Isn’t It Time We Get Employee Relations Issues Out of the Closet?

Jun 19, 2015

I saw an article on HR Bartender titled If you’re being investigated by HR. The title gave me pause, but I had to spend a bit of time figuring out why.

Here’s what I concluded. I’m bothered by the reputation that inevitably will follow HR if they are known as “investigators.”

Yes, I realize that HR is tasked with investigating employee relations issues; it’s often a substantial percentage of HR’s work. And the article offered good advice from a labor attorney about handling the delicate issues of confidentiality and responsibility in employment-related investigations.

Is that, however, how HR wants to be known within their organization? I equate investigations with policing, and surely that’s not the role we want?

I suggest that HR would be much better served were their reputation one of helping the organization improve performance and deliver programs that drive organizational value. Am I missing something?

Perhaps it is worth looking at alternatives to becoming the investigators in the organization. I see some options.

Get employee relations issues out of the closet

In my experience, employee relations issues are held close to the vest by the HR/ER team. Of course that makes sense given the confidential nature of many issues, but it denies the organization the opportunity to identify risk, analyze trends and build a plan to mitigate the risk.

Sharing employee relations “stories” at the HR leadership level provides the chance to collectively analyze the root causes of the risk from multiple perspectives – hiring, compensation, benefits, learning/development – and develop a plan to address and prevent.

And, sharing employee relations “stories” at the executive level opens the executives’ eyes to the risk and the crucial role that their leaders play for the workforce. It makes the case that leadership skill is critical, that some leaders are putting the organization at risk, and it makes sense to plan to mitigate the risk by developing leadership effectiveness.

What a great business goal for HR to share with leadership – reduce ER risk! It’s measurable, and it’s doable. And when HR frees up time from investigations, they can redeploy that time to developing leaders.

Well, we can’t really control that so we don’t want to have that accountability,” you say? You could share that accountability with leadership – HR provides coaching, tools and resources, and the executives make good workforce decisions because of HR’s help.

Shifting the focus

Rather than focus on damage control, you really need to shift to prevention. The more effective the organization’s leaders, the fewer employee relations issues there are to investigate.

But yet, we send new managers off to do this critical job with somewhere around a week of development and preparation, and the “training” they get often scares them into paralysis because they realize how easily they can put the organization at risk by how they treat employees.

Think about another job that holds such significant risk – a health care professional. They must study an academic curriculum, pass a licensing exam, and practice in simulated and highly supervised environments until they have proven their skill.

When leadership activities can impact regulatory risk, as well as enhance or diminish the productivity of the workforce, why do we allow them to “practice without a license” and put the organization at risk?

Would our HR efforts be better served to help leaders lead effectively than put out the fires of employee relations issues?

Push ownership back to operational leaders

We in HR have assumed responsibility for employee relations, but it is not ours to own.

Employee relations belongs to the operational leaders. Without the responsibility for leadership, there is no accountability for effective employee relations. HR can only provide tools, resources and recommendations; leaders must decide.

Some may say that creates a greater risk, and HR should/does make the decision. But when HR absolves a leader of the responsibility to make a decision about an employee, the leader learns nothing and continues to be ineffective, and HR puts a big bulls-eye on their own back.

HR may be a representative of leadership in researching facts, and providing their expertise and advice, but employment decisions need to be the responsibility of operational leaders.

Protect your reputation

By allowing HR to be the face of bad news, the organization’s trust in HR is seriously damaged. For a key part of the organization that is charged with the performance of the workforce, this reputation is deadly.

If the only time a department sees HR is when there is “bad news,” HR will quickly get the reputation of “organizational bad guy.”

If, on the other hand, HR shifts to a role of coach and advisor, helping executive leadership recognize the significant risk in the hands of their leaders, helping leaders learn and practice their skills thereby mitigating risk, and communicating the success in reducing employee relations issues as a contribution to the bottom line, the less employee relations time will be required and HR will be freed up to focus on the positive performance of the workforce.

What do you think? Is it worth a try?