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The new wave – rise of the Employee Relations Officer

By Jason Brannon, Assistant Director of Human Resources & Organisational Development Services at North West Boroughs Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
27 February 2020

We’ve worked with Jason Brannan, Assistant Director of Human Resources & Organisational Development Services at North West Boroughs Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to discuss the changing landscape of HR roles and specifically the rise of the employee relations officer.

Everyone has heard of Human Resources, it’s a job role we’re all familiar with. In the past, this role revolved around policy and process, rather than getting involved deeper into the business itself. Nowadays however, the HR function is no longer an administrative role, nor the proverbial ‘rich tea and sympathy’, or the perceived role of recruitment and releasing people.

The role is evolving rapidly and there is a call for more people and for more specialised HR roles. In fact, the latest Robert Walters UK Jobs Index has revealed that the number of HR vacancies has risen across the UK, with the number of jobs available in the second quarter of 2017 up nine per cent compared with the same time last year.

Previously, and not so long ago, HR could be described as a role simply dealing with the group of people who make up the workforce within a company. The HR function traditionally supported transactional business requirements to evaluate, hire, and train talent coming into the business, and facilitated the processes associated with each of these areas.

This is no longer the case. We have seen, over the last 20 years – even as recently as the last five years – some massive shifts in the HR function. HR has become a strategic business function, with senior professionals partnering with business leaders to help contribute to business decisions, advise on critical transactions and develop the value of the employees.

Into the fold

When I left university in 1996, I trained as a personnel officer and was used to admin work – the processes that come with working for a business. New graduates beginning their careers in the HR field today will find their job descriptions to be significantly different from someone like me who took on the same position years ago.

Companies now count on their HR teams to be the backbone that supports their business strategy. Businesses expect HR professionals to understand fully – financially and operationally – what the business does. The HR team is now included in strategic meetings as a must – simply put, giving them a seat at the table.

But, as the HR role has changed and matured, there is now the need for more specialised ‘employee relations managers’.

A strategic separation

This more specialised role sits under the banner of Human Resources and, specifically, looks at the transactional and tactical work required in managing a workforce. For HR to sit at the management table, you need to separate the function from the day-to-day case work.

In our own NHS trust, we split the HR team into three layers – strategic, organisational and transactional:

  • Strategic – organisation changes, consultation and the business future needs and growth
  • Organisational – employee relations and the management of cases, for example sickness, grievances, employment tribunals
  • Transactional – this is the admin side – for example, formal letters for pay increments

Across each layer, there is a full, engaged team working on each section of the business. It allows us to make sure we have a team which deals with each area individually, allowing for consistency. There is a true requirement for a split – without it, you run the risk of not being able to do anything really well. My role is an umbrella across those three different HR functions. Combined, it is an all-encompassing role.

Using the right tools

Technology has completely changed the way we do things, and in some ways is the driver behind the massive shift change. Before, there would have been a big paper file which included all employee relations cases. This would be manually updated and passed around – you can imagine the potential issues with this.

Now, data is available on a national basis – it flows through several organisations, such as NHS trusts like ours and is automated. The data is much more accurate due to lack of human error and it is integrated across systems. In terms of our casework, all cases are tracked within Allocate’s ER Tracker. This tool gives a better understanding and visibility into case across teams within the company.

For our ‘organisational’ layer, mentioned previously, we use ER Tracker to track about 70 disciplinaries, grievances, bullying and harassment and performance management per month. This means we are able to reduce admin – all the information is entered once and is saved within the system. That means we don’t need to hire someone to keep inputting all that data.

Alternatively, the person who would have been allocated the task of inputting the data is able to do something more valuable, which is managing the employee cases swiftly and effectively.

Constantly evolving roles

I believe the employee relations officer has naturally evolved, but I have definitely seen an increase in other companies following suit over the last five years or so. In fact, I think the role is still developing – you can’t be an effective partner unless you understand the employee relations side of things – you can be as strategic as you like, but this must be understood to be effective.

The role of HR is forever changing as the business world continues to evolve, and as companies discover new issues of importance. With the increased emphasis on employee engagement, companies are recognising that HR is on the move. The team you hire must be solid and willing to learn, but so must you.

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