7 Strategies to Improve Your Organization’s Employee Relations

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.

4 Ways Great Leaders Can Overcome Company Scarcity Issues

I teach an introductory political science class at a local university. This class utilizes an interdisciplinary approach by exploring basic economic theory, American history, and a bit of political philosophy. When introducing the section on economics, I try to reinforce the premise that economics is really the study of scarcity – what do you do when there is not enough to go around. Stated differently, economics is the social science that examines how we use limited resources to satisfy unlimited human wants.

DecisionWise - Leadership and Scarcity

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I teach my students that there are three options (and only three) when dealing with the problem of scarcity:

1 – Economic growth;
2 – Reduce our wants; and/or
3 – Use existing resources wisely.

It occurred to me a while back that scarcity is the same fundamental issue for leaders as well, and that true leadership is reflected in how effectively a leader deals with scarcity. Even in companies that are flush with cash, there are still never enough resources to cover organizational wants. Everyone is clamoring for more. There may be a need for more talent. There may be a need for increased innovation. There may not be enough time to develop those immediately below you. A leader is constantly bombarded with requests for more. Politicians live and die by how well they manage the issue of scarcity. The same is true for businesses and those that lead them.

Scarcity is a problem we all share, and as humans, we seem to understand it at an evolutionary level. Moreover, we seem to have a built-in urge to solve this problem. This fact can be used by leaders to improve outcomes by framing both the problem and the solution from a scarcity point of view, and then enlisting the help of others. (As an aside, scarcity is also one of the root causes of conflict, which is always an issue in any organization.)

To that end, I would suggest that leaders are best able to handle the scarcity problem by following four steps:

  1. Good leaders recognize the fact that there will never be enough to go around. Thus, they stop wasting valuable energy trying to make everything perfect. We often work with leaders in providing 360-degree feedback. One of the primary derailers called out on their reports is perfectionism. While in many cases, it’s appropriate to expect flawless results, the reality is that, many times, the time effort it takes to get that last five percent right far outweighs the value derived from that effort. The herculean endeavor may have been better spent on other scarce resources. Good leaders accept that: 1) scarcity is a problem that will never be solved, and 2) that, in the words of Voltaire, the “perfect is the enemy of the good.” Instead of ducking the issue, spinning wheels, or wasting precious resources when they could be better spent elsewhere, great leaders acknowledge the scarcity problem head-on.
  2. Savvy leaders try to understand the true human “need” at question. For example, rather than accepting at face value a request to hire more people, they delve deeper. This goes back to root-cause analysis—understanding the cause of the problem, not just addressing the symptoms. Perhaps the real need is to find individuals that possess a different skill-set. Maybe those skills could be obtained by training, as opposed to hiring. Possibly, the needs could be satisfied through outside partners or resources, as the scarcity issue is only temporary. Often, the underlying need is non-monetary in nature and might be solved by focusing on employee engagement (e.g., see our thoughts on Employee ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®).
  3. Attentive leaders do his or her best to respond by exploring one of the three responses to scarcity listed above – or maybe a combination of them— rather than making a knee-jerk reactionary decision that may not address the cause of the problem. For example, instead of layoffs to address immediate payroll woes, the answer might be that everyone takes an unpaid day off every other week. On one occasion, we witnessed a group of employees come forward to an organization which was about to go through a round of layoffs, offering just that—one week of unpaid leave per employee over a period of three months. Because options were explored, and employees felt heard, the organization was able to move forward without losing its most precious resource—people. On the other hand, is the answer always to reduce resource consumption (payroll)? Of course not! Maybe the answer is economic growth (more sales). Perhaps the answer is to focus your entire team on selling one key product that will produce revenue the fastest.
  4. A great leader explains the “why” behind the issue and the decision. More than just acknowledging there is a scarcity problem as described in step one above, a confident leader follows up that message with an explanation as to why the decision was made. Most of us realize that our wants are unlimited and yet our resources are finite. What we have learned, from macroeconomics, however, is that people will accept scarcity and inequality, as long as there is fairness of opportunity and equality in the process. A good leader understands this dynamic.

In summary, when looking through this alternate lens of scarcity, a leader might begin to see his or her role more clearly. And, he or she might start to see different solutions for solving the myriad of requests that filter up during the day. The solution lies not in making those requests go away but, rather, in realizing that the best approach is to take the time to ensure your responses are appropriate. When framed properly, scarcity of resources and its attendant solutions can be turned into teaching moments that solve problems and bring your team together.
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Your Company is a Fiction, Your People are the Facts

Most business professionals will tell you that the core business disciplines are: accounting, finance, marketing, management, and technology (in no particular order). In the next tier you might find organizational effectiveness, strategic partnerships, social media, innovation, human resources, among others, and there is often robust debate around which concepts should be included in this second tier. I would strongly argue, however, that organizational effectiveness should always be included among the core disciplines. To explain my rationale, I need to provide some history.

