The fifth annual HR Acuity Employee Relations Benchmark Study highlighted how the employee relations function has lost momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a decline in processes vital for conducting investigations. CEO Deb Muller explains why companies need to recommit to vital processes that help support DEI.
Employee relations is an essential strategic function for enabling organisations to create a safe, fair and productive workplace.
According to Deb Muller, CEO of employee relations and investigations management platform HR Acuity: “The relationship between employee and employer has to be treated just as critically as the relationship with your hardware or other resources in your organisation.”
However, the company’s fifth annual Employee Relations Benchmark Study showed that, during 2020, there was a significant loss of momentum and commitment vital to employee relations processes. The use of a required, structured process for conducting investigations, which had seen an upward trend over the past five years, declined sharply in 2020, with only 44% using such a process. There was also an unexpected decrease in staffing, cancelling out the gains made in 2019.
At the same time, 33% of organisations cited a significant increase in accommodation requests, and there were significant increases in social media issues and discrimination claims. The Coronavirus pandemic, social movements such as Black Lives Matter and the political landscape are the root cause.
On the plus side, employee relations data was increasingly driving business decisions and influencing workplace culture. Some 86% of employee relations teams are now responsible for handling employee-related analytics. Two-thirds of respondents said they were sharing data and analytics directly with senior leadership to identify trends and develop initiatives to address areas of concern.
The Benchmark Study is based on in-depth research among more than 125 organisations, representing approximately 4.5 million employees worldwide, of whom 2.3 million are in the US.
Processes to support DEI
For Muller, the most surprising and disappointing finding was the loss of traction in employee relations processes. “We were anticipating that there would be changes in the data and that COVID-19 was going to play a part,” she says. “To see the loss of momentum in some of the processes that we had been seeing improve year on year was disheartening. I’m hoping that we will see that momentum return next year.”
Essential processes supported DEI because they enabled employers to track how employees were treated. For the study, respondents were asked if they had required processes for managing investigations, processes that are just recommended or none of the above.
To illustrate the comparison between required processes and guidelines, Muller uses the scenario of an airline with a faulty plane. She explains: “If you asked if there were required processes for investigating what went wrong with that aeroplane and the answer was, ‘yes 44% of the time’ would you get on that plane?
“In any business, the people are the most important resource. If they then go to HR to say something is wrong or make an allegation, it is not okay to think it’s important enough to use required processes only 44% of the time for investigating their concerns.
Muller adds: “When we think about before #Metoo when women didn’t come forward, it wasn’t because they didn’t know where to go. It’s because they didn’t know what would happen, it was scary, or they didn’t think there were required processes.”
Sharing issues with employees without divulging confidential information shows transparency and reinforces that there is a proper process and that the company cares about its workforce. Also, transparency builds trust.
Muller reveals that, in 2008, just 10% of organisations had initiated, or enhanced, reporting transparency to employees. After #Metoo the number rose to 17%. “Last year, 29% said they were doing it. This year it was down 16%, a pretty sharp decline.
“Initially, I had hoped it was because businesses were busy with COVID-19. But having since spoken with our clients, there is still a concern about sharing information. Employees have become more conservative, which is unfortunate. If they feel that issues are dealt with appropriately, they are more willing to accept the outcome and that things are happening more fairly.”
Tracking is key
“From a DEI perspective, how can you say that you’re inclusive if you don’t track those things?” Muller argues.
HR Acuity helps its clients to implement processes and help managers document issues. There’s a traffic light system. Green covers everything a company does and how it expects employees to behave and includes job descriptions, policies and guidelines.
“If every employee behaved according to our policies and did exactly what was on their job description, we’d be good,” says Muller.
“But we know that’s not the case. So, we have what we call the yellow light instances. Those are the day-to-day deviations from that norm; somebody is late, or they don’t hit their performance target, or they violate a policy. They’re not things you have to investigate. But they are things you need to document and have clarity and expectations around. You need to track and analyse them to see if you need different training, for example.
“Then we have the red-light issues, which are when someone makes an allegation that something is untoward that you have to investigate and take action.”
She adds that moving forward after an issue is resolved is essential for building trust. HR Acuity encourages clients, after handling a situation, to get feedback from employees, termed the employee net promoter score.
Looking back over the past year, Muller says: “There weren’t a lot of laughs in employee relations because they were the ones doing all the work. They had to shift focus to respond and adapt to remote work, employee health, safety and wellbeing. Employee relations leaders have made great strides in elevating the function. I hope that this year’s data is an anomaly and that organisations will recommit to the processes that are critical to create consistent, fair workplaces and deliver positive employee experiences.”