Are you doing enough to leverage tech for employee relations?

It may not be surprising that during 2020, social and political conflict–along with ongoing challenges due to COVID-19–helped position the employee relations (ER) function as a vital factor in shaping positive employee experiences.

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Yet, without a strong focus on analytics, reaching those ER objectives will be an even tougher challenge, according to HR Acuity’s fifth annual Employee Relations Benchmark Study.

In fact, the study found that the number of ER teams responsible for analytics rose 13 percentage points over the last year, which HR Acuity CEO and founder Deborah J. Muller says demonstrates that leadership teams are growing increasingly reliant on data-driven employee relations insights to create better cultures and safer workplaces.

“The ripple effect of 2020 led to increases in accommodation requests, social media issues and discrimination claims along with a significant decrease in resources and diminished commitments to vital employee relations processes,” she says.

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She adds that analytics and technology have become central to ER processes, with about 90% of ER teams tracking a wide range of data, she says. While she calls it “exciting” to see some employers leveraging this previously untapped data as a critical dimension to their diversity, equity and inclusion metrics, more needs to be done.

“ER data is still underutilized and should become a strategic and required component of delivering on DE&I commitments in order to uncover bias, ensure fair HR processes and build a culture of transparency and trust with employees,” Muller says.

This year’s study was based on in-depth research from more than 125 organizations, representing approximately 4.5 million employees globally, including 2.3 million employees in the U.S.

Other key findings include:

  • Employee relations data increasingly drives business decisions and influences workplace culture: About 86% of employee relations teams are now responsible for handling ER analytics, which is a significant increase over last year. Plus, two-thirds of respondents are sharing data and analytics directly with senior leadership to identify trends and hot spots, and develop actionable initiatives to address areas of concern.
  • ER technology continues to gain traction: Three-fourths of organizations are now using technology solutions to manage employee relations issues, and nearly all organizations are tracking a wider range of employee relations data.
  • Employee relations cases were directly impacted by 2020 challenges: The vast majority of respondents attribute increases in ER issue volume to the pandemic (89%), social movements such as Black Lives Matter (77%) and the political landscape (73%). Employee relations cases in every issue category remained open longer, with common cases–such as leave management, time and attendance, wage and hour cases as well as policy violations–resolved between two and four weeks. Last year, nearly half of the organizations surveyed closed these cases in five days or fewer.
  • Signs of significant loss in momentum and commitment vital to employee relations processes: Use of a required, structured process for conducting investigations, which trended steadily upwards for the past five years, saw a sharp decline ,with only 44% now using a required process for investigations. Many organizations expected to increase ER head counts, and more than half predicted hiring to remain flat in 2020, but the results show an unexpected decrease in staffing. This cancels out the increase gained in 2019 and, unfortunately, returns resource levels to that of two years ago. Almost three-fourths of organizations expect employee relations resources to remain the same for the entirety of 2021.

Related: How technology will be pivotal in the new ‘future of work’

“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 says, adding that she suspects 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.

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected].