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The role of employee relations in human resources

Employee relations look specifically to developing and maintaining positive relationships with a company’s employees. While employee relations is a function of HR, its major role is liaising between employer and employees as well as building in benefits and policies to create a healthy workplace. Employee relations came out of industrial relations, but in a post-industrial world, has adapted itself. Trade unions still exist, particularly in the public sector, but advances in individual workplace rights means that employee relations managers look to settle disputes internally in an equitable way that benefits both employer and employee.

For example, work-life balance is an area that has achieved much attention in recent years because phones and laptops have resulted in an “always on” work culture. This can be detrimental to employee engagement in the long-term. When employees are offered a more flexible approach to work that allows them to get things done in their own way, it often increases productivity and decreases absenteeism. Flexible work hours also tend to attract and retain talent. To make sure this approach works for everyone, employee relations need to be built upon a solid bedrock of up-to-date human resource management. When employer-employee relations are managed well and maintained, this can prevent workplace conflicts or problems escalating, making for a healthier work environment. 

How to manage employee relations

The global pandemic has brought its own challenges with regards to coordinating a workforce that may be working from home or which needs access to the workplace under safe conditions. Many companies that had remote working policies were able to act quite quickly while others weren’t. Managing employee relations through this period of time has precipitated changes that have largely been positive. But there have also been difficult processes including furlough – and the associated uncertainty about business opening back up – as well as redundancy. The role of HR has been vital in successfully managing employee relations during the uncertainty.

Richard Saundry is the co-author of Managing Employment Relations (along with Virginia Fisher and Tony Bennett), a key text for anyone studying or working in employee relations. He also recently wrote a report, The Impact of Covid-19 on Employment Relations in the NHS that highlighted the effects of working through the pandemic on employment relationships. The report showed that there had been increased solidarity amongst employees, which had contributed to more informal dispute resolution thanks to good people management skills. However, it also showed a need for more investment of training and resources for frontline people managers rather than at senior levels. Over the last decade, Saunders has worked closely with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) to help mould policy in human resource management. The NHS case provides a valuable example of work under pressure that can help HR professionals better understand where to direct resources when they’re stretched.

Generally, there is no one way to manage employee relations – it will be different for every sector and every organisation. No two employee handbooks will read the same except for where it comes to employment law. However, health and well-being are at the top of the agenda. This covers both functional health and safety approaches to ensure Covid-safe working environments as well as understanding things like the effects of long Covid, and ensuring that staff enforce their own boundaries on the working day when working remotely.

How to become an employee relations manager

To become an employee relations manager requires many skills, including the obvious people and communication skills. Problem-solving and analytical skills are key to being able to see a case from both sides and scrutinise the details more closely. Being able to communicate both verbally and in writing clearly, confidently, and with language that cannot be misconstrued is also vital. In all disputes, communication is key, so continuously encouraging a culture of open and transparent communication within the organisation can be invaluable when issues become apparent.

As well as good administrative practices and being aware of all aspects of employment law, good employee relations managers need to feel comfortable with conflict management and the distress that may be present in doing this. It’s important not to get emotionally involved but to be empathetic to both points of view within any grievance process.

Psychological contract is a term used to describe an employee’s expectations, beliefs they have about their job role, and their ambitions and obligations. These can be different to how the employer views them, so employee relationship management can help balance any difference of view for more positive employee relations. The contract of employment provides the nuts and bolts of the employer-employee relationship. The psychological contract provides a more intangible but no less real aspect of employment. It draws on psychology and organisational behaviour, and is another area in which employee relations managers become well-versed.

The future of work is a subject that concerns all of us and is an area of rapid development that has inspired reports of the same name by The Economist, McKinsey, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Economic Forum, and Deloitte, to name just a few. There is even an Institute for the Future of Work. The effects of the pandemic, machine automation, and AI, are all factors which play a large part in the future of work and employment. There is also the question of whether we need to work as much as we do anymore, and what the world would look like with shorter working weeks or a universal basic income. These are all topics relevant to and instrumental in how human resources management is carried out now and in the near future.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) provides extensive information on employee relations for HR practitioners wanting to know more or specialise, including a reading list that includes key texts published by Kogan Page.

Gain skills in employee relations management 

If you want to improve or update your knowledge in this growing area of expertise in HRM, why not consider a master’s in human resources? An MSc in Management with Human Resources from the University of Lincoln will introduce you to the latest developments in the world of employment.