Tag Archives: human resources

Is HR Still Relevant? Only If We Can Keep Up With the Speed of Change


HR wordleThis past summer, I read an article on TLNT.com asking “Is there still a need for HR?” Of course, as an Human Resources publication, TLNT.com answered yes.  And as a former HR executive, I think the answer is yes also.

Then I read another article on McKinsey.com on getting ready for the future of work. This article focused on the increase of artificial intelligence and what that will mean for organizations in the years ahead.  According to McKinsey, at least 30 percent of the activities associated with most occupations could be automated—including knowledge tasks.

It dawned on me that in my working career of thirty-some years, there have been two major shifts in what constitutes work for many people. The first shift arose with the computerization of what used to be manual tasks, vastly increasing the productivity of repetitive work. The second shift came with the speed of communications and data transfer, so that now many roles can be performed anywhere.

It could be that artificial intelligence will be a third momentous shift in work, if machines in the future will not only perform the processing tasks that humans now do, but also the thinking and conceptualizing roles that we have assumed differentiated human beings from non-human.

These huge changes in what constitutes work are significant because they have happened so rapidly. Shifts of this magnitude used to come only once in a century or every few centuries. Think of the Industrial Revolution, when machines started doing what human and animal labor had done before. Think of how locomotion shifted from wind or animal power to motorized power. We now move as fast as we can find power to move us—on land, water, air . . . and even space.

Why do I raise these subjects in a discussion about Human Resources?

HR signBecause to remain relevant in the future, HR must have ready the right talent the organization will need at the right time in the right place. We have barely dealt with the skill sets needed to handle digitization. We still don’t really have our arms around the globalization of the workforce permitting employees and those in the gig economy in disparate locations to form project teams that ebb and flow as the work requires. Yet we may soon be asked to manage the intersection between human and artificial intelligence, when most HR people have no understanding of the possibilities of AI.

And we need to help employees prepare themselves to adapt to changing and ever more complex roles. Job changes in the future will be less about moving from company to company in the same field and more about complete shifts in what work we do and how we do it.

Are HR’s abilities to predict the skill sets of the future sufficient to the task of helping employees keep up? I doubt it.

HR strategists today say that fostering organizational culture is one of the core strengths HR can bring to an organization. But are we prepared to develop a global culture that incorporates not only human capabilities but also includes AI in the work world of tomorrow? I doubt that also.

The McKinsey article argues that lifelong learning is the only way that humans will maintain their employability in the future. That goes for HR professionals as much as for any other worker.

As Jeff Dieffenbach, associate director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Integrated Learning Initiative, is quoted as saying in the McKinsey article:

“While change is accelerating, one thing that is definitely not is the neuroplasticity of the brain. In other words, the rate of change in the world may have surpassed the speed at which the human mind can process those changes.”

That goes for HR brains as well as those of other workers. Frankly, I’m not sure HR will survive in a recognizable form. The machines may take over from us.

What do you see ahead for HR?

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Remembering September 11: Lessons in Crisis Management


National_Park_Service_9-11_Statue_of_Liberty_and_WTCI’ve written several posts about crisis management, so it surprised me to realize that in over five years of blogging, I’ve never written about my experience on September 11, 2011. I’ve barely mentioned that date at all, even though the heartbreaking day not only shook me personally but provided a huge opportunity for learning as an HR executive.

I lived and worked in the Central Time Zone at the time, an hour behind the East Coast. I was in an early meeting with other members of the Human Resources staff in my company that Tuesday morning. Shortly after we started the meeting, an administrative assistant came into the room to tell us that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. We acknowledged the tragedy, but continued our meeting. Then a few minutes later, she reported that another plane had struck the other tower. At that point, it was clear that the collisions were intentional—the U.S. had been struck by terrorists. We stopped our meeting, and those of us on the company’s crisis management team, including myself, gathered to determine the impact on our company.

It might seem that a corporation a thousand miles away from the attacks should not have any issues, but our multinational company had locations around the U.S., including on the East Coast. We had employees traveling on business. We had thousands of employees throughout the nation concerned about family and friends near the affected sites. And everyone, of course, was fearful of another strike.

Through the course of that day, we worked on the following issues:

— We immediately began providing the best information we could to employees. For the first time ever, we allowed the intra-company communications monitors at each major location to broadcast national news, rather than static screens of company news. A few departments had televisions going all day long, but we wanted employees working in departments without televisions (i.e., most employees) to have ready access to information as well. Yes, productivity suffered, but it would have anyway, and making the information easily accessible was one way to show employees we cared about their concerns.

— Our Travel Department searched the travel records of all employees away on business and contacted them to determine if they were safe (they were). Because all flights in the U.S. were canceled for the next few days, we also started making alternative arrangements get those employees home. In many cases, we had to authorize one-way rental cars from the coasts to get people home. These were expensive trips, but we knew the most important thing was getting employees back to their families during this national crisis.

— We also assisted vendor and customer representatives on our sites to make arrangements to return to their homes also.

— We prepared a video message for our CEO to deliver to all employees. By midafternoon on September 11, our communications experts had recorded our CEO in a video that we put on our monitors and on the company intranet site. The CEO conveyed his sympathy to those inside and outside the company impacted by the catastrophe and said that he and other corporate officers were as devastated by the day’s events as everyone else. He also provided information on how we were handling the crisis — that the company had located all of our traveling employees and determined none had been on the downed planes and that we were working to bring the others home as quickly as possible.

— We brought in grief counselors to our major locations to conduct group sessions with employees who were emotionally distraught by the day’s news, and provided information on our Employee Assistance Program in case employees wanted more individualized counseling.

Our crisis management team continued these activities for several days, until the nation and its transportation system returned to normal. But, of course, nothing has been the same in the sixteen years since those awful events.

