Employee Relations: Why Such a Bad Rap?

Once upon a time, on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, we heralded the birth of the Personnel HR profession.  Industrial Relations begat Labor Relations with its accompanying cliché: a smoke-filled room laden with labor bosses and cigar-chomping industrialists hammering out a collective bargaining agreement.

As our profession matured we began to use the phrase Employee Relations in order to provide differentiation from the Labor Relations connotation (unionized workforce) and provide us with a term to use when referring to the management of the employment relationship in a non-unionized workforce.

Yet, even as Employee Relations matured into young adulthood and then into a comfortable middle-age, a number of organizations continued to “relate” to their employees as if they were still huddled around that bargaining table with overflowing ashtrays at the ready. The mindset that people are resources widgets – product in/product out – and can be expected to work according to bullet points, mandates and according to a rigid set of parameters just never left the room.

And therein lies the tension; it’s this area of human resources that puts the thought, in the minds of many, that HR is nothing more than the enforcer of draconian policies and creator of byzantine processes.

It’s quite sad actually; ER is one of the foundational – and necessary – building blocks of what we do.  From within this area flow organizational expectations, support for employee rights (and responsibilities), and safeguarding the workplace for those who may be vulnerable if working for unscrupulous or downright evil people.

On the surface, however, Employee Relations is nowhere near as sexy and glamorous as some other functional HR disciplines; Recruiters get all the flash and sizzle, Compensation pros get to deal with incentive program design, and even the Risk Management/Safety folks get to oversee cool stuff like immunization programs.

Take a glance at most any Employee Relations Specialist job description and you’ll find words and phrases like “enforce,” “work-related problems,” “investigate,” “inspect,” “administer and interpret” and “grievance.”   Ugh.  Certainly no one wants to go into HR and be faced with those sorts of responsibilities; do they? After all, there’s not one single mention of “candidate experience” or “employer branding” anywhere………

But it’s important.  Just not snazzy sounding.

Employee Relations merely needs to be – and can be – glammed up a bit. Much as Madonna continues (still!) to reinvent herself after decades in the industry, so too can this important cornerstone of the HR profession.

Does it need a name change?  Not really; it didn’t really ‘take’ when Madonna tried to get everyone to call her Madge.   Rather – we need to adopt a new mind-set, adjust our attitude and get a new PR strategy.   The role of the ER professional should be one that’s proactive not reactive.  It’s a job that requires one to realize that what one can do does not necessarily mean it’s what one should do.  And it’s critical that the focus be on providing information – not punishment.

So I want every HR practitioner to let the vast amounts of knowledge around related laws, regulations and directives filter through two parts of their own cognitive realization before the words – when rendering a decision – come dripping out of their mouth;

PART 1: keep in mind the unique values, mission and culture of their particular organization

PART 2: keep in mind their own status as a human being

Plus it’s 2018.  Y’all haven’t been allowed to smoke cigars in the Board Room for decades.

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this post is a blast from the past: it originally ran over at the HR Schoolhouse

Eeeww: The Top Employee “Issue” That Makes HR People Queasy

Working in human resources means you get to do all sorts of cool things related to organizational culture, employee experience, performance and development, and change management. Sometimes you just get to crank out some good old-fashioned rah-rah cheerleading which, although many in “strategic” HR are loathe to admit it, can be quite enjoyable.

Working in human resources also means you have an inside, often uncomfortable, view of the seamy underbelly of humanity.  We’re in a special place where we learn about all the unpleasant, disreputable and downright sordid activities with which people fill their time.

The HR Department is no place for the prim and prudish.

During my career in HR I have had to deal with my fair share of shocking incidents, and, being friends with loads and loads of HR folks, have heard tales from many others. There are many perplexing behaviors the average HR professional can pretty much take for granted they will deal with at some stage such as when an employee is discovered:

  • watching porn at work
  • taking naked selfies at work
  • sharing naked selfies with their co-workers
  • sharing homemade porn (starring themself!) at work
  • posting homemade porn on the internet so it can be “discovered” by co-workers

No? Just me and my HR friends?

Well surely, if you work in human resources, you’ve dealt with an employee who:

  • starts a consensual romance with a co-worker
  • thinks it’s perfectly OK to have consensual #sexytime, during work hours, in the bathroom
  • uses the executive conference room for #sexytime, after hours, while ensuring the Auditing Firm’s files are not disturbed

No? Again? Just me and my HR friends?

So…yeah…eeeww (you might be saying). Give me a performance issue or an investigation into timeclock manipulation or even a damn body-odor conversation! DIscussing sex is just distressing to all sorts of HR practitioners; puritanical or not. Yet, again and again, we have to head down that path.