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The most famous company in history might be the Dutch East India Company. It is largely recognized as the first company to issue stock to its owners (Wall Street sends its regards), and it was the first multi-national corporation in the world. It was chartered in 1602 and it was granted a monopoly by the Dutch Dutch East India Company government on the spice trade. Since this was the heyday of mercantilism, the Dutch East India Company was granted quasi-governmental rights, which made it an extremely powerful organization that had the ability to wage war, imprison convicts, mint its own coins, and establish colonies. Eventually, the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt, and its possessions were distributed in 1799. Yet so powerful was this organization, that its land holdings along the Indonesian archipelago became what is known today as the Republic of Indonesia.1

Dutch East India Company Trade MapDue to its conquests, it’s tempting to think of the Dutch East India Company as a living entity in and of itself. In reality, however,
the Dutch East India Company was a mere legal fiction. A legal fiction is an actual legal term where courts assume a fact in order to answer certain questions or solve analytical problems. For example, since a corporation begins its life as a piece of paper, can it really be said that a corporation is capable of entering into contracts, or does it have the ability to sue or be sued? Can a corporation ever engage in criminal activities if it doesn’t physically exist as a person?

The easiest solution to this theoretical conundrum was to create the legal fiction of “corporate personhood,” which is the concept that we treat a corporation as if it were a real person for purposes of analyzing its legal rights. Chief Justice Marshall of the United States Supreme court said, “The great object of an incorporation is to bestow the character and properties of individuality on a collective and changing body of men.”2 Today, the legal fiction of corporate personhood is the most widely used and probably the most significant legal fiction ever created.3 Even within the last decade, the United States Supreme Court has extended this legal fiction to find that corporations have first amendment rights, which includes the right to spend money supporting political campaigns.4 It should be noted that corporate personhood has been extended to other business entities, such as limited liability companies, limited partnerships, etc. Thus, it’s safe to say that every company in existence is a fiction.

On the other hand, what is fact is that a corporation is an association of like-minded people who have come together to advance a business purpose. And while there are laws and well-defined rules that govern the relationships among these people, nonetheless, the corporation’s true essence is tDecisionWisehat it is really just a group of people. It can be said that companies are made of, and driven by, people. While today it is tempting to think of Apple (the modern-day version of the Dutch East India Company) or IBM as cosmic forces independent of their people, they are not. They too are fictions. Apple is great not because it simply exists and has evolved to become such. Apple is a great because of its talented and innovative people.

Accordingly, you might start to see why I argue that organizational effectiveness should be included as a core business discipline.
If you want to improve your bottom line, you need to measure it. That’s accounting. If you want to produce widgets, you have to manage and oversee the manufacturing process. That’s management. And, if you want to improve your company’s overall success, then you have to improve its people, since that’s the real stuff from which companies are made. This is what we call organizational effectiveness. At DecisionWise we focus on assessments, trainings, and other materials that improve people within organizations. We do so because we strongly believe that if you treat your people as the core fact underlying your company’s success, you will soon see very real and positive results.
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[1]See Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org): Dutch East India Company.
[2]Providence Bank v. Billings, 29 U.S. 514 (1830).
[3] 1 U.S.C. Section 1 (United States Code); “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, unless the context indicates otherwise – the words “person” and “whoever” include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnership [and so on] ….
[4]Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010); The United States Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from restricting political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation.

Is it the End of Employee Engagement?

Who Cares About The Employee Experience

Could it really be the end of employee engagement? I was evaluating some technology the other day that is designed to help individuals achieve their goals.  The “app” I was looking at provides a user with a variety of ways to ensure that a habit will become imprinted on the test subject – I mean the user. Rather than coming away excited, I felt troubled. I began to wonder whether we spend too much time trying to “program” the human brain. Is the brain just a biological computer, where inputs and outputs are readily configurable? My experience tells me no. And, I think many of you are like me: you feel uneasy when anyone claims to know the precise levers to pull in order to make significant behavioral changes. Most of us believe the human brain, and its attendant quirks, is much more than a grey-matter motherboard that runs on cellular respiration. While we cannot describe its scope, we certainly feel its complexity.

