekly meeting.
  • Create an employee recognition program. The most popular of these is, of course, the Employee of the Month award. But think outside the box for more creative ones too. Here are some real-life examples for inspiration:
  • > Zappos has creative and fun peer-to-peer awards. Employees can nominate a coworker to win a covered parking spot by the entrance for a week in recognition of them doing something nice, such as opening a door for someone or cleaning the break room.
  • > The highest honor in employee recognition at Delta Air Lines is induction into the Chairman’s Club, where honorees get VIP treatment (red carpet and all!). Top employees must be nominated by colleagues for this distinction based on contributions to the company and customer service, among other things.
  • > Publix has a variety of accolades for its employees, from the customer service excellence award for one store in each division to safe driver awards for truck drivers.
  • Give bonuses. Who doesn’t love getting a bonus? These can be tied to performance or something else. In October 2020, Target announced that it would award more than 350,000 of its frontline workers with another $200 bonus, as a way of "showing our thanks for their extraordinary performance during unprecedented times."
  • Award sabbaticals after a certain amount of time at your company. Reward years of service with additional paid time off for your employees to relax and explore a hobby. REI awards employees with a paid sabbatical (four weeks of time off in addition to vacation pay) after 15 years of service. Intel grants employees an eight-week paid sabbatical every seven years or a four-week paid sabbatical after only four years.
  • Regularly recognize progress and milestones at team meetings. Building in regular recognition in team meetings is a simple and effective way to boost appreciation. If you host all-hands meetings, you can dedicate a few minutes to praising a person or giving progress updates from each team. For example, SnackNation hosts a weekly Crush It Call, where team members volunteer to recognize someone who had "crushed it" that week.

Start or expand your Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

2020 took a toll on everyone’s mental health, and employers would do well to consider how they can improve well-being for their workforce. Consider offering or expanding an EAP that includes mental health resources, such as talk therapy. 

According to the 2020 Workforce Attitudes report by Ginger, which provides on-demand mental health services, "the ability to text or video chat with a mental health provider was the number one service employees wanted from their mental health benefits." The study also found that COVID-19 is the number one stressor at work, followed by personal finances.

Begin by talking to employees and assessing their needs before you add resources to your EAP, and once you’ve added them, be sure your employees know to take advantage of these resources.

Develop your emotional intelligence.

As its name implies, employee relations deals directly with human relationships. Because of this, an effective ER professional needs to develop high emotional intelligence, which is the ability to notice, identify and manage emotions in one’s self and others.

Your job may call upon you to defuse situations involving an employee’s poor performance, policy violations or experience of harassment—you’ll need to be highly attuned to people’s emotions and how best to manage them.

Thankfully, EQ isn’t something you either have or you don’t. It’s something anyone can work on and develop. You can even use the world’s first AI-powered coach, Coach Marlee, to increase your EQ using AI-powered coaching—all from the comfort of your computer.

Ensure your employee relations team has the right tools.

The 2019 HR Acuity study mentioned earlier found that a huge barrier for employee relations professionals is lacking the technology to easily track and analyze ER data. Some companies are still using Excel spreadsheets or human resource management systems that just aren’t built for employee relations needs. Speak with your ER team and research the best software to help them do their job effectively.

How will you improve your employee relations?

As you can see, employee relations is a key part of any productive and healthy organization. By ensuring that the employer-employee relationship is strong, you can create an environment where every worker is empowered to do their best work.

Especially during times like these, where stress and uncertainty are at an all-time high, it is worth it to invest in bolstering your employee relations efforts. As a recap, some actionable next steps for you to take are:

  • Improve communication between the employer and employees.
  • Conduct regular employee surveys to find out workers’ true needs.
  • Review policies that may be harmful to employees, and write new ones that are helpful.
  • Show employees that you appreciate them through praise and formal recognition programs.
  • Start or expand your Employee Assistance Program.
  • Develop your emotional intelligence.
  • Ensure your employee relations team has the tools they need to succeed.

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