What is employee relations? Beyond the basics of HR

Employee relations is a buzzword that is thrown around a lot within human resources and people management discussions, but do you truly know what it means? Many people confuse employee relations with general HR, but it’s actually a bit different.

We’ve compiled everything you need to know about employee relations below, so that you can dive into what exactly it means, what tasks fall under the term’s umbrella, and why it matters. We’ll also share some strategies to help you create or improve your business’ employee relations strategy.

What is employee relations?

Employee relations involves building and developing the relationship between employers and employees. Think of employee relations as the more interpersonal or relational side of people management. It’s a function of human resources that is typically accomplished through a partnership between the human resources department and the various people leaders within the organization who work together to create strong relationships and provide a positive employee experience.

On a broader level, employee relations also involves building the company’s culture to create community and a sense of belonging for the employee population. After all, your company culture is based on how people within the organization communicate with one another, their shared values

Vertical vs. horizontal employee relations

Sometimes employee relations is broken down into two categories; vertical employee relations and horizontal employee relations. Vertical employee relations focuses on the relationship between the employee and leadership. This includes their direct supervisor and other managers that they may work with or report to, including executive leadership.

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Vertical employee relations efforts typically focus on activities that promote trust and mutual respect between staff members and higher-ups. This may include your company’s leadership communication strategy (how are leaders sharing information and keeping employees in the loop on changes or updates?) or facilitating regular performance management check-ins between supervisors and direct reports. This is the form of employee relations that tends to get the most focus within organizations.

On the other hand, horizontal employee relations is about managing the relationships between same-level employees. This is where team-building activities, encouraging collaboration, and settling disputes among co-workers come in. Horizontal employee relations is very important to nurture in the current age of business, as many remote and hybrid employees have fewer opportunities to build meaningful, collaborative relationships with their peers. As such, team leaders need to be more proactive in creating opportunities for these relationships to develop.

Human resources vs. Employee relations

Human resources and employee relations are both essential components of people management. However, the terms do refer to slightly different things, even if they may overlap at times.

The Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) succinctly defines human resource management as “the process of managing an organization’s employees.” It encompasses people management functions all throughout the employee lifecycle. As you can imagine, most employee relations tasks and strategies will fall into that definition of human resources management. However, not all HR activities are necessarily part of employee relations.

For example, employee onboarding is where the employer-employee relationship starts to blossom. It’s a key opportunity to start off on the right foot with new employees by offering proper support and creating a good relationship. Building that initial rapport and creating a welcoming environment is employee relations. However, broader administrative onboarding tasks like entering the employee’s information into your payroll system would typically fall under the umbrella of human resources but not employee relations.

Common examples of employee relations activities

The following activities are typically classified as employee relations responsibilities or functions:

  • Facilitating workplace safety programs. Employee health and safety initiatives can be part of employee relations. After all, safe working conditions are essential for maintaining a positive work environment. Workplace safety trainings and initiatives are also an opportunity for employers to show employees that they care about their well-being. When approaching safety measures, take the extra time to emphasize why these guidelines matter and that the goal is to protect the employees.

  • Handling workplace conflicts. Conflict resolution in the workplace can be one of the more challenging aspects of employee relations, but when handled well it acts as a great way to strengthen the employer-employee relationship as well as peer relationships. Allowing both parties to feel heard and respected while helping them work toward a solution allows employee relations professionals to strengthen relationships with both parties and hopefully repair the peer relationship as well.

  • Addressing harassment or discrimination complaints. Some conflicts can’t be addressed through collaborative problem-solving and instead, require a thorough workplace investigation to uncover potential instances of harassment or discrimination. Part of maintaining good employee relations is creating a safe, respectful workplace culture and promptly addressing any serious misconduct like harassment.

  • Implementing employee engagement strategies. Engagement and employee relations go hand-in-hand as employees tend to be most engaged when they have good working relationships with their managers and teams. Things like improving employee recognition, addressing feedback from engagement surveys, and facilitating better team bonding can engage employees while boosting employee relations.

  • Explaining company policies. Employee handbooks can be large, complex documents, so, understandably, confusion can arise from time to time. Employee relations team members (including HR professionals or employees’ managers), should take the time to walk employees through any policies that they have questions on to ensure that everyone is on the same page and the employee understands what is expected of them. This can help prevent misunderstandings that can lead to employer-employee conflict or frustration.

