Bad employee relations cited as main cause of grievances between staff and managers

The number of HR chiefs who have blamed poor relations between line managers and staff as the main reason grievances were lodged last year has shot up dramatically, a survey published today reveals.

Nearly four in 10 (39%) HR professionals blamed the downfall in relationships between managers and workers as being the main reason grievances were lodged last year, a survey by law firm Speechly Bircham and King’s College London found. This compares to just 1% in 2008.

Those who reported bullying and harassment as the main cause of grievance also more than doubled during the recession – from 15% to 31%, the State of HR survey of 5,000 senior HR professionals, seen by Personnel Today, found.

Overall, 29% of functions reported an increase in grievances in 2009.

Stuart Woollard, managing director of King’s College London HR Management Learning Board and co-author of the survey, told Personnel Today the rise in grievances could be attributed to stressful working environments during the recession. The survey showed an 8% increase (to 38%) in HR staff who reported rising levels of stress among staff. He said: “There’s a very strong picture that a lot of employers have large aspects of their workforce who are discontented and not satisfied.

“Management have had to be tougher, conditions are more stressful, and there are higher levels of uncertainty, so there has been deterioration between senior and line managers and the people being asked to make sacrifices.”

Woollard added HR was already focused on limiting these grievances through improved staff engagement.

The survey showed 79% of those trying to improve engagement were working to develop better staff relationships with line managers, while 91% were trying to create more effective leadership and management.

He said: “If you could re-motivate and energise the workforce, then it’s likely grievances will come down.”

Meanwhile, the survey also revealed HR chiefs were confused about workforce planning over the next two years. Some 85% were uncertain about the number of staff their organisations would need, while nearly three-quarters (72%) were unclear about the skills that were required.

HR experts blamed the confusion on continued anxiety about the nature of the economic recovery and the insecurity of not knowing how many employees would abandon their firms when the jobs market picked up.

Karen Horne, chief operating officer for the human capital department at professional services firm Ernst and Young, said HR staff were “hedging their bets and waiting” to see what happened with the economy before pursuing set workforce strategies.

She said: “There is uncertainty over the direction of business and HR can’t be certain the people they have got will stay [at the company].”

Horne predicted employers could experience turnover rates of up to 30% as the economy starts to recover.

“A lot of HR professionals recognise the problem but are not in a position to formulate firm strategies,” she added. “HR could develop strategies only to find the needs of the business have shifted.”

But Nick Holley, director of the HR centre of excellence at Henley Business School, warned “not enough [HR] people were focusing on workforce planning” in preparation for the upturn.

What HR professionals said about their function

  • 44% expect some increase in workforce in 2010
  • 32% expect relations with managers to be main cause of grievances in 2010
  • 22% still have a shortage of key staff
  • 68% see employee engagement as major challenge for 2010
  • 54% reduced their workforce in 2009

Source: Speechly Bircham/King’s College London

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