The employee relations strategy is the determining factor in how good or bad the relationship between employer and employee is going to be. The quote from Albert Einstein ‘A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it,’ perfectly illustrates the difference between a proactive and poor employee relations strategy. Just because we can:

  • facilitate disciplinary, capability or grievance meetings, doesn’t mean that we really want to.
  • coach managers through without prejudice or protected conversations doesn’t mean we really want to.
  • draft an ET1 response or pull together a bundle for an employment tribunal doesn’t mean we really want to.

It signifies that something has gone wrong, and when an employment relationship breaks down, there aren’t any winners. It takes time, patience and often money to unpick a problem that has been left to escalate. Of course it can’t always be helped. HR is always instrumental in restructure and redundancy programmes and there’s always going to be a rogue employee or manager somewhere, but generally speaking, ‘prevention is better than the cure.’ Many moons ago, advising on these problems would have been our bread and butter. Yes, we can still do it, but we like working with clients who are coming at employee relations with a positive intent. They want us to design and create for them, the climate for positive employee relations; the supporting frameworks that ensure expectations are clear, shared and understood and the working practices that ensure employees are treated fairly and feel valued. If you measure employee engagement, there’s usually a correlation between employees who feel valued, and better business performance. It can be seen in the data.        Why would you want this? ↓                     When you can have this?  

What poor employee/employer relationships look like What positive employee/employer relationships look like
Command and control. Employees are not trusted to innovate. They’re relationships based on trust. Employees are empowered to contribute; they aren’t managed within an inch of their life.
Poor employee morale. There’s high levels of employee engagement and employees are bought in to the mission.
Communication is one-way. Employees do not feel that their voice is heard. Communication is two-way and leaders listen.
Lip service is paid to workplace policies and procedures. Clear workplace policies and procedures are understood and fairly and consistently applied.
Employees don’t feel valued. Employees feel valued.

 

Results of a poor/non-existent employee relations strategy Results of a positive employee relations strategy
Increased levels of absence. Improved employee health and wellbeing.
Low engagement levels. High engagement levels.
Silos / lack of information sharing. More collective problem solving and innovation.
Interpersonal and team conflict. More harmonious relationships between individuals and within and across teams.
More time and money is spent on managing formal procedures. Case numbers and legal advice costs rise. Line Managers are equipped to manage and resolve concerns informally as and when they arise, nipping them in the bud. Formal case numbers and legal advice costs are within risk appetite.
Employees are demotivated. Employees are driven to perform to the best of their ability – not because they have to, but because they’re excited to.
Difficulty attracting and retaining top talent. Increased employee loyalty (retention) motivation and productivity and the ability to attract and retain top talent.

What sort of interventions should my employee relations strategy consider to improve the employer/employee relationship?  It’s so important that expectations are clear and understood from the outset. These expectations are written into:

  • Contracts and job descriptions;
  • Employee handbooks;
  • Policies and operating procedures; and
  • Company mission statements, values and behavioural standards.

These documents provide the benchmark to assess when the employer or employee has fallen short. But signposting alone can’t create a climate of positive employee relations. The message needs to be communicated and reinforced throughout the employment lifecycle by leaders, managers and advocates who walk the talk and practice what they preach. Written communication is one thing, but not every line manager and leader will have the soft skills (e.g. active listening, questioning, negotiating and empathy) needed to become a competent people manager. The gap will need to be identified and the skills developed. It requires an investment of time and money on the part of the employer, and desire, motivation and commitment on the part of the employee to develop into a people manager role. According to the CIPD research report ‘Real Life Leaders: Closing the Knowledge-Doing Gap’, the two skills that line managers find most difficult to apply in their roles are:

  • Managing conflict e.g. bullying, discrimination, breakdown of interpersonal relationships and grievances in the workplace; and
  • Difficult conversations e.g. ‘at risk,’ capability (underperformance and sickness) and protected and without prejudice conversations.

 So what’s the difficulty in managing these situations?  When we talk about managing conflict, it’s often about talking through different perspectives and uncovering new realisations. The ultimate price for putting off that conversation may prove far more costly than any initial awkwardness you feel about addressing the issues at hand. (As a word of caution though, if the issue has become deep rooted, it may be better to consider the services of an accredited mediator). If the thought of a redundancy consultation meeting sounds difficult, why not shift your mindset to what is within your span of influence? Can you support your employee by looking for suitable alternative roles for them, either within or outside the business? How about building them up for future success – with support writing a compelling CV and covering letter, interview role plays etc. It’s that shift in mindset that can help you to overcome any feelings of dread associated with having to manage these types of situations. Building on a climate of positive employee relations during a pandemic and beyond.  An organisation that already has a positive relationship with its employees will have an advantage when it comes to managing change. Their existing toolbox of skills and communication approaches will help them adapt to find mutually agreeable solutions to the new questions the pandemic continues to raise. A final word… Don’t be intimidated by a recognised trade union. They are not the enemy, and with a collective will, there will usually be a way to resolve workplace issues that support both business and employee interests!