A Look at Employee Relations in 2011

By Bill Leonard Jan 18, 2011

Although there were signs of improvement in the U.S. economy and job market in early 2011, employee relations professionals continue to wrestle with strong undercurrents of employee dissatisfaction and stress.

“We are definitely seeing more instances of workplace aggression and vandalism,” said Ken Pinnock, SPHR, GPHR, director of Arizona operations for Mountain States Employers Council in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Frustration has been building among employees who feel that they are stuck in their current jobs without any place to go or advance.”

According to Pinnock and other sources interviewed for this article, the weak U.S. job market has created a “bomb shelter” mentality for workers who are hunkering down and riding out the shaky economy as best they can. In many cases, employees who voiced grievances and asked for help from HR or employee relations staff in the past now have a “don’t rock the boat” attitude, adding more pressure to an already tense workplace environment.

This uncertain climate has left employers in a quandary as they consider whether to add, cut or keep staffing levels the same. “The picture might become a bit clearer in six months, but right now, we’re dealing with an uncertain climate, which has a very muddy forecast,” said Pinnock. “And that has made planning for employee relations issues more difficult than usual. The best answer right now is to be prepared for several different scenarios.”

In the meantime, employers are beginning to feel the pinch of this uncertainty through declining productivity and employee dissatisfaction. A law of diminishing returns appears to be taking hold as many organizations have pushed workers to the limit by trying to get more from less.

“You hear a lot about workloads being too much, and employers who are asking workers to do even more. And many are feeling a backlash,” said LaRhonda Edwards, an HR manager for a large office supply distribution center in Alabama and former member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Employee Relations Special Expertise Panel.

The key to alleviating what some sources call an “employee relations powder keg” is concentrating on building and keeping trust with employees.

“They need to know that you understand their plight and that you are there to help improve their work situations,” Edwards said.

Edwards and Pinnock agreed that strong communication channels are essential for relieving tensions and stress in the workplace. Edwards said her organization holds listening sessions at least once a month at which employees are encouraged to talk about problems and to recommend solutions.

“The key is to listen and respond. Employees must feel that they can express themselves freely too,” she said. “If employees know that their input is taken seriously and even acted upon, then they will have a much more positive and productive attitude about work.”

Pinnock said employers often have communication channels in place but aren’t using them to the best effect.

For example, he said, career development and coaching programs offer great opportunities to engage employees and communicate that they are valued and important contributors. Yet in tough economic times many employers look for ways to cut training and development costs. Pinnock believes that is short-sighted, however, and says that offering workers substantive training and career development opportunities is an excellent employee relations tool—especially in tough economic situations.

“Offering a coaching program is an excellent way to help employees hone their skills and send the message that they have a future—and the opportunity to advance,” Pinnock said.

Dealing with Baby ‘Boomerangers’

Employees of the Baby Boom generation experienced a number of effects from the 2008 recession, including declining balances in 401(k) and other retirement savings plans. Thus, many will have to continue working or re-enter the labor force. Thus, these “Baby-Boomerangers” have created another employee relations challenge for employers now struggling to find the best fit in their organizations for employees who had been preparing for retirement.

Meanwhile, young workers sometimes grow frustrated when Baby Boomers block possible paths to advancement.

But there are other risks, according to experts.

“Even though the job market appears to be strengthening, businesses are still planning for layoffs as they try to right-size their organization and hire people with the skills businesses need to survive,” said Larry Lorber, a partner in the Washington, D.C., law office of Proskauer Rose. “The risk is that employers might be eliminating jobs that are held by older workers.”

And if layoffs have a larger impact on older workers, an employer could face claims of age discrimination. Lorber urges employers to use caution when planning job cuts and when looking to hire workers.

“It’s definitely possible to get dinged both ways—by laying off workers and then rehiring them. If it appears that an employer has treated older workers differently, then the employer runs the risk of being hit with age discrimination claims,” said Jonathan Yarbrough, a partner with the employment and labor law firm of Constangy, Brooks & Smith. “However, employers that perform due diligence analyses of their layoff and hiring plans and attempt to ensure that their employment practices have no disparate impact on any protected classes should be fine.”

But Edwards said the employment issues created by older workers working longer should be viewed as an employee relations opportunity and not as a challenge or problem. “Businesses should be exploring ways to leverage the knowledge and experience of these older workers,” she said. “Mentoring and cross-mentoring programs can offer older employees a way to contribute and re-engage, while younger workers can also benefit by building their work skill sets.”

Edwards told SHRM Online that one of the most productive work teams in her organization includes a 63-year-old with more than 20 years of experience with the company and a 25-year-old just beginning his career. The team works well together because the older worker understands internal processes, procedures and how to complete projects on deadline, while the younger worker knows how to use technology and computer systems to the best advantage.

“As a team they are very productive and enjoy learning from each other,” she said. “They have taught me a lot, too, about finding the right role or niche for workers and how crucial that is to successful and effective employee relations.”

The Cusp of a Technological Trend

The role technology plays in the workplace has challenged employee relations professionals for years. The ability to access to the Internet through myriad electronic devices is rapidly reshaping the way employers interact with their employees—at the workplace and during the employee’s off hours—and is likely to continue to affect the workplace for some time.

While technology—and especially access to online applications—offers an effective mode of communication, employers face added challenges as more employees have 24/7 access to their workplaces through e-mail, voice mail and electronic devices, such as smart phones, iPads and personal digital assistants.

Businesses face increasing pressure to allow employees to work from home or remote locations. But deciding who can, and can’t, work from home, and how much freedom and autonomy employees should have in these situations, can be an employee relations nightmare.

“If you allow telecommuting, then there are some tough decisions on who gets to do it and who needs to be in the office,” Edwards said. “And the pressure to offer these flexible work arrangements is only going to increase as technology and online access improves.”

Yarbrough predicts that employers will wrestle with more wage and hour issues in 2011 as nonexempt employees check voice and e-mails during nonwork hours, simply because they have access to the technology needed to do so. He said an increasing number of wage and hour cases like this are cropping up in courts.

“Employers have to understand that if managers and supervisors are sending e-mails after work hours and expecting employees to read and respond to these messages, then there is potential for wage and hour disputes under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA),” Yarbrough told SHRM Online. “If the responses require just a simple yes or no, then it might not amount to much time, but if employees are thinking about responses and taking 15 minutes or 20 minutes to respond, then employers need to think about ways to track and compensate that work time.”

In some cases, employers have begun to rethink which employees receive and can use employer-provided equipment like cell phones and laptops. However, Yarbrough said this too could create some employee relations challenges. “Once you give employees access to the equipment, then it becomes tough to take it away as a practical matter, because that tends to create resentment,” he said.

Yarbrough encouraged employers to re-examine their Internet, e-mail and electronic device usage policies as 2011 progresses and access to the Internet continues to improve through widespread wireless connections and devices such as iPads, netbooks and book readers (such as the Kindle and Nook).

“Not only do these devices represent a great tool for accessing information for work, but they can also be a huge time waster, as employees troll the Internet, shop online, participate in social networks and play electronic games,” Yarbrough said. “I believe that crafting an effective technology usage policy that offers employers security while not being too restrictive on employees is one of the biggest employee relations challenges businesses now face.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

Related Articles:

New Year, New Policy Challenges, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, Jan. 11, 2011

Report: Social Media Can Disorient Employees, HR News, Nov. 15, 2010

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