Employee relations is the one discipline within human resources that connects with every aspect of employment. While employee relations is considered just one specific discipline, experts in this area must be knowledgeable of all areas within human resources to be effective in handling workplace matters. Compensation and benefits, workplace safety, recruitment and selection, and performance management are other disciplines with the human resources field.
The basic purpose of an employee relations area within the human resources department is to maintain solid working relationships between the employer and employees. Strengthening the employer-employee relationship sounds like a tall order; however, seasoned employee relations professionals are comfortable with addressing issues in each of the human resources disciplines.
The terms employee relations and labor relations are sometimes used interchangeably; however, in large organizations that employ both union and non-union workers, there is one primary difference between the two. Employee relations specialists generally handle matters involving employees who are not members of a bargaining unit. Labor relations specialists are responsible for handling matters involving labor-management issues, such as union contract negotiations, grievances, arbitration, work stoppages and strikes. Employee relations specialists, on the other hand, manage employer responses to non-union employee complaints, performance management and employee recognition.
For many employee relations specialists, their primary role consists of identifying and resolving workplace issues concerning complaints of discriminatory employment practices, sexual and unlawful harassment, and employer representation during unemployment hearings. Workplace investigations require knowledge of employees' civil rights, employment laws and procedures for formal matters before fair employment agencies. These include the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state human rights commissions. Maintaining employee confidentiality is a responsibility of the employee relations specialist from the initial complaint filing to resolution. Complaints about discriminatory employment practices are serious matters within the realm of employee relations, therefore, human resources staff members in this area usually receive extensive training on employment laws and dispute resolution.
A fully staffed human resources department does well to have an employee relations specialist; however, the human resources manager should be well-versed in all of the field's disciplines. In this case, the HR manager is expected to assume responsibility for employee relations. Likewise, employee relations specialists who are extremely proficient in every HR discipline can reasonably anticipate promotion to a human resources manager role given their well-rounded knowledge and expertise in all HR disciplines.