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Welcome to The JoyPowered® Workspace Podcast, where we talk about embracing joy in the workplace. I’m Susan White, owner of Susan Tinder White Consulting. With me is my co-host and dear friend, JoDee Curtis, owner of Purple Ink, an HR consulting firm.
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Today we’re going to talk about employee relations. Bamboo HR defines employee relations as “an organization’s efforts to create and maintain a positive relationship with its employees.” I had a client of mine that I was working with on developing an employee relations function, and they said it a little differently. They said, “We want ER here to be an awesome workplace.”
So what can we do to make sure we have a place that people come in every day and they feel like they’re being treated really well and it’s a safe and authentic place for them to be? Back when I was studying HR in business school, back in the late 1970s, whenever we used the term employee relations, we were usually talking about management and union relationships. And it – usually in an industrial setting, so when I eventually did land in an HR job, I was surprised because I was working in a large non-union organization, and we talked about how critical employee relations was every single day. And we started trying to figure out how do we help our leaders, our supervisors, really work with employees so that the employees felt like they were in a safe and awesome type of a workplace. So JoDee, the bulk of my experience really is in non-union settings with just a few consulting assignments where I’ve worked in a union environment. How about you?
Yeah, same. I’ve never personally worked in a union environment, except for a few of our clients. I’ve actually never even worked in an organization where we had a separate department or a separate person that was called employee relations, which I know some organizations do.
Yes. In fact, in my career I – there was a period of time for, gosh, probably about seven years, I was the employee relations manager. And I had responsibility for employment in different parts of the organization. And then eventually, I became the employment and employee relations manager for eight different – it was a bank, so eight different banks in the state. So I feel like I have a lot of experience in employee relations as a unique function, but I believe employee relations is part of every HR person’s job and every manager’s job, right?
So I don’t think… it doesn’t necessarily have to be a separate function. I think the larger the organization, the more likely it’s going to be separate. But I think we should all think about how are we all employee relations managers, right? So in organizations with unions, you, of course, you have collective bargaining agreements, which are going to reflect most of the agreed upon management employee behaviors, right? If you wonder like, what do we do in this situation? First thing you do is you go to that collective bargaining agreement or the contract to see, okay, what should the employee be doing right here and what should we as managers be doing? So listeners, if you’ve lived in unionized organizations, maybe you’ve been responsible for employee relations or HR or just consulting, any points that you would like to make on the topic of employee relations after you hear this particular podcast, send it in – our contact information is at the end of this podcast – because today we’re going to focus really and lean heavily on how do you do employee relations as a business leader, how do you do it as an HR person without being in a union environment or without having a contract?
Yeah, it’s kind of interesting, you know, to think about it, that in a non-union environment, sometimes it might be nice to have that contract or that manual to, what do we do about that one? How did we agree? So…
It’s nice to know that we’ve got a rulebook to follow, right? So much of employee relations outside of a union environment, there’s a lot of gray, you know, and I think that to be good at handling employee relations, you’ve got to respect that gray and understand what you want as a company, we want to do the right thing that’s in alignment with our mission, vision, values.
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So if you’re an employer, and you haven’t ever viewed employee relations, maybe as a critical function or a component of your HR function or your leadership team, where do you start? A July 2, 2019, blog on Smarp, that’s S-M-A-R-P dot com, suggested five things to do to start an employee relations program, and I’d love for us to discuss each one of them. So number one, they suggest you start with a set of good policies that describe your company’s philosophies, rules, and procedures for handling issues that arise in the workplace. I think that makes sense. Like, what are the types of things that you’re seeing are facing employee behaviors, management practices, you feel like maybe are not that effective. Start there, what’s not working and decide what policies do we need?
Yeah, so it’s, it’s not likely going to look like a union contract, right, but at least one of those basic guidelines that you can refer back to. How do we want to handle this, or what’s…. Typically they’re more general than you might have in that union contract, but guidelines, I think, is a good rule.
And there’s so many sample ones available out there, if you belong to SHRM, going to shrm.org. They have beautiful suggested sample policies to give you ideas as HR professionals, but don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel. Talk to other companies that you align with, you know, people at, and take a look at what type of things do they include in their handbooks and their HR policies?
Yeah. Number two is to focus on things you can do as a company to demonstrate to employees how their jobs align with your mission, vision, and values, which I think is so powerful as well. I particularly like – I worked for an organization for 15 years that was very focused on company values, and when we would have issues or questions, we regularly went back to say, let’s look at our values, and let’s talk about this issue with respect to the values of the company. So many times, companies select values and they put them up on the wall, or they make a nice handbook about them, but they forget to go back and have those conversations and connecting people back to the values. So I really like that one.