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Let’s keep that thought in the background while we turn to the concept of employee engagement. DecisionWise Employee EngagementRodd Wagner is a well-known journalist and consultant that focuses on employee engagement. He recently proclaimed that “[t]he age of ‘employee engagement’ may be nearing its end.”[1] Wagner’s primary point is that because companies and practitioners have failed to perfectly implement the ideas that underlie employee engagement, it’s time to try something else.

Could Wagner be right? Maybe. But, it depends on whether you are looking for something new to talk about or whether you are truly interested in furthering the science of organization development. When commentators like Wagner predict a change on the horizon they do so to sell a new way of looking at things. They attempt to make themselves relevant. I suppose we sometimes do the same thing at DecisionWise. The problem is that when practitioners unveil a new model or theory, we implicitly send the message that organization development is an ever-changing field, constantly discarding the old in search of the new. It’s as if we are searching for our own social “string” theory to consistently explain and predict the universe of human behavior.[2]

As noted above, however, the human brain cannot be programmed with punch cards. It cannot be cajoled into submission. It has produced the greatest works of art while also committing unspeakable atrocities.  Humans are incredibly complex and powerful; more complex than the multitude of dimensions contemplated by modern theoretical physicists. As such, there will never be one unifying behavioral theory. Similarly, imperfect humans will never perfectly implement models that, in the end, are designed to make them better.

At DecisionWise, we do not claim to have the sine qua non of organizational effectiveness. We understand that organization development is a soft science, and while we use scientific methods where possible, this is truly as much art as science. Critics like to find flaws in contributions. Certainly, they exist.  But our discipline has yielded scientifically-validated insights and recommendations, and good consultants are able to help organizations and individuals make meaningful changes that are both substantive and measurable.

As human beings, our innate urge is to make things better: our homes, our crops, our tools, our lives, our relationships, etc. As long as this yearning exists, there will be a need to study and promote the concepts that underlie “engagement,” even if we are not perfect in implementing our discoveries. As individuals and organizations try to find order and meaning in their lives, they will seek out others with experience for suggestions on how to achieve these ideals. Consequently, organization development will continue to be an important field of study and research.

We know that labels and paradigms will come and go, as there will never be a single, successful theory for a subject predicated on the human brain. We also know that even though human and organizational behavior is exceedingly complex, that’s no reason to give up on ideas that are proven, and have merit. To do so would be to ignore the decades of research and practice that have contributed greatly to the success of both organizations and individuals. With the innovation-at-all-costs mindset, sometimes organizations and individuals discard the practical for the creative. DecisionWise remains committed to providing our clients with the best professional advice possible in order to help them make their human interactions better, both at home and in the workplace—and it works. That doesn’t always mean searching for the newest theories or practices, just to sell a new way of looking at things. Good change helps us progress. Bad change sets us back.
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There will always be those that look to abandon the “tried and true” in search of the “untried, but new.”  But let’s not drop what works, just for the sake of finding something “different.” Even if that means we continue to promote effective models that a few consider to be outdated.
[1] Wagner, Rod.  “The End of ‘Employee Engagement?’”.  Forbes.com.  Forbes, 11 May 2015. Web. 13 Aug. 2015.
[2] For years, theoretical physicists have been searching for a single theory to reconcile Newtonian physics with quantum mechanics.  The most widely-known theory that has been postulated to solve this problem is “string” theory.

INFOGRAPHIC: What Do Engaged Organizations Look Like?

This infographic provides a comparison of employees and their behaviors in engaged and disengaged organizations. Which type of organization do you work for?

So what DOES an engaged organization look like? Heck, what does a disengaged organization look like? Satisfaction, motivation, and happiness are like seeds, soil, and water. Without them, you can’t grow engagement. But on their own, they don’t create engagement. To grow crops, you need one more thing: the sun’s energy. To grow engagement, you need energy of employer and employees communicating, collaborating, building trust, and promoting shared values. That’s when magic happens.
Download: Sample Employee Engagement Survey

This infographic is based on information from over 14 million survey responses presented in the book ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®: Five Keys for Engaging People, Leaders, and Organizations.
DecisionWise Infographic Engaged vs. Disengaged Organizations

More infographics:
INFOGRAPHIC: Employee Engagement vs. Satisfaction. What’s the Difference?
INFOGRAPHIC: 5 Personal Employee Engagement Wins
INFOGRAPHIC: Where Do You Land on the Employee Engagement Spectrum?
Employee Engagement Survey