Within the context of the workplace, the field known collectively as "employee relations" is used to describe any matter involving the relationship between management and unionized workers (such as collective bargaining).
This is a very narrow view of employee relations. The true meaning of employee relations is much larger than this limited focus.
The university of Pittsburgh defines employee relations as providing "direction and oversight for a variety of non-union staff employment matters, including leaves of absence, staff performance and disciplinary issues, staff employee grievances including formal complaints, investigation of harassment and other workplace misconduct allegations, all anticipated terminations, and unemployment compensation claims."
I have always found it fascinating that so many in management can be so notoriously bad at their role in this.
This has resulted in numerous cases where management, in the name of employee relations, unwittingly hands over much of their power and authority to their employees who take full advantage of this to run the show.
In other words, the tail wags the dog and it is rarely for the benefit of the company or its other stakeholders.
Here are the top 5 examples, based on our work with actual companies (although all names have been changed!), that management has allowed the tail to wag the dog.
#1: TREATING THE WORKPLACE LIKE A DEMOCRACY
I am all for managers taking into consideration the input, ideas, and feedback from employees to improve operations and workplace conditions. In fact, I believe it is critical for any manager who wants to engage their employees.
However, this can be taken to the extreme in a misguided effort to always make employees feel "included" or "valued."
When this occurs, we have encountered managers who put every decision out there for employees to provide input on or have a say in. The reality is that the workplace is not a democracy.
There is a management hierarchy for a reason and managers get paid the bigger bucks to make decisions that are in the best interest of the company and its stakeholders even if those decisions differ from what certain employees or groups of employees want to see.
#2: ALLOWING "MOB RULE"
Similar to #1, sometimes managers unwittingly allow the tail to wag the dog when they choose to go along with the will of their employees for no other reason than it seems to be what everyone wants.
Even when managers don't actively seek the input or feedback of their employees, their staff make their position known...loudly. Not wanting to be accused of ignoring the desires of their employees or being called a "bad leader", the manager gets swept up in the perspective or opinion of the "mob" and makes a decision that they wouldn't otherwise make.
The crazy thing is that often after a manager does this, they actually are proud of themselves for implementing the will of their employees by going along with what the "mob" wanted....
#3: EXCESSIVELY DEFERRING TO EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCE
When it comes to employee longevity, the longer an employee has been with a company the better that employee must be...right? At least, that is the basis for this third way that we see managers justify handing over their authority to their staff.
More common when a manager is new to an organization or a job, we are seeing an increase in the number of poor decisions being made by managers who made their decisions only after consulting with various long-term employees in their working group. The manager does this because they don't want to "rock the boat".
Unfortunately what tends to happen is that managers who do this accomplish little because the advice they are provided by long-term employees usually consists of statements like, "this is how it is done here" or "that's the way we have always done it".
Long-term employees tend to favour the status quo and will do what they can to prevent uncomfortable change (except where it is a direct benefit to them) preventing needed operational changes and improvements.
#4: DECISION-MAKING PARALYSIS BY ANALYSIS
No one likes to be wrong...especially when they have "manager" in their job title. I've been there myself and I know it isn't fun.
Yet, when a manager has a 2%er in their department the discomfort of being wrong gets amplified tenfold because the 2%er won't accept the error...instead using it as justification to complain about their job, the company, and the competency of their manager non-stop.
This has a habit of wearing managers down to the point where they begin to experience elevated levels of fear and anxiety whenever they must announce a decision they have made to their staff. As a result, managers experience paralysis by analysis as they critically review every potential scenario related to their decision in hopes of not making any mistakes.
Even when they think they know what decision to make the manager then goes through this analysis process again to determine how best to communicate it to staff.
If a manager can't figure out how to communicate it, one of two things happens: (a) they throw transparency out the window and hide the decision to avoid 2%er criticism; or (b) they don't make the actual decision until they figure out how to communicate without criticism.
Either way, the manager is allowing the 2%er to run the show.
#5: ALWAYS TENDING TO THE SQUEAKY WHEEL
While they undoubtedly exist, few managers we work with would say they didn't at all care about what their employees thought of them. In fact, many care far more than they admit to.
Herein lies the problem because this creates a tendency to react too quickly to employee concerns before actually determining the validity and extent of these concerns.
In their attempt to create a strong relationship with their employees where they are trusted and respected, they become far to reactionary in their management behaviour. Staff quickly learn that if they have any problem (no matter how inconsequential or ridiculous) they can get their manager to fix it.
This results in the manager being easily manipulated by their more unscrupulous employees while wasting their time fixing the smallest of employee issues that have no bearing on employee performance or productivity.
When managers jump to grease every squeaky wheel brought before them they quickly find their department moving in the opposite direction than the one they intended.
TRY THIS INSTEAD...
A good manager is one who works diligently to establish a strong working relationship with his or her employees.
However, a balance or equilibrium must be created whereby the manager is able to foster this relationship while still being able to make sound operational decisions that promote the fulfillment of their department's mandate and completion of its objectives.
Most importantly, however, is that under no circumstances can a manager forget that they, at the end of the day, are in charge. They are the boss.
This means that it is ultimately up to them to take responsibility and accountability for the success of their employees, their department, and the company.