Cultivate harmony

  • 4th July 2024

Navigator Law’s HR business partner Ruth Gladwell describes how to nurture a positive work environment


In the intricate tapestry of our working environments, the threads of employee relations weave a pattern fundamental to the fabric of your school’s success. There is a multifaceted nature to employee relations and its effect on the workplace, but there are strategies for ensuring that staff can enjoy their work.

Employee relations encompass the dynamic between employers and their staff group. It’s the discipline concerned with maintaining employer-employee relationships that contribute to satisfactory productivity, motivation and morale. Essentially, it’s about ensuring the staff group is happy and productive, and that the establishment’s goals are met with efficiency.

Historically, employee relations were synonymous with industrial relations, focusing on collective bargaining and union negotiations, familiar territory in a state school but not so familiar in the independent education sector. However, the evolution of work culture has shifted the focus to individual employee needs, aspirations, and the overall quality of the work-life experience, more especially since the overwhelming experience of the ‘Covid era’ in 2020.

We now understand employee relations as referring to the overall management and wellbeing of the staff group. Good employee relations provide the foundation for engagement and if cultivated will maintain and strengthen the employer-employee relationship.

The pillars of employee relations

Effective employee relations rest on several pillars:

Communication: Clear, transparent and two-way communication is the cornerstone of strong employee relations. Consider the leadership approach you adopt in your establishment; does it support this style of communication? Good employee relations create an environment where employees feel heard and respected and can lead to reductions in formal grievances and complaints.

Trust: This is built through consistent actions, fairness, and respect in every interaction with employees. For example, seek actively to role-model policies and the behaviours you expect your staff to demonstrate.

Engagement: Engaged staff are more productive and will often go above and beyond their job requirements. Consider how staff can be more empowered and have ownership of tasks within their remit.

Recognition: Regular acknowledgment of staffs’ efforts and achievements fosters a sense of value and belonging. Start the celebration of success early, for example, during the initial probation period and continue to maintain this approach through the employment lifecycle so that staff know what success looks like.

Development: Opportunities for professional growth and development are vital for staff satisfaction and retention. Seek out staff desires through regular one-to-ones; don’t wait once a year to check whether they are developing, otherwise they may look elsewhere to develop.

What policies, processes and practices should we consider and who would be responsible for drafting them?

A human resources practitioner in your school will add value to your support services team and play a critical role in shaping the policies and practices that govern employee relations. This individual should be tasked with:

  • Developing policies that align with the school’s culture and values, as well as the ACAS Codes of Practice and employment law.
  • Providing management guidelines that enable your staff, teachers and support staff, who have people management responsibilities, to manage staff issues.
  • Implementing programmes that promote a positive work culture. This should be a key team member in your equality, diversity and inclusion working group.
  • Mediating conflicts. Your HR practitioner should always look to support an approach of informal resolution at the earliest opportunity and not leave situations to inflame.

The role of the people manager in employee relations

People management is a new term describing the traditional responsibility of a line manager. Having a human resources practitioner in your school doesn’t remove the responsibility away from the people manager, but their guidance, facilitation and support will enable line managers to discharge their responsibilities successfully.

 Challenges in employee relations

Despite all best efforts, policy and guidance, challenges in employee relations can arise:

Conflict management: Conflicts are inevitable, but how they are managed can make a significant difference to the outcome. One noticeable factor currently changing the demographic landscape is an increase in multiple generations in our workplaces. Several reasons are leading to this including a delay in retirement, an overall skills shortage, and diversity initiatives. Along with the positives, including rich seams of knowledge and abilities, the differences between the various age groups surrounding communication styles, work preferences, and values among different age groups do bring notable increases in those ‘bump in the road’ misunderstandings, particularly surrounding technology usage, work-life balance, and career expectations.

Train staff in how to have difficult and awkward conversations. Consider mediation to understand and mend relationships successfully at the earliest stage. The longer relationship challenges are left, the longer they become engrained and extremely difficult to unwind and repair.

Legal compliance: Staying abreast of employment laws and regulations is crucial to avoid legal pitfalls. Consider investigation training so that you have staff available, internally, to conduct investigations. Where complex events occur, consider outsourcing so that an impartial investigation can be conducted providing you with an external view of what can be done to resolve situations going forward. This also helps you to maintain as much of a ‘business as usual’ approach.

Change management: Change of any type within your establishment can be disruptive, and managing it effectively is essential for maintaining good employee relations. Remember to start with the first two pillars – communication and trust.

If you are implementing a change programme, identify one senior leader as the main ‘sponsor’. A sponsor should be a member of the senior leadership team, the primary advocate for the change, and someone who can step in to determine the direction of change, address and resolve conflict, and provide additional resource and overall leadership. This individual’s endorsement will signal to the rest of the staff that the change is supported by top leadership, increasing credibility and the likelihood of success.


Employee relations are not just about resolving disputes or managing grievances; they are about creating a workplace where employees are engaged, valued, and aligned with the company’s goals. A strategic approach to employee relations can lead to a more harmonious, productive, and resilient establishment.

Ruth Gladwell
(Photo: ©Lesley Donald)

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