But do you know the Number 1 employee issue that makes HR people squeamish, the granddaddy of them all, the absolute WORST conversation to have with an employee?  It’s the chat about “sexual self pleasuring at work.”

Surely this situation has arisen (no pun intended) in just about every workplace? I think every HR person I’ve ever swapped HR Horror stories with has had this delightful ER experience. I’ve heard stories of gals and guys taking care of business in bathrooms, offices, cubicles, parking lots, janitor’s closets and walk-in-freezers. Brrrrr. A google search on the situation leads us to questions, queries and articles such as  Masturbating at work is a doctor-approved stress reliever.  Well then.

Yesterday I cam across an article on the topic: Several Women Say Airlines Don’t Take Their Complaints About Men Masturbating Next To Them Seriously.”   This led to some HR pondering:

  • If your employee heads on a business trip, sits next to a masturbator, and is traumatized by the experience, how does that impact their employment?
  • What if they have to travel for work?
  • Can the employee hold the employer responsible for subjecting them to the masturbator?
  • If the employee can no longer travel and is fired is that a constructive discharge?
  • Would it be compensable under workers’ compensation?
  • And on the flip side….what if your employee IS the airplane masturbator?

Eeeww indeed.

At least some folks have the sense to take the matter into their own hands (pun intended) in the janitor’s closet back at Headquarters.

Your Company’s “Management Culture Number”

If there’s one word that every HR practitioner (and every employment attorney for that matter) would spend good money to have embroidered on a custom-made throw pillow to keep in their office it would be “document.”  Good grief how we love to talk about documentation.

  • Having a coaching session with Bob about his slovenly attire? Document.
  • Discussing Polly’s tendency towards tardiness every Monday morning? Document.
  • Making it crystal clear to Sean that his continued use of the “f” word in customer meetings is not appropriate? Document.

But mere documentation and note-taking won’t do of course. Every HR Department on earth has created its own form to use for the documentation process and, depending upon the style of the HR leader and the culture of the company, they’ve devised catchy names like:

  • Employee Counseling Form
  • Coaching Conversation Form
  • Corrective Action Report
  • Corrective Action Notice ( a.k.a. “CAN” )
  • Employee Warning Notice
  • Memorandum to Employee File
  • Record of Counseling
  • Employee Discipline Form
  • Progressive Discipline Form

Lots and lots of euphemisms devised by HR teams for a form that signifies “you’ve done something we don’t like so we’re going to write it on a piece of paper and put it in your permanent file!!”

And then, of course, there are increasing levels of severity for various infractions so the CAN may have checkboxes to distinguish whether this piece of paper being generated is a:

  • Counseling
  • Verbal Warning
  • Verbal Written Warning
  • Written Warning
  • Final Written Warning
  • Last and Final Written Warning

Having been duly instructed by their HR partners, supervisors and managers churn these forms out at a furious pace. “Uh oh; Susie didn’t hit the requisite number of minutes on the phone today in her call center position. I better ‘write her up!’ (note: if there is one phrase that sets my teeth on edge it’s “write him/her up.”)

In some organizations it is a cyclonic whirling maelstrom of paper as managers compete with each other to win the organizational Gold Medal for number of pieces of documentation generated. File folders overflow. Spreadsheets are overloaded.

If you work in HR though you can make a bit of a game out of it AND toss around some numbers that will delight and impress.  I give you an easy equation that will tell you a lot about the management culture/state of affairs at your organization:

 

Management Culture Number

total number of discipline notices (divided by) total number of employees = MCN

 

Let’s toss a few examples out, shall we? (Remember that CAN = Corrective Action Notice; I have to use that one because it is just too precious):

  • Company with 150 employees; 10 CANs = 0.067 MCN
  • Company with 1,000 employees; 200 CANs = 0.2 MCN
  • Company with 5,000 employees; 4,762 CANs = 0.95 MCN

Note: this doesn’t mean, in the last example, that 95% of the employees received some sort of documented discipline; it might be that 40% of employees had multiple instances of documentation.

You can easily run this number over any period of time; per week, month, quarter, or year. It’s a number that can tell you any manner of things:

  • Perhaps you’ve just instituted a policy outlining some type of new behavioral expectation and either employees don’t understand it or managers have not communicated the expectations clearly
  • You may have production or performance measures that are either unrealistic or easy to manipulate. Think about this in the context of a call-center (calls-per-hour) or a warehouse (pick-and-pack and throughput) where employees either have difficult targets to hit or, conversely, targets they can manipulate so that when production slacks it’s noticeable and leads to documentation.

Sometimes though an overabundance of documentation means that leaders are managing by pen and paper as opposed to managing by conversation.

Yup; that management culture number can explain a lot of things.