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The Power of Presence: Why Building Human Connections with Employees is More Critical Than Ever

The CHRO of a global power management company shares the lessons he’s gathered from a career of high-stakes labor negotiations on the growing importance of HR’s role in creating trusting, authentic employee relationships.

hands pulling on rope

In late 2023, Costco employees in Norfolk, Va., voted overwhelmingly to unionize, the most successful organizing drive the retailer had seen in two decades. What was most insightful about that news, however, was the response issued by the incoming and outgoing Costco CEOs, who wrote: “To be honest, we’re disappointed by the result in Norfolk. We’re not disappointed in our employees; we’re disappointed in ourselves as managers and leaders. The fact that a majority of Norfolk employees felt that they wanted or needed a union constitutes a failure on our part.”

This hit home because it gets to the heart of what we must maintain in HR: relationships. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to know our employees. In the case of Costco, the successful unionization drive reminded us that we must always be aware of what our employees want and need—and what can happen when we lose sight of what’s important.

A Career Built on Connections

I’ve learned this lesson time and again over my 27-plus years in HR. It’s a journey that began in 1997, when I became a notetaker at the national negotiations between General Electric and United Electrical (UE), which represented tens of thousands of employees. The experience gave me a front-row seat at the collective bargaining process and taught me labor nomenclature, as well as how passionate debates can be at the bargaining table. Yet it also taught me that relationships are forged before you sit across from each other at that table. The deals reached are ultimately built on strong, trusting relationships cultivated long beforehand.

A few years later, I had responsibility for my first site at GE Aviation, where our union employees were represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) and the United Auto Workers (UAW). Leveraging what I had learned at the national table, I quickly began building relationships for myself, knowing I would soon be tasked with resolving complicated labor disputes, mediations, and arbitrations. This process solidified what I had learned earlier—that strong and trusting relationships matter with your workforce.

The importance of relationship building grew even larger when I was promoted to a role that oversaw multiple sites, both union and nonunion alike. I had the dual responsibility of advising the company on how to build positive employee relations at nonunion sites while working with the unions at sites that had been organized. Over the next 14 years—and in multiple local and national negotiations—I leveraged relationships that I had built at every step.

Your culture is the operating system of your company, and it must be constantly monitored and updated because culture is your differentiator."


Develop Trust by Walking the Floor

I’ve now seen employee and labor relations from all sides. And I’ll be the first to admit that much has changed from when I first began in HR. Today, our workforce is more diverse than ever, and technology has revolutionized the way we communicate. Customers, suppliers, stakeholders, and employees demand quick responses to their concerns. The power of social media has convinced many people that employee relations are now a zero-sum game, where one party wins and the other loses. (Please don’t fall into that trap!)

But some things remain the same. Employees want to be treated with dignity and respect—and to know that their needs can be fulfilled in the workplace. They also want to be heard, as well they should be. This is why HR leaders must make it a priority to get out of their offices and walk the floors to develop meaningful, respectful relationships with their employees. This is critical because those floors are where credibility is built, and those conversations remove hierarchical barriers that often prevent real connections.   

The challenge of leadership remains, in large part because leadership today is a series of balancing acts. Ensuring positive employee relations requires balancing fairness and profitability while leading with empathy. It means advocating for employees while also recognizing that your role is to help the company stay profitable and grow. Earlier in my career, my ability to balance these needs was incredibly important, even necessary, to building skills that would make me a better HR leader.

How we communicate is another balancing act. Email, text messaging, and videoconferencing certainly make it easier to connect instantaneously. But these tools also deny the bond that only forms through in-person connections. HR leaders will never generate spontaneous, authentic conversations with employees if they connect with them only from afar. In staying disconnected, they will surely miss valuable information that could prevent future problems. Ideally, there should be a shared sense of reaching both short-term and long-term goals that are in the best interest of both employees and the company in creating a sustainable and prosperous business model.

