Ten key skills you need as an ER manager

Employee relations is higher up on the agenda than ever as the world of work evolves. It’s a role that’s both challenging but fulfilling, so what skills might you need to succeed? Peter Byrne lists 10 qualities of a successful ER manager. 

The role of employee relations (ER) manager is a tough one – full of challenges but also rewards. A good ER manager will be brimming with ideas and have enough sway to push for significant organisational change. Here are 10 ways to get ahead in ER.

  1. Observation

It may sound like an obvious one, but it’s important to understand where the strengths of individual colleagues lie. Assessing the existing team – as well as their broader ER capabilities – is an ideal place to start.

Beyond that, ER managers should establish whether the departmental structure marries up with that of the wider HR and business hierarchy, and if there may be gains to be made by aligning field-based HR specialists and their organisational line management customers, with central ER experts to create one joined-up team and overall service proposition.

  1. Understanding

Taking the time to appreciate the nuances of your organisation is an absolute must. By understanding what makes the place tick, the ER chief is in the best possible position to action any changes when the time comes.

It’s also worth seeking clarity around the weight senior management places on the ER function. Is it a low priority operational activity, or an integral part of the HR strategy? Buy-in of key-decision-makers to drive an integrated ER strategy forwards is needed – so choose your battles wisely.

Such insight will prove crucial when it comes to future success and legacy. After all, there is no point recommending strategic advancements that cost money if the board does not buy in and sees ER as a low-level tactical and operational activity.

  1. Adaptability

Try as anyone might, there’s a distinct possibility that someone won’t be on the same page. While everyone might have bought into a company-wide strategy or vision, how the CEO and other functions deliver it could be subjective.

It can help here to find out what drives your CEO. Is it different from what the finance director, or head of communication, is passionate about? If one is spurred on by bottom line profit and shareholder value, while the other looks to measures such as market share, sales turnover, retention, recruitment, and employee engagement, ER needs to take a tailored approach with each.

Thorough understanding of an individual’s own drivers and priorities allows for alterations to the way findings are presented, as well as actions and changes to each identified target – in order to keep them on side.

After all, if you cannot clearly see, deliver and communicate the key benefits to each business function in what you and your ER team are doing, how can you expect each business unit head and their staff to understand your goals?

  1. Strategic thinking

Once the company goals and objectives have been uncovered – as well as individual motivators – a manager is in an ideal position to identify where ER can have the most positive impact on such targets.

Use a systemised approach to flag where there may be specific ER training and development needs within the line management – and HR – teams, as well as better assess caseloads and resourcing requirements.

Also, review the skills and capabilities needed to provide a modern, forward-thinking ER service, and consider where your current team sits against these newly informed benchmarks. Such an approach will ultimately drive down legal and settlement costs – significantly enhancing bottom line profit.

It can also be a great way to review existing systems and processes – creating a real focus on driving ER operational efficiencies further down the line and boosting ER case-handling productivity within the team.

  1. Data analysis

Linked to the above, establish and monitor important ER metrics to the company’s advantage. By delving into previous measures of success – and trying to identify data trends – this can provide crucial insight when it comes formulating an effective plan.

An ER manager isn’t there to act as the day-to-day specialist, fighting fires and having to react quickly to developing ER situations. They need to be calm and analytical, and take a step back to see things in a more strategic, business unit manner – embracing a methodical approach to problem-solving vs. one of constant and recurring ‘panic stations’.

Linked to data, there’s the element of budget-management too. The ability to influence the business agenda, and in turn secure the right resources for the projects that will drive real change – as well as overseeing successful project-management delivery – is key. Analysing data relating to in-house and external ER costs will often highlight strategic areas of focus.

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  1. Integrity

Perhaps one of the most fundamental qualities of an ER manager, integrity can be the difference between success and failure. As the go-to representative for the business, the team must have the confidence that any issue – or idea – they raise, is going to be treated professionally, and without bias.

A strong reputation and equally solid in-house structure when implementing strategic changes can help, because people will decide whether to engage based solely on previous service experience and capability – alongside the effort made to foster trust between colleagues, working as one ‘joined-up’ team.

It’s crucial that there’s work done towards driving a culture and mission which encompasses ER as a genuine business advisory function and a department which adds real value, thus making it respected by all.

This will help to shake the outdated notion of ER being a barrier to change, or simply a low-level, operational unit, which administers – rather than advises on – key employee-related issues.

  1. Empathy

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another is vital in so many areas of employee relations – from negotiating contract disputes, to handling matters of extreme sensitivity.

It isn’t just limited to conflict resolution though. This versatile, multidimensional skill can be applied to nearly every business challenge. Empathy also helps to build positive working relationships, sustain workplace wellbeing, foster diversity and encourage collaboration.

  1. Communication

In order to be successful, ER managers must create a channel for ongoing dialogue between employees and line managers.

One of the easiest ways to help interpersonal relationships flourish is by enhancing internal communication. Something as simple as making sure everyone in the building knows the name of their individual ER manager – and where they sit – can be a real boost when it comes to creating  a more engaged team involved in one overall process.

A present and engaged ER manager in meetings breeds trust too. If a positive contribution to the agenda is made, changes may be smoother to implement further down the line.

  1. Approachability

By integrating with the workforce, as well as the directors and line managers, the ER team will be in the enviable position of having true insight into what improvements the business craves – and what it lacks.

Developing a clear picture of any apparent stumbling blocks means that, when it comes to delivering on the wider business strategy, they’ll be equipped to compile a plan of action – as well as identify who is best-placed to assist.

  1. Leadership

Any good ER manager will be an intuitive and experienced leader. Businesses crave someone who people will follow, motivate the team – and others – within the organisation.

Remember, this role is a key enabler and advisor in any employee engagement strategy, so it’s important the team looks to them for such direction.

The ER manager plays a vital role in developing – and sustaining – a company’s long term-future success, but as this list shows, there’s so much more to the perfect candidate than awareness of policy and procedures and the employment legal landscape.

Peter Byrne

About Peter Byrne

Peter Byrne is founder of ESPHR

One Response to Ten key skills you need as an ER manager

  1. Avatar
    Richard Clements 12 Jun 2019 at 10:33 am #

    This is a superb article – however I think that there is one additional, highly important skill that could be added to this piece – honesty. Honesty with your staff creates trust between the both parties, which bolsters relationships and in turn increases productivity and the all important ‘Discretionary effort’.
    As a professional interview coach I often find that questions around staff management (including ER management) are those that clients find most challenging.

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