Deb Muller, CEO & Co-Founder of HR AcuityToday on the RecruitingDaily Podcast, I am speaking with Deb Muller about HR Acuity and the relationship between employee relations and business decisions.

Deb is the CEO & Co-Founder of HR Acuity, the only tech platform that is specifically built for employee relations and investigations management.  She provides a wealth of real-world experience and guidance to help companies strengthen processes, transform workplace culture and elevate employee relations as a strategic driver of business success.

Today, we talk about how the nature of employee relations data has changed from reactive to strategic and how we can better use this to make decisions in workplace.  What have we learned over the last five years? Understanding the difference between “green light,” “yellow light” and “red light” incidents and what this data and the strategic understanding of it means for leadership?

Obviously, we go deep.  But you have to tune in to hear more.

Listening Time:  29 minutes


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William:  00:33
Ladies and gentlemen this is William Tincup you’re listening to RecruitingDaily Podcast. Today we have Deb Muller from HR Acuity and we’ve got a wonderful topic that we’re going to explore the relationship between employee relations and business decisions. So let’s just jump right into it. Deb, do us, the audience a favor and introduce both yourself and HR Acuity.

Deb:  00:55
Sure. Thanks for having you William. So I’m Deb Muller, I’m the founder and CEO of HR Acuity, and we are the only tech platform that is specifically built for employee relations and investigations management.

William:  01:08
Well. Done. And so you all also do some benchmark surveys and benchmark studies too. So I know one of the things that we wanted to touch on is that you all, this is your fifth benchmark study around employee relations. So take it, first of all, take us into the study. Let’s just talk a little bit about what you learned during the study itself, and then we’ll get into some other things between, the relationship between relations or employee relations and business decisions.

Deb:  01:39
Yeah. So if you don’t mind, I’ll take you back a little bit into why we even started doing this. We are a tech company. Years ago, my background, as a practitioner in HR, I did a lot of employee relations. And then, another story for another day got into technology, a path that I did not expect. But as I was talking to clients early on and our customers started asking us for employer relations data. Employer relations, when I did employee relations, it was very transactional. It was like payroll. It was something you did in addition to everything else that goes on in your job in HR. Certainly not seen as strategic, very reactive. And so that started to change slowly. And I’d like to say that we were there when it was changing in the big 2009, 2010 timeframe.

Deb:  02:29
And as it started to elevate people started to form employee relations functions. It started to get a little bit more strategic. And so people were looking for data. What does employee relations supposed to look like? What does good mean? What are the questions we should be answering? What are our cohorts doing? And so we, for years have been doing a study, asking very qualitative questions about employee relations. But we decided since our community was really asking for it, to launch a much more in-depth study asking companies to really take time, to talk to us about their practices, their processes in employer relations, so that we could really see what was happening. And it’s been really interesting to watch the changes over the last five years. And 2020 was, as with everything else, both surprises, maybe not. We shouldn’t have been surprised. But we were really eager to see what this year study, which is for the time period of January 1, 2022, December 31st, 2020, would hold for us. Given that the year was really, one that we’ve never seen before.

William:  03:37
What did we learn?

Deb:  03:38
What did we learn? Well, a couple things, some good things and some concerning things, I would say. The good thing is that we’re seeing that leadership is really increasingly recognizing the value of employer relations data, really to drive insights and business decisions. And I know that, that’s what we’re going to talk about today and certainly in the context of DE&I you’ll see a lot of that. So when I just, when I think about that for your audience, just to define how we think about employee relations. I always talk about this paradigm of a traffic light, right? So when we have our employees come to work, we set up all these things of how we want them to behave, the green light. Everything’s utopia. You remember that commercial? I don’t know what it was for, where the guy’s going to work and all the lights turn green [inaudible 00:04:25] what was it for I have no idea? So we set up our job descriptions. We have our goals and objectives.

