A man and a woman sit in a meeting room talking.

Employee Relations For Managers

Managers can have a huge impact on employee relations. Although they may not be solely responsible for solving disputes, they may be able to neutralize small issues before they need to be escalated or help HR and employee relations specialists implement long-term solutions.

A wide and varied skillset is essential for any manager who oversees large groups of people. The more employees, vendors, and stakeholders, the more likely conflict becomes. No matter how small the issue, managers are usually the first resource for employees with complaints. 

Read on to find out how managers can help resolve complaints, decide whether they should be escalated, and improve both the employer brand and workplace atmosphere by offering a trusted ear and effective solutions to employees with complaints and disputes.

Who Manages Employee Relations?

No matter how cohesive and friendly a team is, problems and disputes are bound to arise. Generally speaking, a dedicated employee relations manager or HR representative will be in charge of handling complaints among employees.

But the day-to-day reality is that employees interact with their direct managers more frequently and so are more likely to turn to them when problems arise. Ideally, everyone will get along. But when they don’t, on-the-ground managers are the face of any organization and the most likely to hear about issues before anyone else. 

Even in remote work environments, employees will seek out the authoritative figure they’re most comfortable with. Whether it’s a complaint about gender discrimination or just a coworker’s bad attitude, employees are more likely to approach managers first.

What Should A Manager Do With Complaints?

A big issue with managers, especially when they’re just starting out in the role, is escalation. In the realm of employee relations, escalation means approaching higher-ups with the problem to see if they can resolve it. As with other workplace issues, the inability to address small problems before taking them to a higher level reflects poorly on management. 

Then again, attempting to handle problems outside their job description can also make managers look bad. Knowing which problems you can or should handle is vital for effective management. 

It’s a judgment call in the end. One of the worst things managers can do is try to solve a problem unilaterally when there are other resources available. Short of not addressing the problem at all, a shallow attempt can be a huge detriment to office culture and the workplace atmosphere overall. 

Managers should set up a complaint and dispute procedure with HR and other important decision-makers in advance. While you don’t have to get specific to the finest detail, step-by-step procedures are the best way to make sure everyone is on the same page. They can also help prevent total liability from stacking up on the manager alone.

Always approach employee relations as a team effort. Although managers are often the first resource and the face of the organization for employees, they’re far from the only ones responsible for conflict management. Regardless of whether or not the problem escalates past the manager, they should be able to clearly define expectations and record complaints when they arise.

A group of people sitting listening to a person talk in a meeting room.
Managers must balance a sympathetic ear with clear expectations.

Types of Complaints

Certain categories of complaints will be obviously more serious than others. But there’s also a chance that a problem can fester under the radar for a long time before they explode. Defining complaints and disagreements by type can help avoid this problem. 

  • Harassment Claims

Easily one of the most serious types of complaints, harassment claims are also commonly mishandled because of their sensitive nature. Coming forward with these types of complaints is difficult for employees particularly when the harassment seems too small to mention. 

Management has to have a strong and consistent response to each and every harassment claim. If you lay out one procedure for conflict resolution, harassment should be at the top of the list. 

  • Communication

Sometimes employees have simple disagreements about how they talk to one another and problem-solve amongst themselves. Occasionally these disputes are cases of personalities not meshing. Other times they’re more serious. 

In any case, managers need to have a strong sense of diplomacy in these situations. It can be hard to determine the original cause of disagreements that stem from communication breakdowns. It’s vital to hear both sides when no one is clearly in the wrong.

  • Underpayment & Employment Issues

Handling these types of claims incorrectly can lead to huge headaches or even legal problems. These are the cases most frequently in need of escalating, especially if the manager doesn’t have the authority to resolve the issue.

Pay discrepancies and other matters to do with business and work should be handled by HR and those officially responsible for handling those matters. For example, payroll issues should be addressed by people who can look into it and explain it with authority. Managers without that ability can do more harm than good trying to handle employment discrepancies. 

  • Management Complaints

An especially difficult situation is when employees are dissatisfied or have disagreements with management. If the conflict is with the same contact person who would normally receive complaints, the employee can feel trapped. Leaving the organization can seem like the only available option. 

It can be hard to put ego aside and receive complaints about your own actions or behavior. Even if the claims are unfounded, employees likely need an impartial third party to bring such complaints to, which is normally handled by HR departments. 

Managers in organizations without robust HR can appoint someone or balance responsibility with other decision-makers so that employees always have someone to turn to when they have issues with management. 

  • Theft & Performance Problems

People generally dislike reporting their coworkers for infractions like stealing or a bad job performance. On the other hand, such tactics can be avenues for petty acts of retaliation, bullying, or competition. 

In general, managers can do more with these types of complaints than they can with serious matters of employment, legality, or severe harassment. Employee performance is under the manager’s purview. 

Punishment for outright misbehavior like stealing and incentives for underperformance not only help the individual perform their role better but also bulk up the employer brand and give employees the sense that management takes an active role in getting the best performance out of its staff.

Taking Action In Employee Relations

Every situation calls for a different response. There are some things you should do for every situation, though. 

Perhaps the most important is to record the event in detail. Monitoring repeat behavior and taking corrective action can only be done if people can see that it has happened before. While taking a report for the record can help employees feel like someone is listening, though, doing nothing else about it will undermine the action.

Like many other workplace situations, employee relations need to have a high degree of transparency for employees to feel confident in them. This is challenging when the issue could provoke retaliation or deals with sensitive matters like it frequently does with harassment claims. But employees should be able to see that something is being done. 

