Both industrial and employee relations are areas of research related to the conditions and relationships that exist in the workplace, but differences exist between them. Broadly speaking, industrial relations focus on the relationships that exist between an employer and the employees collectively through their union, while employee relations refer to the analysis and management of work involving the individual.
The term “industrial relations” came into common use during the mid-20th century for two key reasons. Industry expanded dramatically throughout North America to supply the World War II effort, and, as union membership grew correspondingly, industry increasingly entered into collective bargaining processes with unions. Industrial relations became a social science; workplace relations, primarily those between industry and industrial workers, were analyzed using academic disciplines such as sociology and economics.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, the use of industrial relations to describe workplace relations is no longer as prevalent, due to the widespread deindustrialization of developed economies and declining union membership. Instead, employers now use the term “employee relations,” which refers to relationships that exist in both unionized and nonunionized workplaces. Employers hope to manage employee relations successfully with each respective individual, as a means to raise morale and productivity.
Managing Workplace Relations
While industrial relations are often negotiated between an employer and a workers’ union, employee relations are typically managed through discussions between a company’s human resources representative and individual workers.