I do too. Number three suggestion, create multiple two-way communication vehicles. And so I think if you want to have great staff relations, your employees need to hear from you a lot. They need to know what’s going on, and you need to hear from them. Like, what is it like on the front line? What’s working in your job, what’s not working? You have to both be sharing information and listening and acting on it. So I think that’s a super idea.
Yeah. Number four is to ensure you have an effective way of giving employees feedback. I – that one makes me laugh, as I think at a couple different times when I’ve been training, I’ve asked people in the class if they have an effective way of giving employees feedback, and so many times I hear, oh, yes, we have a really good annual performance review. Well, that’s nice, but I would not call that an effective way. That might be one method of giving employees feedback, but what are you doing on a quarterly basis? What are you doing with mentoring and coaching? What are you doing on a daily basis to provide information to your employees to help them be better? So that’s what’s called effective, is that ongoing communication with people about their performance and about the policies.
And number five, have a solid system of rewarding your employees for good work. People – to have strong employee relations, your staff needs to feel that they’re valued, and often that’s through making sure that your compensation is fair, that the compensation offerings are fair, that your benefit offerings are competitive. But it’s also making sure that people are hearing thank you, they really realize that you see what they’re doing and you are recognizing it. And people, once they know that, they’re gonna feel much more positively about that workplace or feel much, much more positive about their management.
So once you have a solid employee relations infrastructure built, my guess is that most of our listeners who are business leaders and HR professionals, they think, you know what, we’ve got this handled, maybe we have a separate employee relations function, maybe our HR staff really handles guiding us on the employee relations front, maybe they do regular updates on ER issues, so we know the kind of things that are brewing. But I want to say that it’s really important, no matter how well you think you’ve got this handled, to periodically assess is your employee relations approach still working for you? Have you refreshed it, have you kept it relevant when – as your employee base has changed over? And their – employees themselves, their ongoing personal needs have changed, is your employee relations function really responding to the changing business conditions? So as I’ve helped other companies, and I know JoDee, you have with Purple Ink as well, help them strengthen employee relations functions. I think that there’s a number of things we should consider. And so if you’re doing a self-assessment on how strong are we in ER, here are the things I think we ought to cover.
So the first one is, how can we ensure consistent and fair treatment across the organization? So that, that might be, for some of you, a center of excellence to ensure precedents are thought out.
What I like about that, JoDee, is that if you say somebody on staff is going to be our expert on employee relations, and maybe it means we’re going to have somebody in the organization before anybody else gets terminated here, it’s gonna run through the same person. That’s going to ensure that all terminations, at least there’s one person who weighs in on it, as opposed to having, you know, the factory floor chief, getting rid of people, somebody in accounting gets rid of somebody. And it could be that the cause for getting rid of them was very similar, maybe it’s an attendance problem, who knows what, but as long as it all gets run through one person, they can make sure that we as an organization looked at things the same, so you had sort of a center of excellence on that.
Yeah. And it gives you a more objective third party too, right? It’s not just the one manager doesn’t like someone, but you have an outside perspective on it, too. Maybe the issue’s with the manager.
Yeah, exactly. I’ve seen at some organizations, depending on the size, you might have a line of business manager making the decision. They may have their own dedicated HR business partner, or a small staff of HR people and all of them agree this the person has to go, but by actually having a center of excellence, and maybe it’s one person, two people, that employee relations department, that they get a second opinion before they make the decision to terminate. I have seen that pay back wonderful dividends, because sometimes the HR business partner who works so closely with a line of management in that particular business unit, they tend to start to feel their pain too much. And their tolerance level starts to mirror or match the client’s that they’ve been with so much. So it’s just great having that third party. So sometimes an organization have a center of excellence, that is somebody outside of the HR people who always support that business leader.
Yeah, I like it.
The second thing I think you ought to consider when you’re doing your assessment of how strong and viable is my employee relations function is think about is my employee relations function or person if you’re HR and you’re doing the role, are they running good, tight internal investigations? Do we have somebody who’s really a good subject matter expert on looking inside the organization when somebody raises a concern or an allegation, perhaps of discrimination, or harassment, or of just not being treated fairly? Do we have a place in the organization that the employee’s going to feel and know they got a good fair shake, that management may not like, necessarily, the results, but they’re going to respect that it came from somebody independent. That’s what having a strong employee relations function or person or somebody who wears that hat brings to your work environment.
