Many workers uneasy discussing HR issues

Issues of compensation, promotion still considered awkward topics: Survey
By Liz Foster
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/16/2016

Despite employers’ best efforts, many workers still feel HR-related issues are too awkward to talk about with their supervisors, according to a survey by U.K.-based employment law specialists Lupton Fawcett Denison Till. 

Pay-related discussions are deemed the most cringe-inducing, with 42 per cent of respondents saying they would feel uncomfortable broaching the subject with their manager. In fact, 35 per cent of respondents said they would rather discuss pay with a colleague than a supervisor. 

Discussing pay was found to be problematic for both men and women, according to the survey of 329 people. Just 27 per cent of women surveyed said they would feel confident discussing pay with their manager while 49 per cent of men said the same. 

Age was also a factor. One-half of employees aged 18 to 25 named wages as the most unapproachable topic, compared to 37 per cent of employees aged 46 to 55. Asking for a promotion was deemed the second most uncomfortable topic by respondents, with 22 per cent of employees saying they would not feel confident discussing the issue with their manager. 

Reporting a colleague for inappropriate behaviour (19 per cent), discussing flexible working schedules (19 per cent) and absences from work due to illness (18 per cent) were also named as HR issues employees don’t feel comfortable discussing. 

“Employers who operate a closed managerial system, where there is little or no scope for employee interaction and feedback, often experience higher than average levels of staff turnover,” said Nathan Combes, senior associate at Lupton Fawcett Denison Till. 

“Employees can quickly become disgruntled with their lot and fail to appreciate the rationale behind management strategy and the decisions being taken.” 

The underlying issue driving employees’ hesitation to discuss their concerns with their managers is one of transparency, said Douglas Williamson, CEO of the Beacon Group, an organizational effectiveness firm in Toronto. 

“Companies and employers need to decide whether or not they are willing to respond to the bigger social trend. The society we’re in today is asking for and expecting more and more and more transparency. And so what some companies are doing is they are sharing more information more broadly,” he said.

“Think of it as reputational capital. And the reputation of a company, its internal brand, will be dependent upon how open the environment is to have transparent conversations on all kinds of things.” 

The top tier of talent is more discriminating today than ever before, said Williamson. Employers not in tune with what matters to employees — and specifically those in generations X and Y — will suffer because of it. 

“There’s lots of research that’s been done to suggest that the most important relationship for any worker is their relationship with their immediate boss. And... the middle manager community is the most undervalued, overworked and underappreciated community,” said Williamson. 

“Getting executive policies in place or having a training program, that’s not the answer to this kind of issue. This kind of issue is a hand-to-hand exercise of educating people in the middle management ranks. That’s the only way to deal with this, is to deal with it at the front line. The war, the battle, will only be won or lost at the front lines.” 

A CEO saying all the right things is worth nothing if an employee’s immediate supervisor isn’t also open and transparent, he said. 

“Having a formal process isn’t going to work because people won’t trust it. It has to start at the front line and it has to be a real emphasis on how to create an environment where people are comfortable in a world where we have more and more diversity and more and more complexity.” 

Establishing transparency is crucial because it creates an open environment for employees to discuss issues such as pay and promotion and because a lack of transparency can be costly, said Deb LaMere, vice-president of employee engagement at Ceridian in Minneapolis, Minn.

“If an employee doesn’t feel comfortable sharing things with their manager, it really lends to the disengagement of the employee,” said LaMere. 

“If they’re having troubles in the workplace and they don’t feel like they can talk about it to anyone, and they don’t feel like they have resources there, you’re really looking at employees on the disengaged spectrum. If they’re disengaged, that’s going to lead to lower productivity, absenteeism and, eventually, if they feel like they don’t have anywhere to turn within the workplace, it will lead to turnover.” 

Open-door practices are a crucial aspect of transparency, said LaMere, but no matter how open managers are, some employees still won’t feel entirely comfortable discussing delicate HR matters. 

“It could be about their manager,” she said. “Employers should make sure employees know what their resources are, that they can go to someone other than their manager. So helping employees understand the role of the human resources department — understand that HR isn’t just there on a transactional basis but is there to be an advocate for the employee to help them when they’re facing issues — is also important.” 

Another resource for employees is an anonymous hotline, said LaMere, adding anything that makes employees feel more comfortable sharing their issues will help strengthen culture. 

“If you don’t have that open, transparent culture for employees to go to, I think that would absolutely contribute to why people still don’t feel comfortable discussing theses issues,” she said. “That can have a huge impact.” 

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