Six Ways to Win at Employee Relations

Six Ways to Win at Employee Relations

Six Ways to Win at Employee Relations

Positive employee relations are no accident.

Companies invest massive amounts of time and cash in trying to measure and drive employee engagement. Before you decide to get on that bandwagon, consider what your company does actually to engage employees.

Do you have a plan for building stronger relationships with your people? Does that plan align with your vision of what working at your company ought to look like?

If you do, rock on. You’re doing it right.

If employee relations are something that you struggle with or something that you’ve not thought about much, you’re in luck.

Below are six tactics that will add value to the relationship that you and your managers have with the people that work for you. These are things that you can actually do in the real world.

Some you could do in a week. Others will take longer.

1. Write a Good Handbook

The employee handbook may well be a tired holdover from the old days, and its reputation as a cumbersome administrative burden that no one reads is well-earned.

Regardless, your need for an employee handbook is undeniable. Policies and guidelines are a fact of life in business. You need them in place to protect yourself.

Your people will thank you for it.

People expect some form of structure for conduct and behavior in a business setting. No one wants to work in the wild west and, if they do, should they be working for you?

Your policy framework is the root of your culture. Workplace culture is a product of how you operate and the norms that you set. A culture that instills purpose among your team and creates the necessary guardrails for conduct will go a long way in helping your business to thrive.

Or, you could just let it happen and hope for the best.

Break it Up  Handbooks often contain a smorgasbord of information about employment regulations, company policies, company benefits, and employment-related topics such as training, development, paid time off plans, and company benefits. No wonder handbooks are reviled.

An easy way to fix this is to break the handbook up into three separate publications:

Publication No. 1: Business Rules and ConductCompile your policy and conduct information in this publication. Think code of conduct and policies for confidentiality, proprietary information, and workplace conduct. Aim for 20 pages in total. Let this heavy-duty, business-critical content stand alone.

Publication No. 2: BenefitsAggregate all of the information about your benefits plans here. Include the specifics about your medical, dental, and vision plans, and any other company-paid or sponsored benefits. Go further and include tips and guidance on how to take advantage of the benefits that you offer.

Publication No. 3: The Workplace ExperienceThis publication is a guide to what it’s like to work at your company and should be approached differently. It should be written, designed, and presented as a marketing asset explicitly targeted at your team. Aggregate

Why separate one handbook into three distinct publications?

Each publication serves a different purpose and, as such, ought to be presented with a tone that matches that purpose.

2. Teach the Handbook

A Guidespark survey revealed that 43% of Millennials haven’t read most of their employee handbook, and 30% of the non-Millennial respondents haven’t read it either.

There are consequences of employees not being familiar with their handbooks.

There will be little awareness and even less regard for policies and guidelines that are important to your business.

Consider the possible consequences of what happens when:

  • One of your top sales executives doesn’t know who to go to when they have experienced workplace harassment
  • One of your most talented engineers develops a technology application as part of their employment with you, leaves your company, and uses the code that you own to create an asset for a competitor
  • A new account manager downloads her client contact list and shares it with her friend who is setting up a business in the same domain as yours.

These are not uncommon scenarios. Employees do things all the time that they know is against policy but think that they are no big deal. Employees also make mistakes because they didn’t realize that it wasn’t allowed.

You’ll rest easier and cultivate a transparent and comfortable environment if you teach your employees the handbook.

You don’t need to be a training and development guru to build a deck that you can use during these classroom sessions. Talk about the guidelines, explain why they’re essential, and add some questions to check for understanding.

These sessions shouldn’t take more than an hour.

Require new team members to attend the class within two weeks of joining your company. Run the course no matter what – even if it’s only for one employee.

Require every employee to attend a refresh session once a year.


Things change. People forget. You reprioritize.

What you prioritize, your employees prioritize.

You bring everyone together for free food and beer. Do the same to get (and keep) them on the same page about the policies and guidelines that make your business a safe and comfortable place to work.

3. Be Consistent

In startups, it’s common to put a lot of decision making in the hands of less-experienced managers for the sake of decentralization.

That’s completely fine. If, and only if, you clearly draw the swim lanes on what decisions managers can make about stepping outside of policy, and how outside the norm they can go.

If you don’t, you risk an ample amount of blowback due to inconsistency.

An Example  I’ve seen (and even encouraged) managers to use the additional time off as a reward. It seemed like a good idea at the time but it never really worked well. The manager didn’t really want to give the time off and lose the productivity. If they did give the time off, the employee naturally told their friends and coworkers. Resentment ensued.

If you allow managers to make localized decisions about policy enforcement, or to make up their own policies, employee relations issues will follow.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t allow for some latitude, but consider the unintended consequences of allowing a deviation. Draw the lines and make sure your team knows to stay in them. Map out a few policies from which your managers can deviate that are not business-critical and can’t be easily screwed up.

You also have to aim for consistency in the inconsistency. If one department gets an outing each quarter, then every team does. If another team gets to leave an hour early the last Friday of the month, every team should. You’re bound to have a manager who is very black and white about work who will never make an exception to the rule. That manager will need to be coached to play along.