Nice. The next one is employee relations issues tracking. Now this might be, depending on the size of your organization, something kind of informal or that the employee relations team realizes, wow, we’re having a lot of issues around harassment or around absenteeism or around people being late to work. But also I worked with one of our clients for about six months at large company where they had a software system to track people could prepare tickets around certain questions, and then the software system would track those. So you could tell, wow, we’re, we’re having numerous issues in in this particular area, in this particular department, in this particular business unit. So the software itself was tracking it for them, and it was a very sophisticated system to do that. So however you track it, I think it’s really important to be able to share that information with leaderships to get in front of those issues, maybe training is needed on some of those hotspot issues as well.
I think that’s so smart. I’d worked in a large organization where we did build our own issues tracking, and it enabled us to get out of being in the reactive mode. So yes, we have an issue, we fix it, issue, we fix it. It enabled us to pull things up from the granular to larger problem, to say, okay, we really do need to figure out how to train our managers better on XYZ topic. Or maybe we need to remind employees of XYZ policy, because it keeps popping up, maybe how we thought we communicated it didn’t work. So it gives you a chance to be proactive, instead of just always being reactive to the individual. So I love that. And if you’re a smaller company, I have seen some companies take a look at whatever IT tracking, like, issues tracking that you might have when people’s computers aren’t working, they’ve already bought that system. I’ve seen them be able to work with the vendor to add on an employee relations module. And there’s lots of different options out there. So if any of our listeners have one they particularly like, we’d love to hear from you and share yours as a best practice.
So the fourth thing I think you want to assess is, if you’re an affirmative action employer, do you have employee relations, really, looking at it throughout the year, looking at your plan, ensuring that you’re doing good faith efforts. That where you have goals, that there’s real actionable stuff happening to meet those goals. If you’re having issues with some adverse impact, maybe it’s on hiring, or maybe it’s on terminating, that you’ve got somebody in the organization that’s working with the various business leaders to ensure that you are living and breathing the affirmative action plan that you have, so that you’re attaining the goals. And I think that’s really helpful, and it could be that your HR department, you don’t have somebody who is 100% responsible for writing the plan, but you’ve got some people there or an individual there that’s really making sure that that plan is being attacked every day throughout the year.
Yeah. The next one is to have a central point of contact on Equal Employment Opportunity charges. So again, an area where one person can see the types of issues that are coming in, the number of issues that we have, they can work with attorney demand letters, employee complaints, sort of an ombudsman of sort, that ensures people can bring their authentic selves to work and they know that there’s a central point where these will be handled.
That’s right. And if it’s not called employee relations, maybe if you’re an HR director, and it’s your HR department, have one that people know that’s really critical to your job. Employee relations is a critical function, including when people have got concerns, you’re a safe place. The next thing is for employee relations, to have really strong one, you have to think about your management training. And it’s lovely if you have a separate training group or somebody who’s responsible for it, but if it’s you, it’s making sure that you are educating supervisors on how to create and maintain awesome workplaces. It’s making sure that managers, maybe once a year you talk about, here’s the issues we saw last year, and so as a result here’s the type of fortification we’re going to do, the topics that we’re going to tackle each month or each quarter this coming year, to make sure that we have a workplace where these types of things don’t happen. Here’s what we’re going to do the positive side.
Right, I like it. The next one is around diversity and inclusion, which, you know, many times our employee relations issues could be centered around diversity and inclusion issues. And that could be a lack of training to the managers, which you just talked about, but also just a sense of not just having goals around hiring people or bringing in diverse populations, but making sure that we’re including people in the conversations, we’re not, you know, I’ve heard so many times people say diversity is bringing people to the party, but inclusion is asking them to dance. So are we really making an effort to to bring in people with different backgrounds, different experiences, different thoughts and ideas, and then giving them the opportunity to voice those different ideas and opportunities and making them feel they’re in a safe space while they’re there?
Fair enough. We talked about employee relations will often think about the management training that needs to be done, but also employee education, you know, making sure that employees understand that the values, as you said earlier, that we really are here to live those values, and what’s okay to do and what’s not okay to do. So sometimes that means ethics training, code of conduct training, civility training, here’s how we behave in the workplace in this organization. So a strong employee relations function or process will include employee education.
