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As an HR professional, it’s part of your role 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 HR professionals 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 employees, leading to a more engaged and productive workforce.

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 employment experience while protecting the company by maintaining compliance.

Maintaining good employer-employee relationships is critical for productivity and performance, employee retention, and a strong company culture.

While it sounds simple, the reality is much more nuanced, even for seasoned professionals!

How To Improve Employee Relations In Your Org

7 Ways to improve employee relations

Through the years, I’ve learned that the secret to good employee relations is systems and processes such as regular performance reviews and open communication.

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.

1. Better equip managers to be the frontline 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 frontline employee relations contact doesn't come naturally to most managers but, fortunately, I have 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.

Employee feedback software can also help with this process.

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. 

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 exact 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 achieve 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.

Other ways to build trust:

Gain business acumen

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.
  • Familiarizing yourself with your organization’s business model
  • Reviewing your financial statements to gain an understanding of your org’s financial position.

Get to know your teams

Also, become familiar with the teams you support and learn their dynamics, this provides you with valuable perspective when issues arise. 

It also brings visibility of HR to employees and helps them understand the function HR plays in the organization since this is 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.

Other ways to facilitate open and consistent communication:

  • Clear communication policies and guidelines: This includes defining the preferred channels for different types of communication (emails, meetings, internal messaging systems, intranet) and setting expectations for response times.
  • Training: 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.
  • Feedback mechanisms: Implementing systems for employee feedback, such as surveys and stay interviews, allows employees to contribute their thoughts and feedback consistently.

4. Regular Performance Reviews

Performance reviews are important for employee relations because they provide a formal platform for feedback (something employees crave).

Conducting regular employee performance reviews helps identify areas for improvement and recognize achievements.

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. 

Performance management software like Workday or BambooHR helps formalize and streamline the process, if you don’t already have a platform as part of your HRIS suite.

Other methods for ensuring regular feedback and connection:

  • Regular 1:1 check-ins between managers and direct reports
  • Providing training on administering and receiving effective feedback.

5. Develop an employee recognition program

Employee recognition programs facilitate acknowledgment and appreciation of the efforts of employees who contribute to the organization's purpose, mission, and values.

A formal recognition program helps to improve employee morale and motivation and provides data to review the effectiveness of the program.

A good employee recognition program 

  • Personalized: Allows employees to be recognized in a way they appreciate, with incentives that motivate them.
  • Facilitates peer-to-peer recognition: This fosters a culture of appreciation across all levels and can be more meaningful as peers see each other's work closely.
  • Transparent criteria and process: Clearly communicate how employees can be recognized. Transparent criteria and processes prevent confusion and ensure fairness.
  • Leadership involvement: Leaders and managers actively participate in the program signifying the importance of recognition in the company culture.

Your organization may already have an employee recognition platform. 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.

Ways to promote well-being:

  • Flexible work arrangements: Remote work, flexible hours, and job sharing are highly appreciated by employees for work-life balance.
  • Provide clarity: Clarity around role and expectations helps reduce uncertainty and stress.
  • Provide regular feedback: Again helps remove uncertainty and ensures employees are prioritizing correctly.
  • Listen: Employee listening helps identify concerns and solicits feedback to create a better employee experience.
  • Provide supportive resources: Offer resources and support that can help employees in challenging times, such as access to counseling services, mental health days, or flexibility in work arrangements.
  • Monitor workloads: Ensure that employees are not consistently overburdened with work. Regularly review workloads and redistribute tasks if necessary to prevent burnout.

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 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.

Ways HR can promote empathy:

  • Active listening: listening to employees without judgment and offering support or resources to help them address their problems or concerns. You can validate the person’s feelings and emotions without necessarily condoning their behavior.
  • Inclusive policies and practices: Advocate for and implement policies and practices that are inclusive and consider the diverse needs of all employees.
  • Open and approachable communication: Create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their concerns and issues. HR should be approachable and available for conversations, whether formal or informal. You can also make use of employee communication software.
  • Cultural sensitivity: Be aware of and sensitive to cultural differences in the workplace. This includes understanding various cultural perspectives and adapting communication and support accordingly.

Employee Relations Benefits and Challenges

Maintaining positive employee relations isn’t easy, but I’ve found the above strategies will help make it easier and more consistent across the organization.

It’s a bit like reality TV in that some people love it and some people really don’t (not necessarily where the analogy stops either!).

Benefits of strong employee relations

  • Employee engagement: Employees will feel more valued and taken care of and this will increase employee engagement.
  • Less conflict: All of the communication and feedback mechanisms you put in place to increase transparency and alignment should result in reduced conflict and fewer investigations.
  • Improve workplace culture: Better connections will exist throughout the organization creating a stronger culture.
  • Inclusivity: Workers at all levels will feel more included and more invested in the organization’s mission.

Common employee relations challenges 

Of course, even the best employee relations strategy can’t negate all issues.

Here are the most common challenges to look out for: 

  • Pay disputes & wage theft 
  • Benefits violations
  • Safety violations
  • Harassment 
  • Favoritism.

There’s no foolproof plan to get this right 100% of the time and it requires employee relations managers to use their own intuition and experience to succeed (the above list will help too).

It’s an area that’s so important to get right and requires a lot of input and work, but if done effectively the outcomes outweigh all of the effort. 

Improve Employee Relations For Good

Building Strong Employee Relations: Key Strategies for HR Professionals

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 teams 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.
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By Jessica Cieslinski

Jessica is a HR Generalist with 10 years of experience across several industries. She loves to share the knowledge she wishes she’d had early in her career.