HRA Blog

No More Traffic Cops…in HR

Written by Barbara Irwin on .

We’ve been helping many organizations with HR Leadership searches over the past year and I have been pleasantly surprised at how all of our clients are using the words “strategic,” “big picture,” “value” and “progressive” when describing how these job functions align with HR and the overall business.

I can remember earlier in my career when the words to describe the HR profession and responsibilities were “hire and fire,” “police officers,” “compliance,” “personnel department”, etc. Fortunately, there has been a current shift towards words such as “counselors,” “human capital management,” “human potential,” “talent acquisition,” etc.

Some may say that these are simply the latest buzzwords or flavor of the month, but I don’t really think that’s the case. I think there has been a tremendous amount of progress in how organizations view and utilize their HR departments. Is this a coincidence? In today’s hypercompetitive environment, organizations are looking top to bottom on how to optimize their workforce and leverage their expertise to gain competitive advantages. HR is no different.

For example, we work with a lot of engineering and architecture firms. Engineers are paid to do engineering, architects are paid to do architecture, but historically, more often than not, these professionals would also handle HR responsibilities (and still do depending on the size of the organization).

The good news is that folks started making comments like ‘we don’t have expertise in this area,” or more bluntly, “we don’t know, what we don’t know.”

As with other areas of work, it’s important to recognize individual and professional strengths and it’s important to similarly recognize challenges and/or weaknesses. In other words, I as an HR professional, have no business providing any advice on how to design a road, build a bridge or create an annual campaign for a non-profit organization. I leave the experts in those fields to handle those projects.

With the shifting dynamics in the workplace, more universities around the country started providing degrees in HR Management from bachelors all the way to the PhD level. Giving professionals the educational backing to move into the workforce and provide that strategic HR counsel that companies were craving.

These are all good things. Organizations want HR expertise, academia is providing it and there are great programs that many organizations put into place for on the job training. However, there are still many smaller organizations that have individuals that are too close to a situation and still try to handle it all. I recommend that they move away from that model and hire either an HR consultant or full time HR expertise.

For example, a client of ours just recently hired their first HR Director. We worked with them on understanding what HR can do for their organization, including staff recruitment, development, continuous leadership and management coaching. They were able to let go of these HR areas and turn the reigns over to someone with the expertise to be the leader and strategic counsel in this area. We are excited to see their enthusiasm and understanding of how HR can be a catalyst in their organizational growth and success.

So I say, how do you view your HR department? If you still look at them as traffic cops, it’s time to reevaluate how you’re using your HR function and gain an understanding of the immense value of the profession to your organizational goals!

The Joys of Fall – Pumpkin Lattes and Benefits Plan Renewals

Written by Tiffany Aukema on .

Summer is over and fall has arrived, for many HR professionals it’s not all apple picking and pumpkin lattes, but managing the often painful process of their organization’s benefits plan renewal and open enrollment period.  The ever-changing landscape of healthcare often leads to many questions for organizations.  Is this the right plan for our employees?  Are we getting the maximum value for the company?  Are we in compliance?  Could we be doing better?   These are all legitimate questions and can make the process stressful, particularly for small employers.

Rather than looking inward, organizations should redirect these questions to their benefits broker.  Whether you are a large firm or one of less than 100 employees, you deserve top service from your broker.  Too many employers waste money on benefits that aren’t needed or don’t make sense for their employees.  Conversely, brokers often focus primarily on renewals and don’t take the time during the year to get to know their clients.  Employers should consider spending benefits  dollars differently and invest in a quality broker who will ensure the health and wellness plans they adopt meet their organization’s needs.

The good news is that there are many great brokers in the industry.  Rather than simply focusing on renewals, many brokers offer benefits customer service support throughout the year and make an effort to build relationships with their clients.  These brokers make an effort to help resolve claims issues and assist in navigating the complicated world of coverage levels, network services, and billing.  Many offer compliance related services and file annual reports, such as the 5500, and complete non-discrimination testing.

A good broker will take the time to understand your culture, industry, values, and goals. Their priority is to help define your benefits needs that will deliver the greatest value for your organization.

When selecting or evaluating a broker, the following basic administration questions should always be asked:

  1. How is your broker compensated?  Brokers are typically paid a commission from the insurance carrier or a flat fee from the organization for which they provide services.
  2. What is your overall strategy for keeping healthcare costs controlled? The broker may have relationships that will help in controlling price increases.
  3. Do you offer access to all insurance carriers? Some brokers only work with certain providers and may limit employer’s choices in plans.
  4. Do you annually market benefits? While employers don’t want to always be changing their benefits offerings, pricing out the plans annually can save employees money.

