An impressive group of employee relations leaders at the Ritz Carlton this April at the HR Acuity Employee Relations Roundtable.
Twice a year, HR Acuity hosts an executive roundtable for senior employee relations leaders. This year marks the fifth time we’ve held the meeting, and it’s expanded from an informal group to a full-fledged thought leadership conference. I had the privilege to attend our East Coast meeting earlier this month, and being new to the field, wanted to share some of my observations. We will be sharing some key trends from the roundtables in June. These are my personal musings.
First of all, privilege is the right word. I was honored to be there. From leading banks to household fast-food names to pioneering manufacturing companies, there wasn’t an organization in attendance I hadn’t heard of — and each attendee was impressive. We kicked off the day with a “get to know you” exercise of “tell us a word that describes you,” and I listened to the words that people used to describe themselves. Resilient. Resourceful. Positive. A knucklehead (there is always one who makes you laugh!) You could feel the energy in the room as strong, confident leaders opened up. It was a special feeling as kindred spirits connected.
I sat back and listened as the conversation took fire. Here are a few thoughts I had.
Employee Relations is a Sensitive, Important and Emerging Role
An immediate observation I had is that it’s not easy being an ER professional. From handling sensitive investigations and confidential topics regularly, even dealing with major crises, the role struck me immediately as important, emerging and even, potentially, at times, solitary. Yet the professionals there embraced it as a mission, a quest to help employees and build culture.
They also seemed proud to be part of an emerging and cutting-edge discipline. Even the designation “employee relations” seems emerging. Some call it employee relations, some call it talent relations, in some it’s HR, in some it’s now employee experience. Definitions vary, too, though the essence seemed clear: It’s a safe, engaging place where employees can raise issues and resolve matters. A center of excellence. A partner.
ER Branding is a Real Thing — and Data Helps
We marketing people think a lot about building brands — and guess what, employee relations people do too! There was a lot of discussion around raising the profile of ER within the organization. One attendee, recently named Chief Employee Relations Officer, discussed how he had built a team from the ground up, but it didn’t just happen — he justified the purpose of the team by building reports showing the team’s effectiveness. Data and analytics, too, were key themes overall.
#MeToo is #StillAround and #HeretoStay
One session, on the future of work, featured a discussion on #MeToo as one of multiple topics. It ended up being the only topic discussed. From how to handle reporting to sharing best practices on how to train to debates on how much information to share, it’s clear that the topic is here to stay. In some ways, it’s given visibility to the ER function — most are busier than ever, with more reports coming in, more demands for training and above all, advice on creating cultures of “speak up.”
Risk is the Word
If there’s one word I’d pick to sum up the sessions, it’s “risk” (or “caring” or “collaboration,” but I only gave myself one.) Across all discussions, I heard an underlying theme of helping employees manage the risk of speaking up; helping companies manage reputational risk; preparing organizations for the risk of contingencies and crises. One participant put it concisely: “Employee relations is about preventing, perceiving and mitigating risk.” It’s easier said than done when you’re talking people instead of numbers, and that brings me back to point number one — ER is a sensitive and diplomatic role, requiring the conceptual skills of an analyst, the people prowess of a counselor and the quick reflexes of a negotiator. It’s not a role for everyone — and I feel honored to have seen such a top-shelf team in action.
Finally: ER Leaders are People Too!
Of course they are… aren’t they?! Just kidding, of course… but one of the best parts of the session was the chance to make connections with new professionals and I heard attendees saying the same thing. Aside from sharing professional notes, it was terrific to learn about people personally too, from how someone met their wife in high school to watching our CEO huff and puff as she lifted boxes (I guess I could have been helping instead of watching.) In all seriousness, the laughter at times was as much as the serious moments and that’s the amazing thing about connecting with great people.
Thank you again, HR Acuity, for the opportunity to attend, and Roundtable attendees for giving me a window into the world of Employee Relations.
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