4. Get To Know People

You put a lot of effort and money into socializing your employees. Creating conditions where people can get to know one another and enjoy each other’s company will bleed over into how they work together and, in most cases, this sort of social contract works well.

Beware. You’re not running a fraternity or a members-only club. If you run your office like it’s a trendy coffee shop where people happen to do work, then that’s precisely what your office will be.

Casual work friendships, though, are not what I’m talking about.

How many times have you heard that people “don’t quit jobs, they quit managers”?

It turns out that may not be entirely true.

I’ve quit jobs before because I had an unbearable boss. It’s happened twice. When you leave a job because your boss is an ass, then that’s clearly quitting your manager.

An employee quitting her job, though, is different. When someone quits a job, it’s because their strengths aren’t utilized, their developmental needs go unaddressed, and their professional interests are ignored.

There is no joy.

It’s not the friendships, the happy hours, the birthday cakes, and the bottomless supply of LaCroix that keeps people at your company. Though, if you do stock LaCroix in the office kitchen, make sure you have the plenty of pamplemousse.

Employees, especially the most talented and driven ones, care more about how they are performing, if they are learning, and if they believe that their career will grow.

It’s your responsibility as a startup leader to set expectations around what is to be done (expectations) and how it is to be done (training) for your managers so that your best talent sticks around and values working for you.

A manager knowing their employee’s favorite wine choice, or whether they play HQ every night (and afternoon, too) doesn’t KNOW the employee.

Knowing an employee is knowing what they are good at and what they are bad at. It’s knowing what it is about their job that turns their crank, and what drags them down. It’s observing the valuable contributions that they make to the business and acknowledging them. It’s learning about their career plans (or helping them to figure out what those are) and working through a logical program to make those plans a reality.

If relationships between managers and employees are viewed primarily through a social lens where friendly relations and fun are the priority, you’re doing it wrong.

Those relationships need to be viewed through a business lens, too.

5. Survey

Very early in my career, I worked for a company that administered an employee opinion survey every two to three years. The company was a large retailer with dozens of stores across the United States with thousands of employees. The survey was run by location. Employees completed paper surveys (retail employees don’t often have their own private computers) and then dropped them in a shipping box. The last employee to complete the survey sealed the container and then took it to HR to arrange for it to be picked up by the shipping company.

I learned quickly that the employee team believed that the surveys were tampered with between the time that they gave the box to HR and when it left the building. Their fears were unwarranted, though, because the survey results were scathingly bad.

It was brutal for everyone involved.

A lot of surveys are general in nature and focus on high-level aspects of an organization. That’s a problem. They don’t take into account the employee value proposition that a specific company has tried to deliver.

You don’t want to go through the tumultuous “big survey” experience if you’re not going to get a useful return.

No company, large or small, can be good at everything all the time. Yet that’s how surveys are framed. You get a lot of data about what you’re doing well and where you’re struggling. Naturally, you dedicate a lot of energy to fixing the hard parts. It’s logical.

It’s also time-consuming, expensive, and doesn’t really do much to help.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t survey, though.

Instead, administer a few surveys a year that are topic-specific and write the surveys yourself. Aim to dive deep into specific areas that matter to your employees and support your business, too.

Topics to consider surveying include:

Coaching and Feedback (Is it happening? Does it help you do better in your job? Is it a scary process? How can we help your manager to do it better?)

Job Satisfaction (Do you get to do something you love every day? Does the work that you do everyday match what you expected? Do you believe that your experience working here is preparing you for career growth? Are we doing a good job helping you to identify and develop your skills and capabilities?)

Benefits and Perks (Which benefits have you utilized in the past 12 months? How do your benefits compare to your friends? Are you able to use your vacation time? Are you able to unplug during your time off?)

Teamwork and Collaboration (Does your team work well together? How well are you able to work with other departments? Do you believe that there is a shared responsibility to satisfy customers at the company?)

Communication (Do you know what the company priorities are for this year? What communication methods work best for you? What have we not communicated about to you in the last six months that we should have or should have done better? How valuable to you are team meetings? How can your manager better keep you informed on what matters to you?)

Organizational Commitment (How committed are you to the company and our customers? Are you excited about the company’s direction? Do you see yourself working here one year from now? When was the last time you looked for another job?)

Surveying this way will enable you to get feedback on how you are executing on your company’s specific priorities instead of viewing your organization through a survey designed to be a catch-all. You’ll also discover that you can actually make progress in a single area, which better positions you to move on to the text challenge.

Don’t weigh yourself down by trying to learn about and fix every problem at once.

6. Eliminate Surprises

I saved this one for last because it’s crucial.

Your team should never be surprised by business developments or decisions that affect them.


There’s a reason that managers should be documenting conversations with their employees about performance. For legal purposes, of course, but also to clearly show a record that the employee was actually spoken to and knows what’s up.

If you’re missing your revenue goals and your business plan is off-track, your employees should be made aware. The hesitation to share lousy news is understandable as it could nudge people to seek greener pastures. While it could, it doesn’t mean that it will.

If you’ve been doing a good job with the other five items, the likelihood that you’ll lose people – especially your best people – is far lower.

The key is to frame employee relations squarely with what you, as a business leader, want your employees to experience as a member of your team.

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