In addition, employers should also consider asking the following questions of their benefits provider to ensure they are investing in not only a service, but a strategic partner:

  1. Do you provide ongoing benefits’ support to employees beyond open enrollment? This is a great service for smaller employers or organizations with a lean HR department. Brokers can offer benefits support and/or act as the benefits department.
  2. Do you provide any proactive, customized communication strategies to employees that goes well beyond enrollment? Again, this service is helpful to organizations that are unable to provide pro-active support because of size and resources available.
  3. What type of technology resources do you utilize to manage benefits administration? Employees like having self-service access to their benefits. Many brokers offer and manage online portals that allow employees to research their own questions and make changes to their plans saving significant internal time and resources.
  4. Does our organization have access to one person who will understand and manage our plans? Having access to one person who understands the plans personalizes the benefits experience and minimizes the risk of receiving misinformation.
  5. Do you follow legislative updates, including healthcare reform, and pass along information? Keeping abreast of healthcare legislation is complicated. Brokers can ensure that employers are compliant in all benefits related areas, to include the filings of mandatory reports.
  6. Will you challenge your organization to think outside of the box to provide solutions that meet the needs of your workforce? A broker who understands their client’s business is able to best offer creative benefits solutions that offer the maximum value for the employees.
  7. Do you offer educational programs to your staff throughout the year? Employees are interested in more than basic healthcare coverage. Many are also looking for wellness, nutritional, and fitness ideas that promote healthy lifestyles.
  8. Are you familiar with our industry? Do you support other firms of our size? Brokers who are familiar with a particular industry are best equipped to ensure that employers stay competitive in their market.
  9. How many times per year are you willing to meet with our management team to assess our current plans? Regular meetings with the broker will help minimize surprises during the renewal period and will allow employers time to plan for change, if needed.

Organizations don’t have to settle for a broker who only manages transactional needs. HR should regularly evaluate their current broker’s services and consider whether they are providing all that is needed.

More importantly, it’s a beautiful time of the year, you should be enjoying the crispness of the air and preparing for the upcoming holidays, you shouldn’t feel stressed out about benefits planning.  Leave the benefits work to the experts by looking for a trusted advisor and strategic partner.

Take Your Seat at Your Organization’s Table

Written by Cyndi Branciforte on .

As I look at HR trainings being offered this fall, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern emerging. Many programs being offered by my local SHRM chapter and other organizations are centered on opportunities for HR professionals to become more involved and aligned with the businesses they support.

Further promoting this concept is a series of articles I recently read in the July-August 2015 edition of the Harvard Business Review under the cover title, “It’s Time to Blow Up HR.” Peter Cappelli’s article, “Why We Love to Hate HR… and What HR Can Do About It” walks through historical challenges in the U.S. that shaped the HR profession along the way.

According to Cappelli, the HR field is bombarded with criticism for focusing too much on administrative requirements, being the enforcer of rules and typically lacking organizational vision and insight.

These criticisms aren’t new. As someone who’s worked in the HR industry for the past several decades, I’ve heard complaints from managers and employees inside and outside of HR.

Cappelli’s article encourages HR professionals to rethink their approach to leading their departments. He urges them to use their human capital expertise to help their organization’s get ahead of market shifts they see coming down the road. Rather than reacting to the quickly changing marketplace, they should be proactive. Taking these steps will go a long way in aligning the HR department with the organizations’ business goals and objectives, and reset the perception as being a strategic asset. Below are a few basic yet powerful recommendations offered by Cappelli that HR leaders should consider:

Set the agenda. Many CEOs and other operating executives are not experts on workplace issues. HR leaders must show why the issues they address matter to the business and that they have a sensible way to manage them, including providing supporting evidence. It’s an opportunity for HR leaders to show these executives why they should care about these issues by articulating a point of view on every people-related topic relevant to the business (i.e., layoffs, recruiting, flexible work arrangements, performance management, etc.).

Focus on issues that matter in the here and now. HR should craft company-specific (and industry-specific) policies and initiatives that respond to today’s organizational challenges, employee interests and changing business demands. It’s important to understand “what works when and where” and that there is no “one size fits all” solution. Look more closely at the environment in which the organization operates, and continually identify new challenges and design tools to meet them.

