What Is Employee Management? A Starting Guide for Giving (Almost) Everyone What They Want

Sam Cook


What Is Employee Management? A Starting Guide for Giving (Almost) Everyone What They Want

It almost goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: The 2020s have been a hard decade for businesses, and especially for HR leaders navigating the modern workplace. Employee management has become far more challenging than it’s ever been in the past. The evolving workplace dynamics of remote work have made management confusing and difficult, while return-to-office (RTO) strategies have created a significant division between employees, managers, and executive leaders. 

And then there’s you. The HR leader stuck smack dab in the middle. You have to take the brunt of everyone’s ire as you struggle with fostering a conducive work environment that makes everyone happy.

Long story short, everyone wants better employee management. But what “better management” means significantly varies depending on who’s asking about it. Employees have certain wants and needs that they feel aren’t being met. And executive leaders have certain demands (often related to productivity and retention) that also have become more challenging. 

Your starting point, however, should be in helping everyone — yourself included — understand what employee management is, why it’s important, and where to start building a strategy that meets as many needs as possible.

That’s what this blog post is designed to do. We recommend you bookmark this page and share it with your colleagues to discuss some of the key points.

Take It With You:

Learn more about why employee engagement is cratering right now – and what you can do to stop it. Download our Workforce Survival Guide.

Understanding Employee Management: 3 Angles to Consider

The most considerable confusion around employee management rests in the fact that there are three key groups, all of whom may have slightly different perspectives on what good management looks like:

  • 👔 Executives and Managers
  • 👨🏽‍💻 Employees
  • 🦹🏼 HR and Talent Development  

To get a more comprehensive understanding of employee management, we’ll start by defining what it means to each of these core groups. From there, we’ll whittle that down to a pragmatic understanding that will work for all three factions (because, let’s face it, this is like warfare). 

Employee perspective

An image of the cover of Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, to exemplify bad employee management.

“Management” is almost like a swear word for workers. It’s vastly important for you to understand that from the outset. That negative connotation is not always warranted, but there is precedent for it based on the historical evolution of employee management.

Lest you need to be reminded, Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle was based on real events, including that scene in the meat packing plant.

Think about the movie Office Space (this won’t be the only Office Space reference, either). Of the many scenes and characters in the film that exemplify how employees perceive management, Bill Lumbergh takes the cake (literally, if you’ve seen the film).  

He maintains all of the negative traits of employee management that define the concept for workers:

  • Micromanages his team
  • Lacks empathy
  • Has poor communication skills
  • Is uninspiring
  • Shows passive-aggressive behaviors
  • Avoids responsibility
  • Shows favoritism
  • Has ineffectual leadership styles
  • Is generally unapproachable

This is the bottom-up view from employees in how management and executives think and act toward workers. It’s why survey after survey finds employees commonly cite bad managers as a top reason for quitting.

One survey found that 82% of people would quit due to a bad manager. 

Based on that context, employees may define employee engagement this way: A top-down system of control and surveillance aimed at maximizing productivity at the expense of worker well-being.

Human Resource’s perspective

For HR and talent development leaders, employee management is often seen as a double-edged sword. On one hand, you fully understand just how vital effective management is to the success of your company. Conversely, you get the brunt of employee complaints about how they’re being managed. And when you glance at feedback surveys and exit interviews, you often have to cringe.

This time, let’s peek into another pop-culture office setting: The Office (specifically, the U.S. version). In this hit show (which was still the most-streamed show even up to 2020, despite having ended in 2013), many HR leaders can relate to Toby Flenderson’s character. Toby, as the HR representative for his branch, is perpetually caught in the crossfire between management and employees, trying to advocate for both sides while seldom pleasing either.

Actor Paul Bevan Lieberstein did such an excellent job with the character that his frustrations in trying to wangle all sides are palpable. 

From the HR standpoint, the ideal traits of employee management would include:

  • Fairness in policy enforcement
  • Open channels for feedback
  • Employee development and training programs
  • Recognition and reward systems
  • Cultivation of a positive work environment
  • Fostering diversity and inclusion

Yet, HR professionals know all too well that the reality often falls short of the ideal. This is the tightrope you regularly walk: balancing the strategic needs of the organization with the personal and emotional needs of its employees. If you consider the plethora of surveys, statistics, and studies that HR departments delve into, you will find that poor management not only causes high turnover (as we already mentioned) but also leads to decreased productivity, lower employee engagement, and can even tarnish a company’s reputation.

Where employees see management as a “top-down system of control and surveillance,” HR leaders may try defining employee management this way: A constantly evolving set of practices aimed at aligning individual performance with organizational goals, often falling victim to the complexities of human behavior and organizational inertia.

Executive and manager perspective

If recent events have taught us anything, many executive leaders and managers have an overwhelmingly cynical view of their people. This was already well-known, but the pandemic pulled back any uncertainty on that. While people-first managers and executives exist, far too many have leaned into the following playbook in recent years:

  • Struggled to understand employee engagement needs during the pandemic
  • Were slow to adapt to management style changes in a remote work environment
  • Relied on employee surveillance software to track activity

And then, to make matters worse, many companies that promised remote work would be the wave of the future reneged on that promise. Now, there’s an ongoing battle over remote work, flexible work, and return-to-office policies. For employers, that cynicism is possibly best exemplified in Peter’s character from Office Space. Without a doubt, the following scene likely lives rent-free in the heads of many managers and leaders:

It’s easy to be pessimistic about how managers and executive leaders view workers. Yet, there’s undoubtedly some sympathy to be had here.