Deb:  04:33
We have our policies and guidelines. So how we want them to perform and set up. What we expect of them. How we want them to behave, that’s all set up. So that’s all green light. And if our employees did exactly what we wanted them to do, we could all go home. We wouldn’t need this podcast and everything would be good. So in the course of an employee’s life cycle, they’re going to have what we call yellow light events. So deviations from those norms. They’re not necessarily bad things. It could be someone has to go out on maternity leave, or parental leave, or they hit, they miss a target or they violate a policy, or they’re late, or they need some type of accommodation, just things that happen in the day to day that we need to document. We need to look at them. We need to make sure we’re dealing with them consistently. We look at the analytics to be more proactive about them.

Deb:  05:20
And then we have red light events, where if you keep pushing that yellow light, you’re probably going to get into an accident. So that’s when an allegation is made primarily. Maybe it’s harassment discrimination, that something is not working the organization, that you need to do fact-finding on and remediate it so that you don’t cause harm to the employer from a risk perspective. To the employees, from a safety perspective. Even to your constituents, your shareholders, the people in the community, depending upon your organization, maybe your customers. So that’s, so we think of those yellow lights and those red lights as the spectrum of employer relations, all those deviations from what we expected when our employees came to work each day. So with that, the good news is that organizations are starting to think about this data and say, wow, this is data that we are not typically looking at.

Deb:  06:11
We haven’t traditionally looked at this data and we need to start doing it because there’s a lot of strategic value in that. Particularly when it comes to DE&I. So we started seeing that, for example, more employee relations teams are handling things like policy oversight and employee relations analytics that is up 13 and 10% respectively this year. We’re seeing that there’s a significant increase in those reporting this data to senior leadership and reporting it to legal, really suggesting that there’s an enhanced value of that. So that’s an eight point increase from last year, of this type of data being reported to the senior leadership. So it’s up to 67% of organizations. And just to give you the spectrum, our study takes organizations, you have to have at least a thousand employees to participate. We have over 125 companies participating, but it represents over four and a half million employees. So some really large organizations also take part in this study. So that is it’s encouraging to see those types of things.

William:  07:16
You know what’s funny is, funny and not ha-ha funny, but funny in the sense of, we knew that employee relations was important and especially employee communication was important. I’m not sure the organization knew. If you’re inside HR you knew how important it was. Because even if it was just around benefits and around other types of things like that, you knew how important it was. I’m not sure the rest of the organization or the C-Suite knew. But I can tell you that those companies that didn’t have great comms people, it, boy, it highlighted it quickly.

Deb:  07:58
Oh, absolutely. Well, you know you could get away with it, when employees didn’t come to work with a microphone and a video camera in their pocket everyday.

William:  08:05
Yes. Great reference. Yes.

Deb:  08:11
But as the practitioner you knew, it was typically the Friday before your vacation, when someone would knock at your door, “Do you have a few minutes?” And break down in tears. And it was important and it, and I mean, the good news is it has been elevated. The good news is people, we believe are paying attention. But I also, I mean, I hate to play the sad side of it, but Me Too was six years ago.

William:  08:35

Deb:  08:36
And I’m just not sure we’ve really hit those commitments that everybody was making. To be more transparent. To make sure there was safety moving forward.

William:  08:48
Well, it’s like in society, society is kind of, it’s gotten us to pay attention to Me Too, Love is Love, Black Lives Matter, all of these things that again, were a hundred years late to really pay attention to. Now companies are paying attention to it. I do get the sense that they’re actually putting money behind it, which means that they will put actions behind it. Again, a hundred years late. However, I do feel that way, although like a lot of people, I’m cautiously optimistic that things will change. And so again, it’s one of those things we’re going to wait and see based on actions, based on an actual change. But this has gotten us to a place where we can work differently. So that’s good. Which I remember my mom having battles with her employer about flexible work, that’s 40 years ago.

