Almost half of HR professionals claim they are dealing with more employee relations issues than before Covid, study finds

Experts say rise is largely down to post-pandemic empowerment among workers

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Nearly half (47 per cent) of HR professionals claim they are dealing with more employee relations (ER) issues now than they were before the pandemic, research has found.

The survey of 200 HR professionals, conducted by recruitment agency Wade Macdonald, found that ER issues are “taking up more time than ever” with HR professionals citing struggles with managing remotely alongside mental health and performance issues. 

Katy Foster, senior HR consultant at Cream HR, said the rise could be generational, and predicted as the “proportion of generation Z in the workforce grows, the number of ER cases may rise too”. 

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She added employees had been in the “driving seat” during the ‘Great Resignation’, but pointed out this will change during the cost of living crisis.

“With interest rates and cost of living on the rise and businesses beginning to struggle, it is perfectly possible that this may change again, and employees may begin to feel a bit more cautious once more.”

On the contrary, Sally Bendtson, founder of Limelight HR, said she hadn’t seen a “perceptible change in time spent on ER issues”. She noted that the organisations she works with face the issues “head-on, with honesty and transparency” so have avoided “expectations escalating into grudges and grievances”. 

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Meanwhile, the Wade Macdonald data found the biggest reason behind the rise in ER issues was an increase in grievances, as respondents cited several areas for complaints, including wellbeing (39 per cent), management since working from home/hybrid arrangements (36 per cent) and EDI issues (19 per cent).

Dan Phipps, HR solutions director at AdviserPlus, said an increased awareness of wellbeing and mental health, alongside the need for better work-life balance had “empowered employees”. 

“Better EDI awareness and legal protection is enabling minority groups to gain confidence to speak out against inequality, which in turn gives employees more confidence to raise grievances when they are not treated with respect and equality in the workplace,” he added.

Additionally, the study revealed that almost half (46 per cent) of HR departments have not introduced EDI-focused policies reflecting a diverse workforce, outside of policies for invisible disabilities, over the past three years.

Angharad Harris, employment partner at Keystone Law, said the rise in grievances has been accentuated by a speak-up culture reflected in company policies.

“Employees are now much better informed of their statutory rights,” said Harris. “We also see corporate policies encouraging employees to speak up where workplace conduct is not in line with their corporate values. Employees may feel empowered when they see high-profile cases of bullying and misconduct finding their way into the public domain.”

The data also found that three quarters (77 per cent) of respondents felt a shift in employee expectations had driven most change within HR, while a third (32 per cent) felt employee engagement had been negatively impacted due to remote working.

Phipps added that remote and hybrid working “made employee engagement more complex than ever”, due to a “lack of connection and risk of proximity bias".  While an increased awareness towards mental health and EDI is ultimately a good thing, it has also caused an upturn in workplace complaints.

He suggested using an insight-driven approach, by leveraging data to “better understand the underlying causes of employee relations issues and taking proactive measures to prevent them from occurring”.