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

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