Acquire business knowledge. Be analytical. Look at things from many perspectives. Help make sense of all the employee data in order to get the most from your human capital (i.e., predict good hires, create project teams, minimize healthcare costs, and identify top performers).

Highlight financial benefits. Many HR leaders do not calculate Return-On-Investment (ROI), which feeds into business leaders’ view of HR as a cost center.  Use the internal systems to review data on turnover, productivity, and other factors that suggest which talent development programs merit investment.

Walk away from time wasters. Do your research and spend time on efforts that HR can measure and enforce. Don’t hesitate to change the way HR business is done if it doesn’t meet your organizational business needs.

By taking many of these steps, HR can become a strategic advisor to your organization and re-imagine human capital much more broadly. I encourage you to continue to ask the questions “why,” “what,” and “how,” allowing your department to stay actively involved in your organizational business. By making evidence-based recommendations for what matters and adjust (and eliminate) practices to meet ever-changing business needs, you will ensure that you add value to your organization, and always have a place at the proverbial table!

Workforce Consolidation – Oil in Water?

Written by Barbara Irwin on .

When a large oil producer announced in 2012 that they were relocating and consolidating all their employees to their headquarters in Houston, TX, it was met with great resistance and frustration. Nearly 2,100 employees, their spouses and families were faced with the reality of a new life in Texas. Over the past year here in the Washington, DC region, I have had several friends and colleagues who have been affected by this move and have been leaving the area.

I’ve worked with many companies that have gone through this transition over the past several decades and it seems that no matter what, your workplace is inevitably affected in ways both good and bad.

Over the past three decades many organizations have built business models that ensure a physical presence in many locations across the nation. With the rise of technology and an increase of remote working environments, many companies are re-evaluating the cost effectiveness of relocating employees while they explore the feasibility of instead moving them to a remote workforce.

There certainly are pros and cons to both strategies. In the past, I’ve written about the upside of a remote workforce and remote leadership teams. So for the purposes of this blog, I’d like to focus on two things that may give organizations pause before deciding to relocate everyone to a single location.

You will probably need to replace some of your best employees

Asking a sizeable portion of your workforce to pick up and move their entire lives will inevitably result with employees that decide the move isn’t worth the personal sacrifice. Sometimes there is no amount of compensation in the form of relocation bonuses that is enough to move the needle when you are asking your employees to move their families, change jobs, schools, etc. Ultimately, organizations need to be prepared to recruit and subsequently train a new batch of employees.

Your workplace culture will change in ways you never expected

Regardless of the size of an organization, it’s extremely difficult to implement a standardized workplace culture. Different offices, different cities, different vibes impact different locations with sometimes stark contrasts when it comes to workplace culture. Uplifting and reintegrating an amalgamation of multiple cultures, personalities and outlooks can lead to a challenging work environment. Organizations need to be prepared to take great strides to implement programs to ensure that relocated employees feel a sense of satisfaction in their decision to move.

No organization makes the decision to centralize their workforce lightly, and we’d be naïve to suggest that organizations shouldn’t make this choice if it’s helping the bottom line. However, while HR will often be at the forefront of making this move happen, they shouldn’t be solely focused on the relocation portion of this endeavor. They need to be thinking beyond the relocation to what inevitably may be the most challenging aspect of the entire move, the impact on the employees, and what can be done to mitigate any challenges that arise as a result of the relocation.

The Hidden Biases of the Workplace

Written by Mary Lake on .

The most important asset any organization has is its people. Being able to hire and retain the right individuals is important to any organization’s overall well being. At HR Advisors Group we have been involved in many searches where resumes are reviewed and potential candidates are phone screened in an effort to identify the crème de la crème for our clients to interview. Other times, clients do their own preliminary reviews and ask us to participate in the in-person interviewing process so that we can provide our input on the final candidates they have selected. We have helped many clients find the most qualified candidate who is the right fit for their culture and organization. Our clients strive to be Equal Opportunity Employers and we have enjoyed assisting them in this goal.

I have recently completed some research on implicit bias that I hope will allow both our clients and HR Advisors Group to do an even better job in ensuring that the best candidate is selected. One of the sources of my research has been the book “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People” by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. Their very readable study on hidden biases of good people brought out some very interesting points and questions about what I knew about my own thought processes. As I was reading their book, I began to gain a greater understanding on how my own life experiences affected how I thought and reacted to people and situations and the implications this can have on truly being an Equal Opportunity Employer.