  • Facilitating professional development. Employers and employees can build positive, productive relationships by working together to explore career development or skill-building opportunities for the employee. This shows the employee that you are invested in their growth and care about their goals, it’s also a great way to encourage internal growth and enhance employee productivity.

Why is employee relations important?

Positive employee relations offers a wealth of benefits for the organization as well as its employees. Explore a few of the largest benefits to see why it’s worth investing in building good employee relations within your business.

Reducing employee turnover and improving retention rates

One of the main motivators for employers to focus on building good employee relations is that it can improve employee retention. We all know the saying “an employee doesn’t quit their job, they quit their manager” and that’s often the truth. Managers and team leaders who fail to build positive relationships with their direct reports will likely have higher turnover rates.

Horizontal employee relations can also improve retention. A Gallup study found that employees who say that they have a best friend at work had higher rates of employee satisfaction and were less likely to be passively or actively hunting for a new role outside their current company. Facilitating strong bonds between peers at work can help your team better manage stressful periods at work such as busy seasons or periods of transition, and can improve engagement and collaboration.

Creating strong brand advocates

If you’ve managed, or even taken, employee engagement surveys before, you may be familiar with the net promoter score or the employee net promoter score (eNPS). These are the questions that ask employees whether they would recommend your company to others (as an employer or in terms of recommending your product or service). Employees who have a good relationship with their supervisor, peers, and their employer overall will tend to have a positive outlook on the company and answer yes to these questions.

You want the majority of employees to answer yes or strongly agree to the eNPS as this indicates a higher level of employee loyalty and that they are more likely to act as brand advocates. Brand advocates are going to be recommending open roles to peers and speaking positively about the employer and their products to others.

Facilitating better employee well-being

Building a strong relationship with your workers can help managers better prioritize and address employee well-being. Burnout is a major problem in many work environments, and it actually is something that can be approached as an employee relations issue.

When developing and growing the employer-employee relationship, it’s important to emphasize that you do care about your employees’ well-being. You’ll also want to focus on building an open and trusting relationship where employees feel comfortable coming to their manager about issues such as increased work stress, burnout, or potentially even personal factors that may be impacting their well-being and work performance.

When employees are willing to open up about these issues, it’s easier for leaders and HR departments to take action to help them. This may mean adjusting their workload to reduce the risk of burnout, educating them on available benefits and connecting them with an employee assistance plan, or working together to develop strategies to reduce work stress.

How the improve employee relations

If you’re looking to give your employee relations strategy an upgrade, here are some activities to consider.

Take a close look at your management communication strategy

Your communication strategy and approach will have a huge impact on employee relations. Employees can often become frustrated with their employer if they feel that leadership communication is too infrequent or not delivered well. Open communication through regular updates and check-ins can help employees feel respected and involved within the company.

Think about this on a more granular level between employees and direct reports (how often are one-on-one check-ins occurring, do they feel comfortable going to their manager to communicate concerns or ask questions, etc…) and on a larger scale. For high-level leaders, there should be some form of communication strategy that dictates how major company news is shared and how frequently executives address the employee population directly. Your CEO likely won’t have time to develop robust relationships with each staff member, but speaking weekly or monthly to the employee population in meetings can still help employee relations.

Look for ways to support and emphasize company values

Employees today really do care about their employer’s values, and they want to see leadership properly demonstrate and act on those values. Your company values shouldn’t just be a list of words that you create and post on your website or trout out during big meetings. Instead, they should be intertwined with your company culture, employee relations policies, and overall operations.

Since shared values can be a great way to bond with others, your company values can be an asset when approaching both vertical and horizontal employee relations. Ask yourself how you as a leader can better model the values, and how you can incorporate them into other employee relations initiatives like team bonding activities.

Approach performance management through the lens of employee relations

If your performance management strategy currently consists of annual performance reviews and only discussing employee performance when a problem arises, you’re not leveraging this area of HR as an effective employee relations strategy. Providing regular feedback is a great way for managers to strengthen their relationship with employees, so be sure to acknowledge and recognize good performance throughout the year rather than waiting for the annual performance appraisal.

Performance check-ins are also a great opportunity to discuss the employee’s goals. Understanding an employee’s professional goals and interests can help managers build more meaningful relationships with employees. Employees who feel as though their employers invest in their growth and provide meaningful development resources or opportunities also tend to have higher employee satisfaction scores and lower turnover rates.