Employee Relations Aren’t Just HR’s Problem: How to Empower Managers to Help

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Many companies do a great job of upskilling their leaders and managers so they can function effectively — but managers don’t always receive training in employee relations. That can cause trouble, as employees don’t always turn to HR when issues arise in the workplace. In fact, many employees go to their managers first.

According to HR Acuity’s 2019 Employee Experience Survey, 67 percent of employees report their employee relations concerns to their managers initially, while only 37 percent report their concerns to HR. That makes sense: Employees often have personal relationships with their managers that they don’t usually have with the HR team.

To complicate matters further, HR Acuity’s Fifth Annual Employee Relations Benchmark Study found that employee relations resources have diminished over the past year, as have company commitments to employee relations processes.

How can companies ensure their managers are up to the challenge when employees come to them with concerns? It starts with collaboration between managers and HR/employee relations (ER) teams.

Building Manager Confidence and Skills

Employees’ concerns can run the gamut from performance or harassment to time and attendance problems, mental health issues, or coworker conflicts. With everything else on their plates, it’s no wonder managers might struggle to handle the vast range of employee issues. When managers get the training and tools they need, however, they can create more productive environments for everyone.

When managers aren’t equipped to handle employee issues effectively, they may have to turn to HR/ER professionals for help every time a problem arises. As a result, HR/ER professionals often find themselves answering the same questions and addressing the same issues over and over, which isn’t a good use of anyone’s time. On the flip side, if managers understand the organization’s employee relations processes and are empowered with clear guidance, they can handle employee relations challenges correctly and consistently the first time.

That’s why HR should focus on empowering managers — and there’s no time like the present because many companies are at an inflection point as the pandemic recedes. Your HR team is likely already helping managers address the challenges of leading people in a remote environment. As you move to the next phase, it’s a great time to think about the role managers play in employee relations. It’s worth refreshing employee relations skills for all organizational leaders after a year at home.

There are many ways to teach managers how to face challenging employee relations situations. Role-playing is a time-tested way to train people on handling tough employee issues, especially if you ground the role-play in real-world scenarios from your own company and experience. Give managers room to ask questions and share how they would handle the situation. Regularly having open dialogues and sharing best practices will help build manager confidence over time. Diversity training is also an important component of this process, as it can help managers identify and eliminate bias while navigating employee relations challenges.

When leaders know how to have tough but necessary conversations with employees and when issues should be escalated, the HR/ER team can have greater confidence that issues are being handled consistently and correctly.

Streamline Employee Relations Processes

Training can help managers tackle challenging ER issues, but tools like internal reporting templates, interview protocols, and checklists can help improve consistency.

You might also consider implementing technology solutions that offer managers self-service channels for documenting and responding to employee relations issues. These solutions can guide managers as they address common issues and signal exactly when to escalate. Managers get the tools they need to handle issues in real time, and the HR team has access to the data it needs to address systemic problems and identify when managers need extra help.

Create an Employee Relations Partnership

Collaboration between managers and the HR/ER function is critical. Employees want to work for companies that value them and treat them fairly. Leaders want to protect their employees as well as their brands’ reputations. The ability to attract and retain skilled, productive, and committed people depends on creating a healthy workplace culture.

Even so, other organizational assets often receive more attention HR/ER. Empowering managers to handle employee relations effectively can change that dynamic, because managers are the most direct link between the company and its employees. When you set up your managers to succeed, you’re investing in your most valuable resource.

Employees will always have issues, and managers will be called to handle them regardless of whether they have the training, insights, and tools they need to do it well. By working with your leaders to improve your processes, enhance their knowledge, and supply necessary resources, your HR/ER team can become a trusted partner instead of a policing authority. That makes true collaboration possible.

Deb Muller is CEO of HR Acuity.

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By Deb Muller