Employee Relationship Issues - The Iceberg approaching the Titanic

UK - Articles

As the passengers and crew of the SS Titanic found, it’s the hidden dangers that you don’t see, the ones below the waterline, that can cause the most damage.

The same could be happening in your business. On the surface everything is fine, accepted, there is the odd employee relationship issue but otherwise it’s pretty much ok, until your business hits the equivalent of an iceberg.

The business equivalent of an iceberg is failing to take note of the warning signs of “Danger Ahead” until it’s too late. And in nearly all cases these signs can be identified and managed to a satisfactory conclusion.

So, what are these signs and what steps can you take to address these before they cause damage?

More importantly, what can be done to prevent your business sinking? Here are four suggestions and six warning signs to look out for.


Employee relationship issues: The 6 Warning signs

1. An unexpected rise in employee absenteeism.

Absenteeism records should be reviewed regularly to identify trends. If unexpected “blips” occur either by individuals or within departments these should be investigated to seek to determine if there is an underlying cause or causes.

It’s essential that return to work conversations always take place. The information they can provide is invaluable in identifying early warning signs of discontent. In particular, employers should watch out for odd day absence, and absence from employees who hitherto had a satisfactory attendance record.

2. An increase in employee turnover.

Employee turnover is an inevitability in any business, indeed some turnover can be healthy as it provides for new thinking and momentum to be introduced into the business.

However, its important to keep this under review, and in particular to look for any trends. Are the leavers’ all coming from one area of the business or do all personnel who are leaving work for the same Manager? What duration of service do they have and what are there stated reasons for leaving?

Its business critical that you find out why employees are leaving. If you don’t know then you can’t address what may be an underlying problem.

If you don't already maintain statistics on turnover you should. If you don't conduct exit interviews you absolutely must, remembering that these are best undertaken by a Manager other than the employees Manager, and ideally by an external third party.

An increase in the number of employee grievances.

The number of formal grievances raised in an organisation is a very good “health check” as regards the “temperature” in the business. Most organisations receive very few formal grievances. Should there be an increase, and it could be as an increase from one to three grievances, then as well as investigating the grievance, consideration should be given to speaking to Managers and as importantly, trusted employees, to see if there are any underlying issues.

3. Chatter and Niggles from your employees.

In any organisation, irrespective of size, you will always find employees who “moan”. “This isn’t right, that’s wrong, I don’t agree with that etc”. Although irritating it’s a fact of life.

But what if the chatter, the niggles and the moans and groans become louder and more frequent and are voiced by different people on different subjects. That’s the time to take notice and to take action.

Managers should be advised to keep an eye out for such an increase and rather than ignore or dismiss it, speak to the employees and find out what the issue/concerns are.

Once they are known, you may choose to do nothing about them. But the fact is you have investigated, considered and acted.

Take action.

4. Fall in Employee Output.

A fall in productivity or failing to achieve budget without there being an immediately identified reason for this is a possible warning sign of discontent.

Traditionally what happens in situations such as this is that the Manager is asked to account for the reason for the fall in productivity or failure to achieve budget. Fair enough it’s their responsibility.

If there is no easily identified reason for this, consideration should be given to asking the employees if “everything is OK?” After all, they are the ones at the sharp end.

5. Timekeeping issues with employees.

How do employees present themselves for work in the morning? Are they at their desk or work station a minute before or a minute after their official start time. OK perhaps that's a little too precise but, employees timekeeping is a good indicator of engagement.

If employees who were otherwise always on time start attending for work late, ask them why. But do it from the standpoint of enquiring rather than accusing.

“Is everything OK? I’ve noticed that over the past couple of weeks you have been late on a number of occasions, when previously you were always early”. It may be that there is a reason for the lateness, perhaps a short term issue at home, or it may be that something has happened at work that has made the employee feel disengaged. Again, you don't know unless you ask.

The suggested actions I have identified above are reactive. They look at how to deal with a situation after it has been identified. Far better to take proactive steps that can prevent situations arising. I have four suggestions.

6. Communication and Employee Engagement.

Communication isn’t just about speaking with the staff, it involves listening to them, indeed listening is the most important, but often most neglected, part of the communication process.

If one doesn’t already exist set up formal channels of communication with the workforce perhaps by way of having “elected” representatives. The terms of reference for such a forum must be clearly defined in advance such that it is recognised as being an opportunity to ask and answer questions, but not to negotiate. Time must be given to allow the representatives to feed back to their colleagues.

From these formal channels, informal channels, which can be just as beneficial, will develop.

Know your Staff.

You should make as much effort as is reasonably practical to engage with your staff. Whilst it’s easier to do in a smaller organisations, positive action can be taken irrespective of organisational size.

Examples would include sending a welcome email to all new recruits to “start the conversation”; and to encourage new hires to introduce themselves to their colleagues on the company intranet, perhaps including one or two details of hobbies or interests.

These actions make new recruits feel welcomed into their new company and the employment relationship gets off to a positive start. Employees who feel engaged are much less likely to create issues.

Train your Managers to identify the warning signs.

These warning signs are the ones identified above. As much as anything the key is to be intuitive, to be able to identify potential problems and take steps to deal with them.

From a training perspective I would propose organising manager led training. Here managers would be set the task “Identify early warning signs of potential disruption and determine the actions you would take to manage these”.   

Having identified the signs, managers would then be expected to determine how they would manage these on the job. In this training context, it would be their job to identify the problem and find the solution. The role of the organisation here is to facilitate. To guide the managers towards making the right choices in arriving at solutions. In situations such as these, owned training, where the manager identifies the issue and determines solutions, is far more effective than employer led training where the problem and the solution are both provided by the organisation. 

Pulse and Employee Voice surveys.

Informal, Pulse, surveys of all employees should be undertaken every couple of months. Each survey should focus on a particular subject, for example, employee communications, understanding of business values, knowledge of how the business operates (what other departments do). These short and concise surveys can provide valuable insights that can both make the business a more engaged place to work and provide early warning signals as to potential future problems. Further, should there be a spike in turnover or absenteeism a pulse survey can be undertaken that focuses on this subject only.

In addition to pulse surveys, annual Employee Voice surveys should be undertaken. These may also be known as engagement surveys, or if you go back far enough in time, attitude surveys! Focusing on a set of pre identified business areas and questions, employees will be asked to rate and/or comment on their perception of organisational performance. This will allow the business to take the “temperature” of the organisation and take corrective action if considered necessary. The fact is they will have the information to make that decision.

Undertaken annually, over time they allow the organisation to benchmark performance against predetermined business indicators.

Businesses should have early warning systems in place, that identify potential issues before they become problems. As the above highlights, they are easy to establish and will ensure that “your” finger is always on the pulse of what is happening in the organisation.

Forearmed is forewarned. Or put another way, look out for that iceberg, particularly where it is not immediately visible.  


Colin Lock, Managing Director UK

Mdina International