Employee Relations in the UK: How to Build a Winning Strategy

Rachel Greenway
Last updated on March 14, 2024

Think of employee relations (ER) as the glue that holds your organisation and its people together; it’s what keeps your employees connected to your company and fired up to show up at work every single day.

Foster a positive work environment, and you’ll strengthen this bond. Neglect these relationships, however, and you might watch a steady stream of employees slip through your door.  In this expanded guide, we’ll explore the deeper nuances of effective employee relations management in the UK and examine how your business can develop a strategy that fosters a thriving workplace culture.

What are employee relations (ER)?

In short, this term describes an organisation's effort to develop and nurture its employee relationships. This can touch on many areas, from workplace safety and conditions to benefits, rewards and recognition, along with work-life balance. No employer-employee relationship is perfect, so conflict resolution factors into this, too. 

It’s important to note that ER focuses on both individual and collective relationships and applies to all kinds of scenarios, including contractual, practical, physical and emotional dimensions. 

Is employee relations the same as HR in the UK?

Though closely related, ER and HR aren’t one and the same thing. 

In the UK, HR encompasses a broader scope of operational responsibilities, including recruitment, training, and payroll. On the other hand, ER focuses on cultivating positive, productive relationships within the workplace. Think of it as a critical subset of HR tasked with resolving conflicts, enhancing communication, and promoting fairness throughout the workplace.

Typically, a company’s people team is in charge of managing employee relations, but a dedicated employee relationship manager can also focus on these specific tasks and challenges. 

Why are employee relationships so important?

Having strong employee relations in the UK  is vital for several reasons. For one, a positive organisational culture powers productivity while enhancing employee satisfaction and retention rates. Employees who feel valued and heard are more likely to perform better and contribute positively to the organisational goals. 

And there’s evidence to support this. As our latest flexible working survey revealed, nearly 50% of employees would reject a 15% pay rise if a new job didn’t come with an appropriate level of flexibility.  Moreover, effective employee relations strategies help to mitigate conflicts and ensure legal compliance, safeguarding your company from potential legal challenges and reputational risks.

Legislation bytes: What’s the legal standpoint when dealing with employee relations?

In managing ER, there are a few things to consider from a legal standpoint. These can be broadly divided into provisions that affect individual employee relationships and those that apply to your greater collective workforce. For instance, there’s contract law that applies to the individual employee within the context of their employment contract. In addition to all this, workers are entitled to their statutory employment rights. And from a collective point of view, there are collective bargaining agreements, consultations, arbitration, and industrial action to think about.

What are some examples of employee relations?

As we touched on previously, there are several scenarios where ER can manifest themselves. And while we’d argue there is no definitive employee relations framework (each organisation will have different areas to prioritise), there are a number of practices crucial for building a workplace where employees feel supported and motivated. 

Handling employee grievances

Managing the dynamics within a team is critical. Unresolved inter-office issues can escalate, affecting the broader organisation. Creating a culture of respect and inclusivity, alongside implementing clear policies and procedures for addressing such matters, can mitigate these challenges.

Dealing with behavioural or personal issues

Addressing behavioural or personal issues in the workplace can be particularly sensitive but is essential for maintaining a professional environment. Approaching these issues with empathy, confidentiality, and support is key. Where appropriate, offering resources or professional help can assist in resolving these matters.

Facilitating effective communication

Whether it’s through managers and their direct reports having regular 1-to-1s or establishing clearer communication channels, effective communication is the cornerstone of every healthy organisational culture. 

Managing performance 

This isn’t just about managing poor performance but also providing dedicated employees with opportunities to evolve and grow within their roles and beyond. As we’ve just explored, effective communication plays a key role in this. 

Supporting mental health and wellness

As we touched on earlier, employees are increasingly placing more value on work experiences that enrich their mental health. Developing a dedicated set of policies or programs that address the mental wellbeing of your workforce is a key part of any sound and modern ER strategy.  

Addressing leadership challenges 

The relationship between employees and their leaders is vital. A lack of trust in leadership, evidenced by ignoring advice or leaders not being approachable can erode employee relations fast. Fostering open communication, providing leadership training, and encouraging feedback can strengthen the employee-leadership relationship.

What are some effective employee relations strategies?

Once you’re clear on what areas your employee relations strategy needs to extend to, it’s all about strategy. Your company should have a clear vision for how it wants to strengthen employee bonds and support engagement at all business levels. 

Here are a few simple but highly actionable steps managers, leaders and People professionals can take to optimise ER. 

It all starts with putting employees first

An employee-first approach is at the core of any great employee relations strategy. It all starts with discovering who your employees really are. While you can do this at a collective level, it’s also important to do this more granularly. Find opportunities to speak to employees one-on-one and get to know them individually. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate!

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again - communication forms the basis of every healthy relationship. Creating an environment where open communication is encouraged is essential. Further to this, transparency around operations, decisions, and changes will help you build trust with your workforce. Regular team meetings, anonymous feedback tools, and an open-door policy by management can facilitate this.

Make leadership approachable and accessible 

Whether it’s regularly eating lunch with employees, like Apple CEO Tim Cook does, or promoting the principles of Leaders Eat Last, the best companies employ and foster leaders that employees can both respect and relate to. Gone are the days of the removed C-suite - modern business leaders treat their employees as equals and empower them to do their best work. 

Recognise and Reward Good Performance

Acknowledging hard work and achievements plays a significant role in motivating employees and is, therefore, a key part of any UK employee relations plan. Implementing recognition programs or even simple gestures of appreciation can significantly impact morale.

employee relations strategies

Offer Professional Development Opportunities

Providing employees with opportunities for growth and learning demonstrates an investment in their future. This could be through formal training programs, workshops, or mentoring schemes.

Support inclusivity and D&I efforts 

Workplace bullying is a very real thing and is a common issue within UK business. It can also lead to a nose dive in morale and unnaturally high turnover, amongst other unfavourable outcomes. Make sure inclusivity is part of your company’s mission and is something your entire organisation strives for on a daily basis. 

Address Conflicts Proactively

It’s never nice when there’s tension in the air. Handling grievances and conflicts can be tricky, but with your cool and collected HR hat on, you can do so effectively and go one step further by implementing clear employee relations policies and procedures to guide you through these difficult scenarios. 

Promote Work-Life Balance

Finally, there’s promoting a healthy work-life balance. Your people should be encouraged to bring their whole selves to work and be able to integrate in and around their personal lives. Flexible working hours, remote work options, and mental health days are examples of practices that contribute to this balance.

The role of payroll within employee relations

We felt this deserved its own little section simply because while pay is perhaps the most basic aspect of any employer-employee relationship, it’s often the most neglected. 

People work to get paid. But every month in the UK, there are employees that find their pay is short or late or have to make sense of confusing holiday pay, overtime or statutory pay calculations. Also, this can weigh down on your company’s payroll experience and take time away from other higher-value HR activities. 

Payroll software is one way you can improve this. Software like PayFit can transform this process from a set of confusing spreadsheets into a seamless, user-friendly workflow that you can complete in just a few minutes each month. 

Pulling everything together 

Crafting a successful employee relations strategy is pivotal for any business aiming for longevity and success in the competitive UK market. It requires a deep understanding of what employee relations entail, the importance of maintaining positive workplace relationships, adherence to the legal framework, and the implementation of strategies that promote transparency, recognition, and development. 

By prioritising effective employee relations, businesses can create a supportive and productive environment that benefits both employees and the organisation as a whole. 

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