Why employee relations are hotter than you think

by 17 Jan 2012

Managing poor performance crops up as one of those well-worn HR topics that is bandied around the minute someone starts a sentence with “I have a problem with one of my staff …”

Easier said than done, dealing with poor performance and managing expectations and behaviours in the workplace can quite easily turn a teeny tiny output problem into a major industrial relations nightmare. Lawyers and employee advocates across the nation are responding in droves to the outcome of poorly managed employee relations matters, and profiting handsomely.

Under the Fair Work Act, the way in which we deal with addressing poor performance or poor conduct has changed and it has left many HR people unprepared and working with managers who are none the wiser.

Just telling them to get on with it

A fair and thorough employee relations process is the driver in keeping the settlement-savvy applicants off the Fair Work Australia gravy train.  Managers need to sit up and take notice that the good old days of “just telling them to get on with it” have well and truly gone.  Proper investigation and reporting of employee incidents involving poor conduct takes time – time that no one wants to spare.  Using a well coached manager, HR member or independent third party, you need to put in the hard yards to determine exactly what took place, and when, where and why it happened (ie other factors FWA may consider relevant).  So often, managers try to determine the outcome of an incident prior to any investigation taking place, and for that reason they rush into making a non-evidence based decision.  If it was you in the firing line, you wouldn’t want the firing squad to be just getting it over and done with so they could focus on more important issues of the day, would you?

Where there is smoke…

Working closely with people brings conflicting ideals and values on a daily basis.  It’s how we interpret these conflicts and communicate with each other that is the key.  Even if your issue is just a small spark on a well-manicured lawn, using e-mail to resolve the dispute will most likely deliver you an out-of-control grass fire in no time.  Like a fire and a change in wind direction, poorly worded e-mails shoot through organisations and copy in everyone around them.  They are not confined to the workplace and can be rapidly transported onto public reading space in seconds.  Use e-mails to confirm appointments and confirm attendance at meetings, but avoid them where they could give rise to a contagion of meaningless opinions and baseless comments.

Proper employee relations management is not difficult, but it is time-consuming because it is a process to be followed as opposed to being skipped over to get to a speedy outcome.  We know dealing with employees fairly, openly and honestly works well.  We also know poorly handled people management results in people leaving or becoming bored and angry, which puts the brakes on people working hard (lack of engagement, retention, lost productivity and so on).

So now is the time to start training your people managers in what to do when they have a problem or an incident with one of their staff.  Get them trained by someone who can talk them through the Fair Work employer obligations and best practice process.  And do get someone with a decent fire safety plan!

About the author

Louise Bowers was formerly a full-time HR professional, with experience in retail, FMCG and insurance companies. She is curerntly undertaking contracting work and writing about the profession.


  • by Greg 16/01/2012 3:05:04 PM

    This is soooo true, where has the HR development gone, we need HR to stay ahead of the game and equip our people with the releavnt skills and then have some job/role stability so that they gain some experience to compliment.For HR to demonstrate value we need to be part of the problem solving and not with huffling of the problem from one desk to another, we need to be equipped to add value and then be seen to do that.

  • by Peter 25/01/2012 11:52:02 AM

    Unfortunately HR, in the company I work in, is talked about being important but that is where it stops. Despite the many times endeavours have been made to state the importance of what we do the only times it seems to matter is when there is an issue and the question comes "what do we do now"? Most of the HR work done here is patching up and smoothing over issues that should never have been issues in the first place. I guess that is no news headline to HR practitioners!

  • by Robin Pollock 1/02/2012 9:57:45 AM

    Agree with comments of Greg & Peter. But what about the more common problem of senior management wanting to too quickly 'get rid of the problem' before anyone has actually had opportunity to investigate what might not even be a 'problem'?! HR can coach and make headway with development of first line supervisors/managers etc, but it is the mid to senior managers who are often the problem. They don't get it, don't appear to be interested in getting it and override the initiatives of HR. There are many senior managers out there who are such dinosaurs, this is where the focus for change should be.

Most Read