William:  09:53
So imagine having that conversation today, it’s like, Hey, I would like to have off early on a Friday. Yeah, we’re not going to have that conversation. But we do, we will have companies that will force everyone back into the office and go back to business as 2019. And that’s going to be interesting to see if they can retain that talent. That’s going to be, I’m interested to see what goes on there. As it relates to what we were talking about business decisions. So now moving a little bit away from the report, really not too much, because it’s things that you learned from your study is the dot to dot relationship between employee relations and business decisions. Let’s go inside that for a little bit. What have you learned about the dot to the dot or fuzzy lines that are in between these two important things?

Deb:  10:48
So whenever I try to explain to someone the importance of employer relations, I do my best to use an analogy to another business function, because I think it makes it so stark. So we think about marketing, where marketing was a couple of decades ago, when it was fluffy and they did Jingles and there was no data. And so marketing really transformed with data, right? And so now it is very data-driven and we know exactly what we’re spending money on, where it’s going, the success rate, if did someone clicked, did they not clicked? Did we convert them? We can understand that incredibly. And so from a business perspective, we need to think of employer relations the same way. We need to think of our employees the same way, because they are your human resources, typically your most expensive resource in your organization. Yet we don’t do that same type of digging when it comes to data analytics, perhaps because it’s not as predictable, right? We can’t track it quite as well as we can marketing or other resources in our organization. But I think that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

Deb:  11:53
So we talk to people a lot about this data. The data I’m just talking about. Those yellow light incidents, which typically don’t get tracked or don’t get looked at, don’t get analyzed. We even saw a decrease this year on the survey of how much they’re integrating employer relations data with other information in the big data lake, which is a big mess. But if you don’t, well, if you do integrate it, if you do start looking at it, you’re going to have the same predictive indicators in ER, as you do in marketing. You’re going to start to see, why am I having an increase in issues in this area? Is it because of a leader? Is it a location issue? Maybe we have some union activity brewing. Is there something else going on that I need to get ahead of? What are those predictive indicators, so I don’t have those red light incidents? What am I looking at? Think about DE&I, all those commitments from the C-Suite standing up and saying, we’re for social justice. We’re going to be having an inclusive work environment. But they’re not looking at that data.

Deb:  12:51
How can you say that you have an inclusive work environment with no bias or you’re working on eliminating bias from your workplace, I’m not sure you totally get rid of it. If you can’t tell me that across your enterprise, when you’re giving out written warnings for X, Y, or Z. For performance, for attendance, whatever, you’re delivering them at the same proportional rate to your females versus your men or to your black employees versus the rest of your employees? And if you’re not tracking this or looking at this, how can you see that you’re doing that? How can you really say that the experience that your employees are having is inclusive? It’s great to look at who we’re hiring, who we’re promoting, et cetera, all important. But what about the experience? And we do a lot of experience surveys. But actually looking at the data that demonstrates that that experience is right there.

William:  13:42
It’s interesting because when you talk, you’re thinking, when you’re talking, I’m thinking about the decisions that we make. Those are outputs. But they started with initiatives usually speaking. We thought you start with some type of assumption, wherever it is, in sales or wherever it is, we want to grow two X to a five X, whatever it is. Well, then you make a series of assumptions around it. And we don’t really think about the employee relations part of that, the communications part of that. We’ve created the goal, but then we don’t really think of like, okay, well, what is it going to take to get to the goal? We might think of some of the tactical stuff. Well, we have to hire so many of these people that this, that and the other.

William:  14:25
But we, what I love about this conversation is, now because of a hybrid work model and a hybrid workspace, a hybrid, the way that people are going to approach hybrid, we can actually weave these things in from the very beginning. Instead of catching up later, once things are in place, we can actually weave ourselves into the beginning like, Hey, whatever the initiative is, there’s a human component to it. There’s the employee relations part of this. And so baking in some type of comms strategy from the very beginning of whatever the initiative is, so that we understand. Because you’re right about measurement, we can measure all along the way and we can look at the dashboard and see how we did plus or minus. But also part of that is what you mentioned, which I think is brilliant, is the experience that they had moment by moment.