What management should always try to avoid is creating a show out of conflict resolution or complaints. Gossip tends to arise when employees sense there is drama between people in their workplace but management should always discourage such developments.

Deciding what sort of action to take within plans that have been predefined with HR and higher management can be a challenge when problems and complaints are in nebulous areas. That’s why foresight is so valuable in employee relations.

Responsibility By Role

Assigning duties and responsibilities from the outset is a winning strategy for employee relations. It also helps employees understand who they should go to with problems either by type or by degree. A threat of violence or harassment might need to go straight to upper management or even lawful authorities, although their direct manager should be in the loop.

Not only that, but it empowers people in the organization to do something when problems arise. Nebulous hierarchies or feeble crisis management does the opposite. When people know in advance what they can do, they’re better prepared to do it. 

While it’s not guaranteed to be the case, a robust problem-solving mechanism can also discourage some types of unwanted behavior. Some complaints will arise because people are getting slack with their responsibilities but they’re likely to be more vigilant if there is a process in place to discourage such behavior. 

But positive reinforcement is more likely to be effective when employees are doing well. Rather than fearing retribution for underperforming, they’re encouraged to keep doing what they’re doing or even improve with rewards.

Empowering Employees

Some employee relations could be handled by employees themselves. Delegating won’t always be possible, but with the right mechanisms in place, employees might be able to solve small problems without relying on management at all.

Every manager knows that delegation can be tricky. According to one thesis, “ employee empowerment influences greater job satisfaction and commitment to organizations.” Here are a few strategies that are useful for working with employees to resolve conflicts and address complaints. 

  • Establish Expectations Together

Employees who are involved in their workplaces have a greater sense of ownership, thus enticing them to stay. The office culture is greatly improved when members have a meaningful impact that they can see. From role definition to the expectations of employees as both individuals and team members helps everyone see when they or others are out of line.

That doesn’t mean you have to let employees dictate, but you can walk through the process of managing and defining expectations as a team effort rather than delivering orders from on high. Problem-solving is more effective when people participate and they’re more likely to do so if you bring them into the process before there’s any problem.

  • Remove Stigma

Whether the complaint is of a sensitive nature or not, employees might feel too shy or ashamed to report issues to management. Many times this can be due to a stigma against snitching or getting a reputation as a complainer. 

Managers can remove this stigma at least partially by being active in highlighting potential problems in themselves and others in a public way when appropriate. For instance, a manager who sees people becoming lax and reporting to work late can address the problem early. It’s important to pair this strategy with our first recommendation and try to come to a solution everyone can abide by.

  • Try No-Fault (When Possible)

Sometimes an employee will clearly be at fault for harassment or bad behavior but other times situations can arise seemingly out of nowhere. In our above scenario where workers are reporting late, the employees may be largely to blame. But immediately scolding or threatening them is unlikely to have as positive an effect as approaching the problem as a faultless one in need of solving. 

People can be really creative when barriers are removed and they’re likely to view good managers who know how to inspire these kinds of solutions as a huge fringe benefit of their job. 

  • Create A Full Process

You don’t ever want to leave people with nowhere to turn. Make sure they know from their first day on the job exactly what they can do when problems happen and what your attitude towards this problem-solving is. 

We’ve all heard managers establishing an “open door” policy to receive recommendations or complaints. The problem with this idea is that it is a passive one on the side of management. Sometimes it’s not enough to simply leave the door open – you have to meet employees where they are. This active attention to their happiness makes all the difference in both workplace atmosphere, employer brand, and office culture. 

  • Measure Trends

We’ve already discussed how important it is to document complaints and reports of bad behavior. Although these can’t always be made public in the interest of employee privacy, they should be made available to interested staff when possible. 

People could become more interested in trends about job performance, particularly if you take the time to highlight how individuals and teams are having a positive impact. When employees understand these inner workings in detail, they can become part of the solution to problems when they arrive. For example, the staff could decide together that a particular team will be in charge of implementing a system to solve a common issue.

Relieving Worker Stress

Work can be hectic and even creatives who are highly driven and motivated can get stressed out. All of the things we’ve already gone over will help relieve many potential stressors and worries on the job. 

Managers who are viewed as a big stress relief are indispensable for the employees and teams who work with them. Remember that this is usually a responsibility that is unique to managers and overlooking it or underusing it will greatly harm the employer brand and employee relations overall. 

Get invested in the careers of your employees and you’re likely to find many possible solutions to a multitude of problems. They may not become a close-knit family, but employees can be more comfortable and less stressed out when managers have a properly formulated and active employee relations strategy. 

The Power of Strong Employee Relations

When misbehavior is addressed and corrected, employees will be more comfortable. You’ll be able to feel the difference in the workplace atmosphere and the office culture will improve greatly. This comfortable air frequently leads to increased dedication and more creative solutions in the long term. 

Strong employee relations make companies great. Too many organizations ignore the potential for problems until they arrive and then find themselves without options when it’s too late. Talented employees can be turned away and opportunities missed if this problem gets serious enough. Take the time to establish your preferred employee relations strategy as early as possible for the best results. 

A woman speaks at a conference table while others listen.
Documenting employee complaints is vital for handling them properly in the long term.


Proper employee relations management has positive effects on the employer brand, workplace atmosphere, and office culture. Best of all, when people know problems can be addressed and solved, there is less stress about their potential occurrence. 

Transparency and planning are key to creating a winning employee relations strategy. Get your employees involved and make sure they’re aware of the strategies in place so that the planned strategy is effective when you need it. 

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