Benaji and Greenwald contend that our life experiences influence our expectations unconsciously and therefore cause biases in our behaviors that we are not only unaware of, but of which we consciously wouldn’t approve of. One of the examples in Benaji and Greenwald’s book is the practice of blind auditions for symphony orchestras across the country. In the 1970’s most professional, symphony orchestra musicians were male. In the 1980’s the practice of concealing an applicant’s gender on an application and having the audition performed behind a screen where the applicant was heard and not seen, increased the number of women who were successful candidates.

While it is not possible for most employers to do the blind auditions that were done by the symphony, there are some things that we can do as employers to minimize the impact of implicit bias. The first is to remove, or block out the candidate names on the resumes that we review. Surnames will often identify the nationality or ethnicity of a candidate and a first name can at times identify a candidate’s race. In addition, names such as Latisha Washington or Jamal Jones are often identified as African American names. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research “Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.” See the National Bureau of Economic Research for further information. Removing the ability to view candidate names removes any unintended implicit bias that employers might have in selecting candidates to interview.

The theory of Benaji and Greenwald’s study is that if we know our unconscious biases we can put actions into place to counteract those biases. The problem comes in identifying our hidden biases. If you want to test yourself with this concept, you can take an anonymous test to identify your hidden biases.  The Implicit Association Test measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to express. The IAT measures the strengths of associations between concepts and evaluations or stereotypes.   If you are interested in taking the test, visit the Harvard Project Implicit website. The test results combined with further reading on the topic (readily available through an Internet search) is a start in understanding ourselves, our life experiences and influencers in hidden bias.  I would not suggest that the IAT will answer all of your questions about whether or not you are looking at hiring without bias, however, it may help shape and enhance your current hiring practices.

Employee Handbooks for the Modern Workforce

Written by Tiffany Aukema on .

Over the past several months, I have worked on three employee handbooks which often causes friends and colleagues to groan, roll their eyes and let me know how sorry they feel for me.  Ironically, working on employee handbooks is something I really enjoy and find rewarding!

I admit, workplace policies aren’t particularly glamorous and often seem antithetical to workplaces that are more often moving towards progressive ideas such as telecommuting, flexible schedules, and unlimited PTO. Even last week an HR colleague of mine suggested that companies need to scrap rigid policies and encourage creativity by allowing flexibility in all aspects of the work experience.

I am encouraged that companies are starting to think outside the box and come up with creative ways to work.  However, I would argue that as new ideas emerge, employment policies need to change, not be eliminated.

While employees want less stringent rules, they also need to understand workplace expectations.  Clear expectations help create a foundation of fairness, consistency, and organization.  Without a clear set of expectations, employers encourage the “I didn’t know…” mentality, which leads to frustration, decreased morale and, in more extreme situations, lawsuits.

The good news is that employers can get around the negative stereotype of employee handbooks.  Workplace policies can be progressive!

In creating an employee handbook, employers should consider the following:

  1. Take a close look at your culture. Employee handbook policies should accurately reflect the current environment both inside and outside your organization. It’s important to carefully read and thoughtfully reflect on each current policy. Revise any policies to mirror the values of the organization and represent the daily experience, and ensure the policies are written in a tone that is consistent with the company voice.
  2. Consider creating a two-pronged handbook that addresses the compliance needs and the culture. Certain policies are necessary to protect both the employee and the employer, but the entire handbook doesn’t need to be a stodgy set of policies. Know which policies are important for legal reasons and which policies are important to the employee work experience, creativity, and productivity. The EEO related policies can be drafted in a way that supports diversity as a company value rather than “because it is the law.”
  3. Ask your employees what is important to them. Creating a new employee handbook is a perfect time to engage staff and find out what is important to them. While employers shouldn’t expect to change the world with a new handbook, small and measured changes suggested by employees can be implemented.
  4. Once completed, have an attorney review your new employee handbook to ensure compliance with employer laws and that new policies are written in ways to avoid possible litigation.
  5. Thoughtfully introduce the new employee handbook with careful communication. Let employees know that the policies were written in a way that reflects your organization’s values. Help them understand why rules and expectations are important to a healthy workplace. The employee handbook serves as a central resource for workplace concerns.

As your organization looks to the future and you consider embracing progressive work styles and environments, don’t ignore the employee handbook and assume it doesn’t have a place in the modern workplace.  Leverage the handbook to reinforce your company culture, while at the same time, providing employees with a confidence that your organization is practicing policy with fairness and consistency.