Deb:  15:21
Yeah. Okay. So I have so many things I want to come in on because you’re so…

William:  15:25
All right. Bring it.

Deb:  15:26
Not that, sorry. I don’t know what to say. So first of all, part of it is just process, right? Employees just want to understand the process. When they see process, they are much more accepting of the outcome. You talk a lot about recruiting, obviously. So I always bring it back to the posting process. So I’ll say to someone, “Well, why do you have a posting process?” And I’ll say, “Well, why not give internal candidates the opportunity to apply? We want to find the best candidate.” And that’s all true. But the other benefit or reason for the posting process is that, when Jane is interested in a job and all of a sudden Bob gets it, she starts to wonder, why did Bob get that job opportunity? If Jane has the opportunity to post for it and goes through, and has a conversation, and someone talks to her about it, and then they tell her maybe, “Jane, you need your masters and neurobiology for that. You don’t have that.” She might not like the outcome, but she’s much more accepting of it.

William:  16:20
A hundred percent.

Deb:  16:21
And we use the same thing with investigations, right? Something goes wrong in the organization. Why do people not come forward during Me Too? Why did women not feel comfortable? It is not because they don’t know where to go. I mean, give me a break. Let’s put up another more hotlines and whatever. People can pretty much figure out where to go or if they want to, but they don’t know what to expect.

William:  16:44
That’s right.

Deb:  16:46
They’re scared. They don’t know what’s going to happen. Does the company even take it seriously? Is it going to make the matter worse? So all those things are really scary. So in most cases, you know what, I’ll keep my mouth shut or I’ll leave. So communication is so critical before there’s an issue. We talk about this as a best practice, have a seminar, do a white paper, do something. Tell people, what’s it like if something goes wrong? Because things are going to go wrong. What’s going to happen? You’ll pull back the curtain.

William:  17:13
Well, one of the things that you’re advocating for, which I love is, it’s transparency. So you were talking about transparency and process. And again, let’s deal with something that happened. Unfortunately, in all organizations, it’s a harassment. Okay. So letting people know, behind the veil, here’s what happened step-by-step. So here’s what happened so that there isn’t mystery, there shouldn’t be any mystery to it. Because you’re right, I think in general, I think women didn’t come forward because of fear of retaliation.

Deb:  17:50
Yeah. Well, so it’s so funny.

William:  17:52
Fair enough. If I don’t know what’s going on.

Deb:  17:57
Absolutely. And remember around Me Too, there was an old study from years and years before that, that was the same issue, when they asked women to come forward. So interesting transparency is something we asked about in our survey, because I agree with you. Are employers willing to come forward and share data about harassment issues? Why can’t you, if you have a very small organization this might not be possible. But if you’re of a large organization, like some of the tech companies came out and said they were going to do this, some do it. Some have been doing it.

Deb:  18:27
But we’re going to come out, and every quarter we’re going to say we had X number of harassment issues. And for this percent we found to have merit and this percent we found didn’t have merit. Again, what does that say to the employee? It says, first of all, you’re counting. You’re counting on me. You must care. You must, or a process you’re sharing this with us. And it also says, wow, 65% of the, I’m making this up. 65% of the cases you actually found had merit. That means not only do you apress it, but sometimes you actually believe the person and you…

William:  19:01
And then you take that into the actions and here’s what was done. I think, it was a real easy, again, Me Too is a relatively recent phenomenon in the sense of this has been going on for much longer than the movement itself. But the actions, I think people’s tolerance. And I actually, I could give a lot of credit to millennials and Gen Z for this, quite frankly, just because they’re just not going to take it.

Deb:  19:32

William:  19:32
They just won’t accept it. Which I like, because this is how you’re going to force change, is you’re just going to say, “Yeah, I’m not going to come to work for your company because you don’t disclose.”

Deb:  19:44
Well listen, these kids… I’m sorry.

William:  19:45
I know. Trust me.

Deb:  19:45
They’re coming into the workforce now. They’ve grown up in a very different environment in the schools because they’ve been taught about bullying. Right?

