Employee Employer Relationship: Now HR In 2023. The power struggle between employees and employers is reaching new heights. Increasing support for unionization, high-volume layoffs, and demands for flexibility are all contributing toward a changing employment relationship. Employee Employer Relationship: Now HR In 2023.

In this article, we take a closer look at how HR can shape the employee-employer relationship, propose a model of integrated practices to manage employee expectations and identify five steps to get started. Employee Employer Relationship: Now HR In 2023.

This article is based on an article published in the European Work and Organizational Psychology Journal In Practice in July 2022.

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The changing employee-employer relationship

The relationship between employers and employees has changed. The pendulum of power has swung towards the employee. Employees are asking organizations to be more accommodating of individual preferences. 64% of workers are saying they would quit their jobs if their employers were not flexible about where, when, and how they work.

In contrast, rising inflation and living costs have prompted employees to reconsider employment security and stability. As the noise regarding the Great Resignation starts to die down, employers are taking back the bargaining power within the employee-employer relationship. In other words, they’re demanding that employees comply with their requirements. A great example is various return-to-office approaches that have gone against employee preferences and have set an ultimatum for compliance or risk losing your job.

We should not aim to go back to outdated models where organizations yield all the power. However, HR needs to step and help employers and employees reach a point of mutual and shared expectations. There has to be a common middle ground that sets the tone for a more balanced relationship in the future.

To do this, it is time to start thinking about employer brand, employee value proposition, and employee experience as an integrated practice, each contributing something unique to the employer/employee relationship. The current challenge is that organizations often view these practices in isolation. In a worst-case scenario, they even contradict each other with regard to what an organization offers as an employer. 

Organizations must adopt a new perspective that no longer sees the practices as stand-alone functions but as an integrated model working together to build the employee-employer relationship.

Introducing a model integrating employer branding, employee value proposition, and employee experience

The model below views employer brand (EB), employee value proposition (EVP), and employee experience (EX) as three related practices. Each of them asks different questions and contributes different values to the employment relationship. 

Employee Employer Relationship: Now HR In 2023

Let’s break it down.

Employer brand: What do we promise?

Employer brand refers to the prevailing narrative of how the employer positions itself in the external market to prospective and current employees.

Traditionally, an employer brand consists of two parts. The first part is the outside perspective of how we market who we are as an employer and what we promise to potential candidates when they join the organization. Social media has played a prominent role in informing this view. Platforms such as LinkedIn and Glassdoor allow for sharing employee-generated content with the market and give a more trustworthy perspective of the employer brand.

Second, the employer brand acts as the overarching internal mechanism to drive the day-to-day promise to employees in the organization of the type of employer we aim to be. Internal statements, such as “employer of choice,” “a place where you can grow,” and “people-centric,” dominate this narrative and are often reflected within the values of the organization. This internal view contributes towards employee retention and employee referrals to access talent pools to meet organizational requirements.

The problem is that the external promise that made candidates decide to join is often never delivered as part of the employee-employer relationship. As a result, employee engagement tends to decline after the “honeymoon period” of talent joining an organization. That places HR in a losing battle to regain employees’ trust. This disconnect between the employer brand and the employee value proposition and experience results in employees feeling betrayed and misled to join the organization.

Employee Employer Relationship: Now HR In 2023

This becomes evident when evaluating employee value propositions, especially when gauging the perception of employees on the value they get from the employee-employer relationship.

Employee value proposition: What do we offer?

The employee value proposition relates to the perception of value that the employee receives from being associated with the organization. This ranges from transactional components such as rewards, benefits, and workplaces, to more behavioral dimensions such as culture fit, relationships with leaders, and the organization’s social purpose.

Employee value propositions have come a long way, especially when considering new ideas regarding flexibility, remote working, and employee choice. The challenge, however, is when the promise that the organization initially made is misaligned with what the employee receives or how they experience what was provided.

For example, employees might be told they could work flexibly during the interview. Yet, over time, that fizzles out into a full-time rigid work schedule. Or if the employer promoted a family-oriented culture, but the benefits regarding parental leave do not convey the same message.

Employee Employer Relationship: Now HR In 2023
Employee Employer Relationship: Now HR In 2023

Often the Talent Acquisition team, with the best of intentions, “over-sells” the employer in an attempt to attract talent. Realistically, an organization cannot be everything to anyone, and it is more valuable to be transparent and authentic about your value proposition. Still, organizations sometimes do not have the courage to be explicit about what they can or cannot offer within the employee-employer relationship.

No one wants to be quoted on social media saying that in our organization, we “demand long hours” or “expect you to work first if you want to grow your career.” However, in some organizations, this is the prevailing culture. Whether that is right or wrong is a different matter, but we should not negate the fact that it is the current reality.

Recently a senior professional at a big consulting firm shared his experience. He said that he knows he is expected to work long hours if he wants to progress. He rarely spends a Friday evening with his family, as his work colleagues expect him to mingle with project teams at a client location. 

In exchange, he is paid above the rest of the market, is continuously promoted, and is gaining significant experience and access to senior executives. These benefits come at a price, and it has to be a clear expectation that is articulated while a potential employee still has the choice to accept or decline. 

Unfortunately, we also find that in some instances, even though employees know what they are signing up for, the manner in which it is delivered leaves much room for improvement. For example, employees accept that for this job, they will need to travel frequently and spend a lot of time away from home. Yet, the administrative support provided to the employees regarding travel arrangements, where they stay, and other benefits creates a frustrating and disengaging experience.

This brings us to the employee experience, or put differently, how we delivered on the employer brand and EVP promise.