Executive leaders are looking at the bottom line, and it seems that all signs point to a need to upend management in a forceful, cost-saving way that looks past employee experience and gets more immediate productivity results.

To that end, managers and executives may define employee management using terms like this: A strategic framework for maximizing productivity and profitability through performance metrics while maintaining a minimum level of employee satisfaction conducive to operational efficiency.

A combined perspective for the masses

To sum up these three perspectives:

  • Employees often see employee management as a negative based on actual and perceived experiences.
  • Executives often see managers see employee management as a way to meet bottom-line goals but execute strategies that fail to connect with employee needs.
  • HR leaders often maintain a more nuanced understanding of management but are usually beholden more to what management wants than employees need. 

As an HR leader, your goal is to not only create programs and strategies that align with organizational goals but to advocate for management practices that work for everyone. That starts with having a definition you can use as your baseline to communicate why any strategy you adopt is important.

So, we’ll take those three different perspectives and combine them into a definition you can rally around:

“Employee management is a dynamic and multi-faceted system aimed at aligning individual performance and well-being with organizational objectives. It involves a balance of performance metrics and human considerations, striving for operational efficiency while acknowledging the complexities of human behavior.”

This definition integrates the primary concerns of each group:

From the employee perspective, it acknowledges the importance of “individual performance and well-being,” aiming to move away from a purely top-down system of “control and surveillance.”

From the HR standpoint, it recognizes the “complexities of human behavior,” acknowledging that employee management is not a static, one-size-fits-all set of practices but a “dynamic and multi-faceted system.”

From the executive and managerial perspective, it brings in the focus on “aligning… with organizational objectives” and “striving for operational efficiency,” emphasizing that the end goal is to meet the company’s needs effectively.

While you can’t and will never be able to appease everyone, you can, at least, begin internal marketing for your employee management ideas by building on a definition that includes the needs and concerns of all parties involved (yours included). 

Implementing a Balanced Employee Management Strategy

Having that functional and democratic definition of employee engagement will be critical as you take the next steps. The key stakeholders involved — employees and executives — must buy into the management strategies you want to implement. 

That’s no easy task. Both groups’ perspectives on what employee management should look like tend to be fairly oppositional. But in reality, both groups want the same thing, even if they don’t always realize it. 

Female employee sitting at a table engaged in productive work at a laptop.
  • Employees want to be more engaged, more productive, and more capable of helping the company achieve its revenue goals. However, they strongly desire programs and incentives that recognize their struggles, uplift their needs, and simplify their tasks. Quite often, that includes things like mentorship opportunities, flexible work schedules, salary increases, clear and unbiased feedback, and psychological safety
  • Employers want employees to be more productive, engaged, growing in their skills, and staying in place longer (e.g., not quitting). However, they also want to achieve those things at a lower cost so that they can grow revenue, meet the demands of investors and shareholders, and expand the company. Quite often, that includes cost-effective training programs, efficient performance management systems, the utilization of technology for routine tasks, and the development of a cohesive company culture.

The intersecting interests of employees and employers create a conducive ground for crafting employee management strategies that meet the needs of both groups. 

A shared vision leads to better management outcomes

By establishing a shared vision and understanding the mutual benefits of effective employee management, HR leaders can play a pivotal role in bridging the gaps between these two groups. Engaging in open dialogues, creating forums for feedback, and designing programs that address the core concerns and aspirations of both employees and employers are steps toward building a harmonious and productive work environment.

In essence, the path towards effective employee management lies in the ability to build a balanced strategy, align diverse interests, and work collaboratively towards achieving the overarching organizational goals while ensuring a satisfying and motivating workplace for all. 

Yes, those performance metrics that scare employees will matter to executive leaders. But you can get them to matter to employees, too, if you help workers understand why certain management strategies are needed. 

And yes, you can get executive leaders to open the purse strings for the technology you need, like mentoring software or employee resource group management platforms. You just need to help them visualize the ROI that such tools will have and how those tools make employees happier, more productive, and, therefore, more willing to buy into management’s philosophy. 

One last story on miscommunication in employee management

We’ll leave you with this: Miscommunication is probably the biggest hindrance to effective employee management.

When employees don’t effectively discuss their needs, and when managers and executive leaders don’t effectively communicate why things are important, everyone gets increasingly frustrated with each other. 

Workplace expert Jennifer Moss wrote an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review on employee burnout. In it, she retells a story about how the faculty chairs at a university where she worked spent their entire annual budget on a sound-proof studio without getting input from the rest of the faculty members. Much to those leaders’ chagrin, the faculty was furious because that wasn’t what they needed. Instead, they simply wanted better music stands (which would have cost just $300 instead of the whole budget).

As Moss explains, “Leaders could save themselves a huge amount of employee stress and subsequent burnout if they were just better at asking people what they need.”

The same is true of workers. Employees tend to vote with their feet and leave the complaining to the exit interview — if you can get them to agree to an exit interview at all (only 30-35% of workers do). There are various reasons for that, such as fear of speaking up.

In fact, around 50% of workers remain quiet about their concerns, needs, and ideas. 

You have a tough job ahead of you trying to communicate the value of employee management to workers. But you also have a tough job trying to get executives bought into the tools and strategies needed to improve on the end goals they want to see from management. 

Communication is critical for both sides. Without it, you’ll be running against a wall every time. 

Here are a few next steps to consider:

Sam Cook

An email you’ll actually love

Get expert tips and techniques about What Is Employee Management? A Starting Guide for Giving (Almost) Everyone What They Want.

Sent once per month. Containing valuable content.

Subscribe to the newsletter