Yeah. And the last one really is a combination of different things, but thinking about how can you reach your employees and ask for their input on different things, whether it’s an employee engagement survey, an employee satisfaction survey, just general employee activities or team building things you can do, offering employee resources or affinity groups, or even an employee suggestion program that might be centered in HR or employee relations. So lots of other ways to get people engaged and connected, but also get their input on some of the issues they might be facing.
Well, that’s great. And I think it’s a great time to really assess how well are we doing on all of these things. And we’d love to hear from you, anything else you’re doing on the employee relations front that’s really making your workplace the kind that people want to come to and want to stay? We’d love to hear from you.
Yeah, great. So our listener question today, a listener who completed a SHRM credit evaluation form after listening to an earlier podcast entitled “Starting a Job Search,” shared this feedback. “I appreciated the idea for getting out of disclosing your salary to recruiters, however, as a recruiter, I find people will skirt the question only to be far off base further in the process, because they said it was all about the job and the compensation was only a piece of it. Yes, it was, but a bigger piece than they let on, so a lot of time was wasted by both parties. I’d like to see that side emphasized more. Of the range given is truly outside of what you want, get out now.” What are your thoughts, Susan?
I’m gonna say I think you’re right. I do, as I do my career coaching, as you know from our earlier episode, I’m always like, don’t let it be about money. Get yourself beyond that. First pre-screening, get into the interview with the hiring managers. Don’t let salary stop you, because it could be that when they realize who you are and what you bring, the job could be evaluated differently, they might bump you up to the next level. Also, we know that on the front end, most of us in HR don’t have negotiating abilities, it’s going to get the hiring manager involved who’s going to maybe be able to take that starting range and expand it a little deeper into the range when we come up with our offer, but I want to say to you, you’re right, because if you know that you’re $30,000 off, if it’s a pipe dream that this person coming in, is not going to be able to, the company’s not gonna be able to match where that person needs to be or even get close to it. As long as the employer says, Listen, we hope to pay $70 to $90,000 for this job, will that work for you? And if the person says yes, but they really want $120, you’re right, that candidate should get out now. Now, if you say $70 to $90, and the individual really is hoping to be at $95, I think it’s worth going through, because it could very well be the job is upgraded. But thank you, listener, for keeping us honest on that. You’re right. I don’t want to waste people’s time foolishly. But I think it’s important to… so we have to give and take there. What do you think JoDee?
Well, I think it goes both ways, too, right? You know, it used to be back in the day that compensation was never a topic to be talked about in the first interview, but I think sometimes companies are – sort of withhold what their range is, and then the candidate wants to withhold what their range is, so they’re both sort of dancing around until it gets farther down the road. So I would encourage the recruiter or the hiring manager or the company itself to disclose the range earlier as well as the candidate, too, so that time is not wasted on other either end.
Fair enough. So it’s time for in the news. Josh Bersin published an article on April 8, 2020, regarding a survey done with MIT Sloan Management Review and Culture X to learn what HR teams across the world were doing at the time in response to COVID-19. I think as we continue to learn lessons from this pandemic, we will reflect on how integral HR was to the ability to pivot and handle probably the biggest interruption to business operations that we’ve seen in our lifetime. So remember, this was back in April of 2020. The top five topics on the minds of HR professionals at that time were, number one, the health of their employees. And that, you know, JoDee, doesn’t surprise me at all. I think that most people in HR are very caring people. So they’re concerned with keeping their staffs healthy. Number two on the list was transition to remote work. It was wild how fast people had to get laptops in people’s hands, get people safely at home, so that they could work out of the, you know, the quarantine in their in their home, in their homes, to the degree possible. Third one was create engagement with their staffs working remotely. I heard that from a lot of business leaders and HR professionals. How do I keep people feeling engaged when they’re all or many of them are working from home? Number four was protect employees jobs. I think figuring out how do we make sure there is a workplace still in existence for people to come back to, especially when they had to furlough or temporarily layoff people. And the number five worry, of course, was the continuity of the business operations, right? How do we make sure that we keep going, because many of us have clients that we need to serve, how do we keep it going? We’ve got some people working from home and some people not being able to work at all. So Josh stated that before the crisis, fewer than 50% of companies had remote work programs, and didn’t that change overnight. Josh said one of the most important HR capabilities that was tested during this time is agility. HR departments had to build a crisis response muscle, learn quickly how to distribute authority and coordinate activity and implement real time data collection, listening and communication programs. Amazing time in our history.
It certainly is. Certainly is. A lot to learn from, from those quick departments who could be super agile and make that happen quickly. Well, thanks for listening today. We hope you tune in again, and make it a JoyPowered® day.
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