Most leaders intuitively understand the importance of building strong employee relations, whether that is to help retain current talent or to create an employee value proposition that attracts others to join your organization. But what exactly do we mean by the term “employee relations”? Does our definition and strategies change depending upon the context we are analyzing?
Defining Employee Relations
In one sense, the concept of employee relations describes the general attitudes employees have towards their employer. In this context, we are talking about employee perceptions, attitudes and beliefs surrounding basic concepts such as general working conditions, employee benefits, worker pay, or their organization’s social impact. Indeed, employee relations is a key component of a recent movement known as ESG investing (environmental, social, corporate governance). This entails focusing on making investments in organizations that behave ethically towards their employees, society at large, and the environment.
At a granular level, we can think of employee relations as the discrete relationships an individual employee has with their employer at various touchpoints. For example, how strong is the relationship an employee has with their supervisor, or how does an employee feel when interacting with HR? The employee experience is, therefore, the sum of these various, distinct relationships. Thus, employee relations can be both individual and collective.
Finally, the term employee relations sometimes has a different connotation when used in the context of worker movements. An example of this might be the desire on the part of employees to organize and collectively bargain. In this setting, employee relations pertains to the balance of power between an organization’s management and its workers. Additionally, employee relations describes the efforts between unions/associations and employers to maintain strong working relationships while respecting each other’s inherent differences of opinions, purposes, and perspectives.
Employee Experience: Listening Strategies
The leaders that will succeed in the next decade are those who will commit to understanding their employee relations and then take action to improve conditions when possible. Employee relations, however, is a multi-faceted concept. Understanding the complexity requires more than an employee survey administered by HR every 18 months (although this is vital, too). Comprehensive EX listening programs use a variety of strategies to understand perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs both longitudinally throughout the year as well as hierarchically throughout the organization.
We recommend the following 7 strategies. These strategies can collectively be designed into an EX listening program to help leaders navigate their employee relations.
1. Use a formal, continuous 360 degree feedback program
A formal, continuous 360-degree feedback program will help managers understand the experience their direct reports and other coworkers are having with that manager. Continuous 360-degree programs are different than an occasional 360-degree assessment used for development purposes. In this setting, 360-degree assessments are regularly administered (somewhere between 12 – 24 months) and managed by the organization’s’ talent development team to ensure leaders have the feedback they need. These programs have the added benefit of producing aggregated data analytics to show larger trends where the organization (or pockets within the organization) are succeeding or struggling.
2. Implement quarterly, predefined pulse check-ins
Managers can receive feedback on how they are doing across various themes, metrics, and categories from quarterly, predefined pulse check-ins. These check-ins are updated quarterly but are short in nature, so they do not impose a burden on employees.
3. Look for ways to integrate performance data
Employee relations is a 50/50 proposition. Yes, we need to understand how employees feel about their experience, but leaders need to know how well employees are doing in moving the organization forward. They need to know which employees are contributing and those that need to improve their performance.
4. Use a mix of confidential and nonconfidential research as part of your EX program
An annual survey is vital because results are aggregated and confidential. This allows employees to voice their concerns without fear of reprisal. Yet, in other ways, we need to know how a specific individual feels. Consider adopting open-text questions sent directly to individuals based on a sampling algorithm. A simple question could be, “Please describe the experience you are having right now at [organization’s name].” These answers can then be processed through robust text analytics models to help uncover themes or concerns.
5. Treat your employees as internal customers
Use customer experience (CX) style check-ins to understand how employees feel about their interactions with HR, IT, etc. A listening program can be structured to trigger feedback requests when a service event takes place. For example, if an employee interacts with the organization’s benefits portal, a pop-up can be inserted that requests feedback, such as “Tell us how we are doing,” followed by a feedback scale.
6. Mine your data exhaust
Data exhaust refers to the vast amount of data that exists in current information systems that can be exported and analyzed for trends, etc. For example, Zoom can tell you how much time your teams are spending on video calls, both internally and externally. For organizations with even more sophisticated data analytics operations, mining data exhaust can be an excellent way to understand the experience employees are having. For example, consider conducting a study on whether calendared meetings (data extracted from IT systems) are too long, too burdensome, or just right.
7. Talk with a DecisionWise Consultant
For those that work with unions or have employees considering their options in this regard, talk with a DecisionWise consultant on how to use EX insights to help manage union relationships. We have successfully helped many clients, in conjunction with labor counsel, to understand and navigate the murky waters that exist when dealing with unions. A strong EX listening program is vital in knowing best how to work with unions and worker movements.
As Peter Drucker once observed, “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.” The key to improving employee relations is taking the time to understand the experience your employees are having. This means more than an occasional survey administered by HR. It is about implementing an always-on EX listening program that consistently provides leaders with insights that matter.