Even as employee relations data increasingly drives business decisions, organisations' commitments to employee relations processes are losing steam and employee relations teams are understaffed, according to the 2021 edition of the HR Acuity Employee Relations Benchmark Study.
The study, released earlier this month, analysed data from more than 125 organisations representing approximately 4.5 million employees globally and 2.3 million in the US. Its findings show that top management increasingly values employee relations data: 67 percent of employee relations teams now share their tracking data directly with the senior leadership, up from 59 percent in 2019. At the same time, more employee relations teams are now handling policy oversight, development, and benchmarking, although the study also suggests that this might be due to a large number of new policies related to COVID-19.
However, employee relations teams are facing greater workloads, particularly due to COVID-19 and even before that, increased political and social activism and—in the context of the US—movements such as Black Lives Matter. The study found that employee relations cases related to accommodation requests have increased the most, by over 30 percent, The next largest increases were in cases related to social media issues and discrimination complaints, both of which went up by 13 percent.
Making matters worse, the teams are understaffed. In 2020, 38 percent of organisations expected to increase their employee relations head count and 56 percent expected it to remain the same. But possibly because of the pandemic's impact, employee relations teams shrank significantly. According to the findings, the ratio of employee relations professionals to employees was 0.88 for every 1,000 employees in 2019, but last year, it dropped to 0.62. As a result, the average time taken for an employee relations team to close a case has shot up from 5 days to 2-4 weeks.
This has had a further knock-on effect on the way cases are handled. The findings show that the quality of investigation processes has dropped, with only 44 percent of organisations now using a formal structured process to handle cases as compared to 59 percent in 2019. Furthermore, organisations have cut back on the training provided to investigators—29 percent now provide training at least annually, down from 57 percent in 2019. And there is much less transparency around how cases are handled, with only 16 percent of organisations sharing investigation or other data with employees—down from 29 percent in 2019.
What does this mean for organisations and employee relations professionals? According to Deborah Muller, CEO of HR Acuity, the apparent backslide may simply be a blip in the data caused by the disruption in 2020.
“The drop in the use of required investigation processes, the decrease in transparency and the reduction in employee relations headcounts is disappointing. Each is essential to drive accountability and show employees that their concerns will be taken seriously," Muller said. “I suspect that COVID-19 and the events of 2020 are the root causes, as employee relations leaders shifted focus to respond and adapt to remote work, employee health, safety and wellbeing. Employee relations leaders have worked tirelessly to make great strides in elevating the function. I hope that this year’s data is just an anomaly and that organisations will re-commit to the processes that are critical to create consistent, fair workplaces and deliver positive employee experiences.”