When you walk the floor, you develop a perspective of what is going on—a sense of how people feel about your company. Many will freely offer their opinion and learn to trust you, positioning you to prevent issues from escalating.

Listen and Explain Your ‘Why’

Eventually, you go beyond surface conversations with employees, keeping you from being lulled into thinking that simply because employees appear to be happy that they are engaged. After all, people are your brand, and boards are now evaluating CEOs on how well they connect with their employees and how they can positively impact the culture. These leaders drive stronger engagement because they make clear to employees that they care and listen.

That listening fosters gratitude and empathy, which are fundamentally human and necessary to building strong working relationships. It makes your connections more meaningful. And it makes people more likely to understand your position when you explain why you cannot meet all their demands. It’s about basic human dynamics and psychology—and letting people know that you hear them and care.

Issues arise when employees want a problem addressed but sense that their leaders aren’t listening—and more importantly, that they don’t care. Company leaders must guard against sending signals, explicit or unspoken, suggesting that employees’ concerns are not important enough to spend time on. That message translates into the belief that all that matters is maximizing company profits at the expense of employees. That’s a dangerous proposition.

As long as you are honest, maintain strong relationships with frequent dialogue, and help people understand the “why” behind your positions and decisions, you will be successful and your employees will place greater trust and faith in your actions.


The High Cost of Disconnected Employees

Fueled in part by declining human connections in the workplace, employee engagement in 2024 has dropped to its lowest level in more than a decade. Gallup reported that the percentage of U.S. employees saying they were “highly engaged” in their jobs dropped to 30% in the first quarter of 2024, the lowest level since 2013. And the percentage of employees who were “actively disengaged” in their work rose slightly to 17%, tied for the highest level in a decade. 

chart: high cost of disconnected employees


Building Bridges: 4 Lessons Learned

So what should HR leaders be doing to build those strong employee relationships? Here are some key takeaways from my experience:

1. Understand what your workforce truly values.

Guard against messages that get lost as they move through the hierarchy. Be your own “search scientist” by visiting and creating opportunities for your employees to be seen and heard. Listen and make sure their issues and concerns become part of the culture change. Be an active communicator and strong listener to understand the things employees are most concerned about, such as career growth, working conditions, ability to retire, the company’s purpose and mission, and ultimately, why they choose to stay. Understanding and knowing your employees is the first step toward trust.

2. Work to set—and protect—your culture.

Your culture is the operating system of your company, and it must be constantly monitored and updated because culture is your differentiator. In HR, we must assist our leaders in setting the culture through our behavior in all aspects of the employee experience. Employees have a strong desire to know that their contributions are needed and appreciated. If you can’t win in the workplace with your employees, you will struggle to win in the marketplace. Let people know how much they matter!

3. Don’t be lulled by strong numbers.

Just because profits are solid and operations are running smoothly does not mean your employees feel appreciated. We have seen some of the most recognizable brands in the world providing market-leading pay and benefits, and yet they face employee unrest. Just as we regularly audit our finances and perform preventive maintenance on our manufacturing equipment, we must proactively evaluate our employee engagement the same way.   

4. Think about what it means to be a good employer.

In business, some may think that fairness and profitability are diametrically opposed—but they don’t have to be. How can you create an environment where people feel good about what they do and where meaningful relationships can exist and flourish? I often remind leaders that employees want our company to be successful, but that they also want to know that they are contributing to that success. Their concerns and ideas may just be the next best way to make your company better. Allow the collective intellect of your employees to serve as a differentiator.

Some of this may sound easy, but it takes time. Never take your eye off the most important part of your business and your culture—your employees. We are in an era where it can feel like an endless tug-of-war between “us” and “them,” of employees versus employers. Yet at our core, we are all just yearning for recognition and understanding. Let’s avert problems and tensions before they start through camaraderie and conversation.  

Ernest Marshall

Ernest W. Marshall Jr. is the executive vice president and CHRO of Eaton Corporation, a global power management company. He previously served as the vice president of HR for GE Aviation.