William:  19:55
That’s right.

Deb:  19:56
From the very beginning. So they’ve learned these skills in ways that we did not, which is great, because it does empower them. But here’s the bad news. We asked the question on our survey. And if I take you back in 2018, so for 2017, yeah, some specific questions around Me Too. And at that time, 27% of the folks we talked to said they either had initiated or enhanced, providing transparency in the numbers like we talked about, or plan to do it in the next 12 months. So that was in 2018. 2019, our study last year, 29% said they were sharing aggregated anonymous investigation data with employees. So we were really, we were excited about that because it’s what people said they were going to do, they were doing. And this year it dropped to 16%.

William:  20:40
Yeah, no, that’s sad.

Deb:  20:42
That’s the point.

William:  20:43
That’s going backwards. Not just in the numbers, that’s going backwards in the mentality. Because once you open that, you should just embrace that. I mean, any business leader worth their salt knows the bad things are going to happen. And it’s how you respond to those bad things. That’s not only your character, but it also, it shows that you can lead. And so yeah, there’s going to be something that happens that you’re embarrassed by, fair enough. I mean, I remember when Me Too first started, I had a lot of my female colleagues would call me and talk to me about it. And I’m like, I’m shocked that people are shocked. And the only reason that I’ll say it like this is, I just assumed everyone knew that this is what happened in wall street and in Hollywood. And it positions…

Deb:  21:31

William:  21:32
I’m just, I’m shocked that everyone’s shocked. Now, does that rational? No. I actually, I enjoyed listening to people. A lot of my friends actually tell me stories that they had been through, that I would’ve never gotten the opportunity to hear their stories. They wouldn’t have never felt comfortable enough to tell me their stories. So Me Too, for me personally, it was a great listening moment. To then go, oh hell. I mean, of course I thought the worst of men in power as rightfully so. But I didn’t know these stories. And these were personal. These are people I knew. So it was really good. I hate that, that number has slid because that to me, that also shows a sign that, okay, societal pressure makes corporations pay attention. And when we don’t apply that societal pressure, then they go back to their comfortable ways.

Deb:  22:30
Yeah. Or they’re just, I think there’s a real reluctance because of the sensitivity of it. If you come out with this, somebody’s going to get, an employee is going to get out there and tell their story, which may just be one sided or for confidentiality reasons you can’t really tell. I mean, we deal with that with our product, right? So we’re a technology product who love, we want to shout it from the rooftops and we get these great companies joining us because we believe they’re investing in doing the right thing. So we think that’s a great story. There is much a reluctance because of the topic.

William:  23:02
Oh yeah.

Deb:  23:02
So we’ll say, well, look, when you sign on, let’s do it then. Because you can say, Hey, we know things, aren’t perfect. Right? But we’re investing.

William:  23:11
Well, there’s a deep reluctance. You re really nailed this. I found when I programmed a recent event for us, it was a DE&I event. And I talked to 300 DE&I leaders. And the reluctance of a lot of them to put their company out in front of other people, of doing certain work. Here’s what we’re doing to increase women in leadership roles, whatever, pick a topic. They won’t put their company out in front of it because they will put themselves on a pedestal of doing something. And I’ll talk to them, I’ll be like, first of all, the fact that you’re making incremental gains is a success. Is it where you want it to be? No. Of course not. But the fact that you’re doing something about it, that in it of itself is worth talking. And if you don’t talk, then who’s going to talk?

Deb:  24:06
I know. There has to be courage and willing to take the bad with the good, but because of that it outweighs it. The message that it sends outweighs it. But again, just back to the study, other disappointing things along the same line that we have seen over time, good progression. We ask a question about investigation processes. Back to the trial of transparency, back to the fairness. And the question is, how would you describe your process? Do you have a required process that people go through? Do you have suggested guidelines or do you have nothing in place? And so over time we’ve seen a nice trend, not good enough, towards required. I mean, there should be required processes. Again, here’s my business case that I use. If you were an airline and whenever somebody alleged that something was going wrong with an air plane, in 44% of the cases, you would actually have a required process to investigate it. Would you get on the plane?

