I recently had the pleasure to speak with Andy Habenicht, from TIAA. We had a conversation prompted by his email signature. Beneath his name, I saw: "Chief Employee Relations Officer”!
My heart skipped a beat. Even though I live, eat, sleep, and many nights dream, about employee relations, I never thought about a title of this sort. But seeing it displayed on Andy’s signature line, it made total sense. It was refreshing to see how TIAA is elevating its ER function and highlighting the significant strategic position of the head of Employee Relations on their Senior HR Leadership Team.
Creating the Chief Employee Relations Officer Role
How did TIAA come up with the CERO title? (We can work on the acronym later.) The elevation played right into the standard conventions of the HR team at TIAA. The vast majority of TIAA’s senior HR Leadership Team have “C” titles: Business Units’ Chief Human Resources Officer; Chief Talent Officer; Chief Operating Officer; Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.
In promoting Andy to lead the employee relations function, TIAA’s Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), Sean Woodroffe, prudently decided the person in that role should directly report to him — and the Chief Employee Relations Officer title was bestowed.
This move represents the CHRO’s passion for, and understanding of, the incalculable value of Employee Relations. According to Andy, “Both Sean and I share the philosophy that an effective and healthy ER function is a critical dimension of the overall employee experience. That is how we should talk about it throughout TIAA – just like business partners talk about the ‘customer experience.’” Andy recognizes that when employees come to see him or his team members, they typically are not having a good day; it is his team's role to figure out why.
How Employee Relations Can Benefit from a CERO
In his new role (just 100 days in), Andy envisions ER as becoming more service-oriented and less reactionary. Over time, his group will be better resourced to implement manager and employee professional development, deliver more actionable data insights, and provide specialized coaching services to managers.
Is TIAA setting a trend by elevating the function of this new Chief Employee Relations Officer title? In today’s environment, I would think so. The last 18 months have been a defining time for employee relations. The #MeToo movement has required other C-Suite leaders to pause and consider what they are doing — or perhaps more aptly, what they are not doing — to promote a respectful, safe, and lawful workplace for all employees.
If change is going to happen, a shift in awareness, process, and accountability is required. Relying on a strategic employee relations executive team will be essential, and elevating those who lead this critical function will send a strong message to employees that their voices matter.
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, a technology solution that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world. Be proactive. Manage risk. Create a safer workplace.