Employee Relations: The Last Bastion of Manual HR Processes?

Employee Relations: The Last Bastion of Manual HR Processes?

Today our guest is Deborah J. Muller, CEO and Founder at HR Acuity®: a leading provider of employee relations and workplace investigation solutions.

Deborah founded HR Acuity, LLC in March 2006, after she spent more than 20 years in key HR leadership positions at numerous Fortune 500 companies, including Citicorp, Honeywell, Marsh & McLennan and Dun & Bradstreet.

HR Acuity designed and developed HR Acuity On-Demand, an essential web-based application that minimizes an organization’s legal and financial risks.

HR Acuity On-Demand, winner of the 2009 Top Product of the Year award from Human Resource Executive® Magazine, enables consistent documentation of employee issues, a structured process for workplace investigation, and immediate search and reporting.

The recently released 2016 HR Acuity Employee Relations Benchmark Study analyzed employee relations practices related to organizational models, case management processes, metrics and issue types, volumes and trends. The entire study had 74 organizations participate representing over 870,000 employees with the goal to establish a foundation for the development of a unique set of best practice employee relations benchmarks.

The interview is hosted by Alexey Mitkin, Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, The HR Tech Weekly® Online Media Co.

  1. Hi Deborah, and first of all thank you very much for this interview with The HR Tech Weekly®. You started HR Acuity® operations ten year ago. What has changed during this time in the employee relations management landscape?

Over the last ten years we have seen a real shift in the intersection of HR and technology. Organizations are looking beyond the traditional HRIS data to get insights that can be used to understand, diagnose and even predict how employees – their human resources – will behave and perform. And the relationships between employees, employer, co-workers, and customers – must be part of that story. What can we learn from those interactions (the good, the bad and the ugly) to become smarter in hiring, developing, managing and motivating our employees to drive business success? As a result, we have seen our conversations with clients make a real shift from educating about the power of employee relations to strategic dialogues about capturing and deliberately using this information.

  1. Why did you decide to perform the Employee Relations Benchmark Study, and how long did it take to get the results?  

For the past eight years we have been conducting an annual survey take get a pulse on employee relations issues and practices. But over the last few years, our network has been asking for more. When it comes to employee relations issues, organizations want to know what is “normal?” How many harassment issues should we expect? What should we expect our caseloads to be like given our size or industry? How do similarly situated organizations model their employee relations resources? The data had not previously been available and we were in a position to capture it. That being said, we were very fortunate to form an incredible advisory board from organization such as ADP, TIAA, MetLife, LinkedIn to help develop our Study questions.

The result was an in-depth questionnaire that required participants to take the time to gather the data requested sometimes from multiple constituents within their organization. In the end, their willingness to do so with such granularity speaks volumes about their desire to get their hands on this valuable information.

  1. Did you have any assumptions before performing the Study, and how different were they from the outputs?

Since I live employee relations day in and day out, I had some hypothesis going in but clarity of what we heard was most surprising. First of all, we knew from our clients that organizations were making a switch to centralized employee relations teams – this is something the Study confirms. What surprised me was uniformity of rationale for this change. Organizations are looking to drive consistency of process, ensure neutrality how issues are handles and safeguard that those handling the situations have the right expertise.

Secondly we knew there was steady increase in the reliance of organization to track employee relations metrics. When we started surveying organizations in 2009, less than 15% used an employee relations management system and over 50% didn’t track at all. What was surprising to us with the Study was how far this has shifted in the last seven years — basically flipping around. Now over 45% of organizations use some form of an employee relations management solution or case management system while only 12% reported not tracking at all.

And finally, in one of our open ended questions we asked about how caseloads have changed recently. Almost everyone who commented used the exact same word to describe what they were seeing…”complexity.” Cases are just more complex than they were a few years ago. Not a big surprise given the growing number of regulations that need to be considered but very powerful reading through comments from strangers who all use the same terminology.

  1. What are the core statistics and findings of the Study? Could you just lift the veil for our readership please?

So to give you a peek at some of the results I’ll share three areas of information the Study explored:

Organizational change. Not only are organizations moving to centralized models but our data shows that that type of organizational model uses 25% fewer HR resources than those with Mixed and Decentralized Models.

Analytics. Most respondents described employee relations analytics as “early stage.” However those that are ahead of the curve are actively monitoring key metrics and provided insightful examples of how the information measured has been used to impact key business drivers – all which we included in in the Study results.

And finally case and staffing benchmarks. The Study provides some “normal” on numbers and types of cases that employers are dealing with. In most instances we were able to break those numbers down by size of organization and organization model so that as a reader you can consume what is most similar to your needs. For example, for every 1,000 employees, our Study found that organizations will receive approximately 4.44 allegations of discrimination or harassment.

  1. On one hand, there are plenty of HR Tech solutions for recruitment, employee engagement and other things often called disruptive. On the other hand, some employee relations statistics may surprise you. What about solutions for managing risks, preventing and resolving conflicts at workplace?

I love that you bring up this point. Employee relations seems to be the last bastion of manual HR processes. And when you speak to HR practitioners they totally get it. The reality is that most HR professionals already capture employee relations information on a daily basis but in spiral notebooks or at best on excel sheets. By “digitizing” this last piece of the puzzle organizations can create tremendous impact and ROI without disruption. Instead of spending millions of dollars to figure out something intangible like employee engagement, having an employee relations management solution can uncover why employees are disengaged, what are the trends that drive inappropriate behaviors or subpar performance, what can you do to reduce incidents and drive growth: very tangible and very straightforward.

  1. Your Benchmark Study covered the corporate world. Do you have any observations regarding SMB companies and recommendations for them to mitigate risks of employee relations?

At HR Acuity we always say that employee bad behavior doesn’t discriminate…whatever size or industry, you need to be ready to face issues or allegations that will pose risk for your organization. Process missteps can be costly and particularly detrimental to the health of a smaller organization. So our recommendation is to be prepared. Have a process. Know who will be involved and ensure they have the proper training to handle the incident in a compliant manner. HR Acuity has some great free resources and tools on our website that we encourage folks to download.

  1. The last but not least question I love to ask my guests is what are upcoming challenges for you?

For us it is about Managers… How can we leverage technology to provide managers the tools to do their jobs more effectively? Those tools will not only help drive consistency but can be used to validate that good management and leadership practices drive business results. Once that happens, the relationship between managers and HR will change to become less traditional and more strategic.


If you want to share this interview the reference to Deborah J. Muller and  The HR Tech Weekly® is obligatory.

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