As an HR professional, manager or leader, part of your role is to help maintain healthy relationships between employees and the company and ensure a productive and positive work environment.
Poor employee relations can lead to a decline in productivity, low employee morale, and ultimately impact the company's bottom line.
Drawing on my 10+ years of experience, I’ll discuss various ways in which HR professionals and leaders can improve employee relations and foster a positive work environment.
By implementing the strategies outlined in this article, you’ll build a strong bond between the organization and the employee population, leading to a more engaged and productive workforce.
- What is employee relations?
- The secret to good employee relations
- 7 ways to improve employee relations
Let’s dive in.
What is employee relations?
Employee relations means balancing the wants and needs of the employer with those of the employees, both collectively as well as individually. A good human resources department will foster a positive employee experience while protecting the company by maintaining compliance. While it sounds simple, the reality is much more nuanced, even for seasoned professionals!
The secret to good employee relations
Through the years, I've learned that the secret to good employee relations is systems and processes.
Maintaining good employee relations is much easier, and team members are generally happier, when companies have systems in place to ensure that employees and leaders are engaged in regular feedback and communication, development opportunities, recognition, and wellness.
And on that note…
How to improve employee relations In Your Org
1. Better equip managers to be the front-line employee relations contact
Managers are crucial in maintaining good employee relations as they’re the immediate point of contact for most employee issues.
In my experience, being the front-line employee relations contact doesn't come naturally to most managers but, fortunately, I've found it can be quickly learned.
I developed a leader toolkit that I shared as part of a larger "new leader training" in my last role, and I am working on a similar initiative currently. Here’s what’s included:
Time Management and Delegation. Our managers are often pulled in many different directions so time management and delegation are key to managing their workload effectively so that they have time to manage their teams. Time management tools can help prioritize tasks, and platforms like Asana and Trello are great for project management and collaboration.
Delegation is key to managing their time and is another aspect of management that often is a learned skill. I encourage managers to identify tasks that can be delegated to others on the team and to set clear expectations for their completion.
Giving Feedback. Managers can encourage regular employee feedback by scheduling regular individual check-ins with their direct reports. I remind managers to make sure to provide both positive and constructive feedback to their team members. This can help to improve employee engagement and morale on the team level by giving employees the opportunity to feel heard.
Conflict Resolution. I developed a clear and simple process to handle conflicts between people managers and their employees. This process is easily understood by all employees and fits the culture of our organization.
The process begins with an “open-door” policy where employees are encouraged to approach management with concerns.
A conversation is conducted where both sides are given their turn to speak, during which they understand they will not be interrupted by the other.
Both sides agree to listen fully, and not prepare their rebuttal. After both sides have the opportunity to speak, together they decide how the path forward should look.
Everyone understands that HR or a second-level leader is brought in only after this process has been completed in good faith.
Legal Compliance: Finally, I offer an overview of the legal responsibilities that come with being a manager.
I familiarize new managers with HR policies, labor laws, and discrimination and harassment prevention training. Most importantly, I remind managers that HR is here to support them and they do not have to navigate this alone.
Ideally, every new manager should receive the training they need prior to being promoted to a people manager role. Unfortunately, though, that's often not the case. As HR, we can provide coaching and training to managers at all levels to help them handle difficult situations.
2. Build rapport with employees as HR and become a trusted partner
To be effective, HR must be a trusted business partner for employees at all levels in the organization. I did this by being clear and consistent in my guidance, always maintaining professional standards, and treating employees equitably.
When I started a new role last year, I needed to earn the trust of several key leaders who were hesitant to partner with me. While it was sometimes frustrating, and I felt as though I was having to prove my value to them over and over, I eventually built rapport and earned their trust.
In communicating with those key leaders, I had to take the initiative to schedule time to meet with them, instead of waiting for them to come to me. I was then able to set the agenda, and I came to those initial meetings asking about their department goals and pain points. This allowed me to demonstrate my value by helping them in specific, relevant ways.
Gaining business acumen is key to being able to coach and advise managers and employees knowledgeably. You can gain industry knowledge by joining an industry professional networking group and subscribing to industry newsletters.
I also recommend you familiarize yourself with your organization’s business model and review your financial statements to gain an understanding of your org’s financial position.
