Employee relations is not generally the most popular of HR specialist roles and vacant roles can be hard to fill. The role varies so much across organisations, from dealing with individual cases, to a strategic union facing role, to a wider role that also includes diversity, inclusion and human rights.
Whichever way an organisation chooses to define employee relations, the basic skills are needed more than ever as we navigate some of the most fundamental changes to the world of work. Any issue that is important to the business, its employees or their representatives will land at the feet of ER such as the impact of automation on roles, remote and agile working, corporate governance, sustainability and its potential impact on jobs and making workplaces more inclusive and diverse.
People attracted to ER often have a sense of fairness at their core and they value difference of opinion, seeing it as a positive. They can often be seen as direct, no-nonsense people while also wanting to use their skills to build agreements between people who see the world differently.
In my view, employee relations has been “downgraded” by HR’s professional body for years. Those setting out on an HR career path can go through their studies with very little (if any) ER input to encourage them to engage with this specialism. I would encourage HR professionals to consider specialising in ER or developing their ER skills as part of a generalist career in HR. Without it, organisations will lose critical, relevant and timely skills in their HR teams.
Here are the top reasons why I think in today's workplace, ER specialists are needed more than ever:
· We need to build healthy workplace cultures. Employee Relations is all about understanding the perspectives of a diverse group of people – leaders, union reps, employees and employee networks. You can impact the culture of an organisation by coaching others to value the importance of listening to different opinions before making decisions. If, through all organisational layers, employee views are encouraged, listened to and acted upon, leaders become better leaders, representatives take more responsibility and employees feel valued.
· Workplace conflict is rife and we need to find creative solutions. In ER, a big part of your role is to resolve problems, conflict and disagreements. These can be operational challenges as well as people challenges. Unresolved, these issues can impact employee well-being, organisational performance and productivity. There is something hugely rewarding about working through problems and reaching a positive, often creative solution when at one point, it may have looked like there was no potential solution. You can really help the organisation and individuals to move forward.
· You can't make agreements without building trust. In ER, you need to be curious, get to know people, build trust, understand fully why something isn’t working or is working. It is not an elite role. It doesn’t sit in an ivory tower. Without this curiosity and understanding different perspectives, you never really reach agreement - all you do is “win” and impose your solution on someone else. You’ll be more effective if you aren’t egotistical and are OK with respectfully challenging others – whoever they are - and being challenged yourself. You will also have to be happy with agreeing when someone else’s solution is more suitable than yours
· All organisations have changed and will continue to change - help them lead change in a positive way. A big part of an ER role is managing change but this isn’t just about following legal steps and managing risk. You will play a more valuable role if you also manage the relationships between employee reps and leaders, enabling managers to justify decisions or adapt their course of action based on employee feedback and helping employees understand why decisions have been made.