William:  25:01

Deb:  25:02
That’s where we are. We were up to 59 last year, but we’re down to only 49% of the companies. And these are large well-known companies, have a required process in place when someone makes an allegation for that investigation.

William:  25:17
I think the thing, the importance of employee relations and the importance of communicating transparency and communicating the actions that happen, it’s again, I think that retaining talent and attracting talent is going to drive a lot of this. So a lot of the societal things. So first of all, I think everything that we’re doing societaly, keep doing. Nothing stops there. However, I think that really what’s going to change executives or on the board’s mind is when they start seeing people leave. And when they have a hard time filling the positions, because they start finding out it’s because of the way we’ve positioned our company. It’s because of the way that we don’t do these things. And I hope that it doesn’t mean that an entire generation has to die off for that to happen.

William:  26:12
I hope that people are, can figure it out and go, you know what? We need to adapt. Our employer brand doesn’t need to be perfect because we’re not perfect. Let’s give up on the perfect game. So last question as we go out. We both agree on the importance of employer relations. We also know and can agree on how it’s tethered and should be tethered to business decisions. When you’re interacting with just someone that doesn’t get it, like can’t you just, they can’t, they just, they don’t, they’re not there yet. What’s your go-to? I love the airline deal. That it was actually, I’m going to use that because that is actually genius.

Deb:  26:59
It is one of the ones that I do use often.

William:  27:07
It’s a good one. That’s a good one. Do you have any other ones where you can get them emotionally?

Deb:  27:07
I do have a good one. Here’s my favorite one. Because you and I both know that an enormous amount of money over the past years was ported to an employee experience. Right?

William:  27:15

Deb:  27:16
The surveys and testing and measuring engagement of employees. So I often tell this anecdote, let’s say that I’m, I have a boyfriend. I’m married. So don’t tell.

William:  27:28
Fair enough.

Deb:  27:28
I don’t really have a boyfriend just in case, my husband is…

William:  27:32
Yeah. Fair.

Deb:  27:33
Okay. Let’s say I have this boyfriend and I say to him, yeah, things are going okay. But I want to measure the temperature of how things are going.” So I say to him, “Hey honey, on a scale of one to 10, do you love me? Where’s it going?” Something like an engagement score. And he gives me a seven. I’m like, okay, I can live with a seven. That’s not bad. So I can actually take that seven…

William:  27:55
A 10 is unbelievable or one is, that person you’re partying ways at that particular moment.

Deb:  27:59
That’s right. He gives me a seven, right? So I’m content. Because first of all, it’s like your friends say to you, are you my best friend? Do you love me? [inaudible 00:28:07] Right? And I know engagement scores are much more…

William:  28:12
Right. Sure.

Deb:  28:16
But that’s it. But then I have the behaviors. He doesn’t text me when he says he does or he’s going to. He’s late to pick me up. He doesn’t call. He forgot my birthday. He’s texting other women. Now, which is better data?

William:  28:31
Yeah. Words are cheap.

Deb:  28:33
Yeah. Which are you going to hang your hat on? Now in my, when I was dating, I would have hung it on the seven, every day.

William:  28:39
Yeah, of course.

Deb:  28:40
You believe what you want to believe.

William:  28:42
Because a seven is better than the six.

Deb:  28:43
That’s right.

William:  28:44

Deb:  28:44
You believe what you want to believe. But the reality is, the behaviors tell a very different story. So we, as an employer, you need to start looking at behaviors and how you’re managing your organization. Because that’s going to be predictive of what’s going to happen, and really tell the story of where there are risks, or what the employee experience is like.

William:  29:01
I love it. Let’s end it there. That’s perfect. Deb, thank you so much for coming on the RecruitingDaily Podcast. This was wonderful.

The RecruitingDaily Podcast

William Tincup

William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.


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