Also, become familiar with the teams you support and learn their dynamics. This provides you with valuable perspective when issues arise and also brings visibility of HR to employees and helps them understand the function HR plays in the organization (we're so often misunderstood by employees!).
You can do this by meeting with teams and employees to learn about their roles. Ask managers to include you in a team meeting so you can be introduced to the team and provide an overview of your role, and schedule “office hours” in a department, either virtually or in person, where you are available to that team exclusively.
3. Clear and continuous communication
I have found inconsistent communication to be the root of many employee relations issues. Encourage open communication between all levels of leadership and employees, not just front-line managers and their direct reports.
As I mentioned above, an “open-door” policy can help facilitate this, but it is the first step in building a culture of open communication. To ensure it reaches all employees, information should be shared on multiple channels like email, instant messaging apps like Slack, message boards, and town hall meetings.
HR can provide training to managers and employees on effective communication skills to ensure that they are able to convey their message clearly and effectively.
4. Regular Performance Reviews
Conducting regular employee performance reviews can help identify areas for improvement and recognize achievements. Use tools like Workday or BambooHR to formalize and streamline the process, if you don’t already have a platform as part of your HRIS suite.
An effective performance review cycle is one where employees know what to expect and there are no surprises at the end of the year. Expectations, goals, and performance measures are made available to employees, and managers ensure that these are fully understood.
Managers and employees should meet regularly throughout the year to review progress on key performance measures. The cadence of these meetings should be at least quarterly, and can be more frequent if needed.
These recurring meetings are essential to a successful and effective performance review process. The year-end performance review should then be a summary of all previous reviews throughout the year.
5. Develop an employee recognition program
Employee recognition program facilitates acknowledgment and appreciation of the efforts of employees that contribute to the organization's purpose, mission, and values.
A formal recognition program can not only help to improve employee morale and motivation, it also allows for data to review the effectiveness of the program. A good employee recognition program allows employees to be recognized in a way they appreciate, with incentives that motivate them.
Your organization may have a platform for employee recognition. If it does, review usage and analyze trends to determine utilization. If utilization is lacking, promote the platform and reasons to use it. Provide examples of the behaviors that you want to see recognized and highlight incentive options available.
As always, behaviors start from the top down so senior managers must lead the way!
6. Ensure employee well-being
No one appreciates being worked into the dust and stress and burnout are real issues in the modern workplace.
A good way to promote work-life balance is by providing flexible work arrangements, such as remote work, flexible hours, or job sharing. This can help to reduce employee stress and improve people’s overall well-being.
Your company likely already offers an employee assistance program (EAP) to provide support to employees who may be dealing with personal or work-related issues.
If so, promote the EAP to managers and employees by highlighting some of the resources available. Employee Assistance Programs are commonly underutilized and employees often don’t realize what is available to them through an EAP.
7. Approach difficult situations with empathy
Showing empathy at work requires HR to be approachable, understanding, and willing to provide support to employees when they need it most.
One of the most important ways HR can show empathy is by actively listening to employees.
This means listening to them without judgement and offering support or resources to help them address their problem or concern.
You can validate the person’s feelings and emotions without necessarily condoning their behavior.
Building Strong Employee Relations: Key Strategies for HR Professionals
Overall, I have found HR plays a pivotal role in the success of any organization, and HR professionals need to ensure that they're taking appropriate measures to ensure that the relationship between employees and the company is healthy and productive.
The seven strategies discussed in this article—equipping managers to be the front-line employee relations contact, building rapport with employees, clear and continuous communication, performance reviews, recognition, promoting wellness, and empathy—can go a long way in fostering a positive work environment.
By implementing these strategies, HR professionals can help to build strong relationships between employees and the company, leading to a more engaged and productive workforce.
With the right systems and processes in place, you can help your organization maintain healthy employee relations and create a culture that supports and empowers employees, ultimately leading to a more successful and sustainable organization.
Join the conversation
Subscribe to the People Managing People newsletter and receive regular content to help you progress in your career and build healthy, productive organizations.
You can also join our supportive community of HR professionals and business leaders sharing knowledge and best practices to build organizations of the future.