Employee experience: How is it delivered?

Employee experience (EX) refers to how the employee thinks, feels, and behaves throughout the employee’s life cycle. It is often described in terms of moments that matter to the employee; and moments of value to the organization.

EX plays an integral part in the day-to-day reality of the employee-employer relationship. It can create a positive or negative sentiment about how the employee perceives the employer. Organizations often track this through measures such as the employee net promoter score (NPS).

Unfortunately, we regularly see that even though the employer brand and employee value proposition are closely aligned, the employee’s experience dilutes all value associated with the benefit. For example, organizations promise and offer learning and growth opportunities. However, the amount of red tape to access these leaves employees with a bad taste in their mouths. Another example is employers offering unlimited paid time off, yet there is a perception in the organization that you are not allowed or encouraged to take leave.

Employee Employer Relationship: Now HR In 2023
Employee Employer Relationship: Now HR In 2023

Employee experience involves practices such as performance discussions, career development, and day-to-day work processes. These should be a strong focus of EX.

5 steps to Integrate the 3 Es of the employee-employer Relationship

Going forward, it is essential to create congruence between employer brand, EVP, and employee experience and stop thinking about them in isolation.

The central premise of our model is that by integrating the three practices, we are able to drive the employee-employer relationship to be one of mutual expectations and value. Put differently, this implies that as an employer, “we deliver on our promises to employees through what we offer and in the way which it is delivered”. This, in turn, creates higher levels of engagement, which will influence employee performance and productivity.

So, how do we combine these three practices into a holistic and coherent story that attracts the right people and delivers what we promise to them in a way that engages and retains them?

HR can start by taking the following five steps.

Step 1: Combine the practices into one team

To provide an integrated people experience across practices, businesses need to consolidate the responsibility for the identification, design, development, and implementation of these practices into one team. Doing so allows these different perspectives to embed the golden thread that must run through these individual practices.

In some organizations, this already happens in Organizational Development teams. Still, more work is required to consider external employer branding as an integral component of the other practices. Often, this sits too far away and is left to talent acquisition specialists or business partners to articulate to potential candidates.

Step 2: Define who we are as an employer and who our employee is 

The next focus should be to understand what type of employer we are and/or want to be. This step sounds obvious, but leaders often have very different perspectives on how what we promise translates into day-to-day behaviors. Take the time to ask the following questions:

  • What do we want to be known for as an employer?
  • What are our non-negotiables in what we want employees to think about when they evaluate us as an employer?
  • What are expectations we cannot meet as an employer? Why is this the case?

It is essential to agree on answers to these questions. They set the tone for evaluating whether the way we are positioned in the market aligns with what we deliver through our EVP and EX efforts. By having these conversations with your stakeholders, it is a good idea to consolidate the outputs as key people principles.

For example, “we are an employer that believes people do their best work wherever they are”. This implies we enable and support remote work practices. Conversely, we can state that “we believe as an employer that people need to be together to do their best work, as such we provide an office space where people can connect and want to work.”

This step is also important to articulate what you expect of employees. Organizations often hesitate to be explicit about their expectations, which leads to everyone interpreting messages differently. There is nothing wrong with stating, “as an employer, we expect our people to drive their careers. We will provide the opportunities, but it is up to you to take ownership of your development.”

We talked about the importance of employee engagement in the employee-employer relationship with Industrial Psychologist and organizational effectiveness expert Dr. Cecile Benade. See the full interview below:

Step 3: Understand the expectations of your current employees and targeted talent pools 

You should also spend time understanding the current expectations of your workforce. You can gather employee feedback through surveys or focus groups. Nonetheless, be careful not to set the expectation that this is an exercise to gather wishlist requirements that your organization will implement.

This is a sense-making exercise and should incorporate various data points, both quantitative and qualitative, to understand why people choose you and, more importantly, why they stay.

Another valuable source is considering external studies within specific talent pools, such as digital, actuarial, engineering, and other skills. For example, LinkedIn does an annual study to understand which EVP factors are most important for specific talent groups. Such studies will provide you with a view of talent you want to attract that might not yet be in your organization.

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Step 4: Audit the current proposition, promise, and experience

The next step is to evaluate your current bid against the principles set earlier and the insights gathered from step 3. This step should yield insight into four questions:

  • Where are you over-delivering? 
  • What are you missing? 
  • Where do you need to close the gaps? 
  • Where do you need to set the expectation straight?

During this step, it is essential to remember that you cannot be everything to everyone. It is more important to be authentic in your approach and delivery than trying to accommodate all employee preferences. 

Be sure to prioritize where you will focus and be comfortable acknowledging that you will not meet certain expectations. In these instances, it is essential to communicate the reasons and rationale behind the decisions authentically. 

As mentioned above, your audit process should collect both quantitative data, for example, surveys and exit interview data, and qualitative data gathered via interviews, open dialogue, and focus groups.

Make sure to get perspectives across all levels of the organization and different types of employees. Often, we make the mistake of listening to only the voices around the leadership table while the majority of our employees work in other roles. 

Step 5: Adjust and monitor

The last step is to adjust the three practices in line with the insights you’ve gathered. You also need to implement a feedback loop that provides internal and external feedback on all three practices. Continuous listening and engagement will be critical as these changes will take time, especially when you have to set expectations straight or stop offering certain benefits to employees. 

A final word

As the employee-employer relationship takes on another dimension, as HR practitioners, we need to ensure clear management of employee and employer expectations. By bringing the employer brand, value proposition, and experience closer together, we provide a sound foundation to manage mutual expectations and set organizations and employees up for success.