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How the Employee Relations Job Function is Changing: Findings from the HR Acuity Benchmark Study

Jun 30, 2020
HR Acuity

Just what does the employee relations department do all day? This is the type of question that if you ask an ER person directly, it may result in a pointed glare or perhaps weeping as the employee relations expert sinks into a chair.

It’s been a rough few months.4th Annual Benchmark Study

But, what ER does (works on job performance, ADA requests, policy violations, social media issues, discrimination, bullying, etc.) is not as interesting as to how the employee relations job function has changed from 2018 to 2019. I took a look at the Fourth Annual HR Acuity Benchmark Report, which was conducted in February into March – before and as shutdowns occurred. The study highlights what else ER employees have to do in addition to managing new rules and regulations, conducting furloughs and layoffs and working to rehire people.

As I said, it’s been a bit rough.

The Employee Relations Job Function

I’m most excited to see that 46 percent of companies report that ER is spending more time dealing with job performance, while 43 percent say they are spending the same amount of time on it. This is excellent news.

Why? It doesn’t necessarily mean that people are performing poorly. It implies that ER has the time to focus on helping the business move forward and helping people perform better. This is more beneficial than focusing exclusively on putting out the fires of unprofessional conduct, sexual harassment and workplace bullying.

This is not to say ER doesn’t spend a tremendous amount of time on these issues. They do. Performance issues top the list with almost 61 employees per 1000 employees, compared with nearly 7 out of every thousand who were dealing with discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. While Performance Improvement Plans aren’t super fun, they help the company and the people. It’s a winning situation.

Data is the New Normal

ER professionals no longer handle ER cases, write up their conclusions and stick them in a file, never to be looked at again. An astounding 92 percent of ER teams are tracking ER and investigations data. That helps businesses see trends, spot problems before they turn into lawsuits and figure out hotspots. Useful data also allows more than one ER team member to handle a case–jumping in a pinch.

And that data is making its way out of the HR department and into places where managers can make real change. While the 59 percent of companies that report the ER data to the C suite remains unchanged, there’s a six percent increase with reports to the Compliance team and 5 percent increase to Management teams – with a full quarter of companies reporting to the managers.

This type of information can bring about real change. If managers only know what happens directly with their employees, they may not understand the real need to create real differences. Knowledge is power, and ER is making sure more managers get that data.

However, there are two concerns. First, there was a 7 percent drop–down to 76–in companies giving ER data to the HR department. How can HR work as a team if the business partners and recruiters don’t know what problems exist?

Second, 17 percent of companies that gather that data aren’t doing anything with it. It just sits there. Granted, that’s an improvement over 2018’s 27 percent, but that’s a number that should be zero. Data is only helpful if you use it.

Sharing Data with Employees

Do your employees know what is going on? The influence of #MeToo companies felt pressure to share information, but 71 percent of companies still don’t share anonymous, aggregated data with employees.

While you might expect larger companies to share the information more often, as it’s easier to be genuinely anonymous, the more employees there are, the opposite is true. Twenty-nine percent of companies with 1.000 to 3,499 employees share that information, while only 20 percent of companies with 10,000 or more share the information.

What is keeping you from sharing the information? Rumors are almost always worse than reality. Letting your employees know that there is a zero-tolerance for harassment and other problems can reduce problems over time. If you’re afraid to share information because you don’t like the direction the data is going, it’s time to make some changes.

Investigation Training

Conducting an ER investigation isn’t always easy. It’s not like television drama where there’s video evidence of everything, or someone confesses dramatically. It’s a lot of tedious interviewing, evaluation and making your best decision. Fifty-seven percent of companies are conducting investigation training at least once per year. And in 2019, only 6 percent say that they don’t do formal training, which is down from 20 percent in 2018. That’s excellent news.

Fifty-nine percent of companies also say that they have a structured process for conducting investigations. This type of structure can help guide ER staff and provide robust documentation for any decision making.

All in all, the state of employee relations seems to be positive and moving forward. If we survive 2020, we can expect policies, procedures and reports to improve. We’ll also expect to see a 100 percent increase in the amount of time writing new policies relating to social distancing, but hopefully, that will be short-lived.

Lastly, if you haven’t seen my unboxing of this year’s report, it was a fun activity for my entire family:



To check out the study for yourself, visit

HR Acuity