I learned that day the reality of the importance of communications during a crisis. It is one thing to read articles on crisis management, like this one. It is another thing to live it and to know that what you are doing is having an impact, for better or for worse, on the morale of your organization.

I learned it is important to not only communicate facts but empathy as well. Company leaders and managers must seek out and pass on accurate and timely information. But good leaders must also be emotionally congruent with others in their organization. This emotional support is critical, even though at the same time management is providing direction and channeling people’s energy toward productive activities. And leaders must recognize that sometimes the most important thing is to pause and acknowledge feelings before productive behaviors can resume.

A crisis can be an opportunity to bring an organization closer together, but only if it is managed well.

What lessons have you learned while handling a crisis?

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Employer Health Care Benefits — Preparing for 2018


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I last wrote about health care in late March, shortly after the House of Representatives failed to bring the American Health Care Act (AHCA) to a vote. Since then, after a few amendments, the House did pass the AHCA, but with all the other brouhahas in Washington over the last few weeks, it’s questionable whether the Senate will get to health care anytime soon.

There are some good provisions in the AHCA as passed by the House. Among other things, the AHCA makes the following changes to Obamacare:

  • The individual mandate was repealed, as was the employer mandate;
  • The 2.3% medical device tax was repealed;
  • The net investment tax was repealed, as was the .9% Medicare high earner tax;
  • The Cadillac tax for expensive plans was delayed (and will probably never be permitted to take effect, since neither Republicans nor Democrats like this provision); and
  • Health Savings Accounts were expanded, effective in 2018

All of these provisions provide less government control over the health care marketplace. In the long run, these changes would generally be helpful for employers.

Still, as most people recognize, without an individual mandate, some incentive is necessary to get healthy people to opt into health insurance before they get sick and to maintain that coverage. The AHCA continuous health insurance coverage incentive replaces the individual mandate penalty. This incentive operates much like HIPAA certificates of coverage. As long as they do not let their health insurance lapse for more than 63 days, individuals cannot be charged higher premiums because of preexisting conditions. Moreover, the premium penalty for the first plan year cannot exceed 30%.

There is an exception to this 30% limit, but the exception permits insurers to charge late enrollees with pre-existing condition higher premiums only if the state has waived the community rating rule and the state has established a high-risk pool to help people with preexisting conditions fund their coverage.

The AHCA is far from a perfect bill, and it is likely to face substantial amendments in the Senate before it comes to a vote in that chamber. And Congress has many other priorities this session as well. So what will happen with respect to health care legislation by the end of the year is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, we are at the time of year when many employers are examining their options for health plans for their employees for the year ahead. What should employers do in this time of uncertainty?

Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, is still the law, so until Congress acts, employers must comply with the mandates and reporting requirements. With the individual mandate in place, employees will want to know their employer-provided health care options in a timely fashion.

Moreover, although the Cadillac tax has been kicked down the road and its ultimate implementation is uncertain, avoidance of the tax—or preparation for it—will take time to structure.

For 2018 at least, the current employer responsibilities are likely to remain in place. Employers must continue to manage their benefit plans, tweaking them as makes most sense for their workforce. There remain many reasons why employers should support their employees’ health and wellness if they want to be employers of choice.

Employers, what concerns you the most about health benefits in 2018?

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What Does the Trump Administration Mean for Human Resources?


human-1181577_1280The next several months—and likely the next few years—will be a roller coaster for Human Resources professionals. The differences between the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration are stark in many government arenas, but labor and employment is surely one of the areas where the differences are the most dramatic.

Here are some of the most likely changes that HR will have to address with their organization’s management in the short-term:

1. Immigration

Immigration practice is likely to change, with some changes coming quickly and others developing over the course of several months and years. In the short term, E-Verify will be expanded to check all new workers, and I-9 forms are likely to see increased audits. Industries that are dependent on immigrant workers—both high-tech companies needing H1-B visa holders and those like hospitality firms that need manual and service workers—are likely to see a slow-down in their ability to bring in foreign workers. HR will need to have compliance programs in place.

2. Overtime

The Department of Labor changes to the overtime exemption rule will likely be reversed. Business had objected strongly to raising the exempt salary threshold to $913 per week ($47,476 per year), though most organizations had begun—or even completed—their transition to this increased bright line between exempt and nonexempt positions. Currently, the rule is in limbo, as a federal court has enjoined its implementation, but how the court will rule finally is unknown and the timing uncertain. The new Department of Labor could decide to drop its defense and let the injunction become permanent. Or DOL could propose some modifications. HR will need to advise management on whether to retain changes that have already been implemented and communicated, whether to reverse them, whether to take a “wait and see” approach, or some combination of all of these.

3. Health Benefits

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will change. But the scope and direction of the modifications and repair of this complex statute and its even more complex regulatory scheme have not yet been determined. At the moment, HR can’t do anything, but this is an area that will necessitate time and effort, no matter what happens.

4. Union Organizing

Many NLRB rulings are likely to be reversed. The timing of these changes will depend on when President Trump fills the vacant seats on the Board, but as soon as Republican appointees have a majority, it is likely that we will see a significant tilt toward management-favored positions. In the immediate future, some of the pro-union policies favored in the Obama Administration, such as “quickie elections” and the “persuader” rule (requiring attorneys and other consultants to disclose clients whom they advise on union organizing issues), should be axed. The broadening of the joint employer doctrine—which the Obama Administration had pushed—may also be rolled back.

5. Downsizing

Reductions in force in major employers are likely to receive increased public scrutiny. If jobs are moving overseas, employers need to be ready to justify their moves and to respond to possible Presidential attention.

And over the longer term, HR can add the following changes to its project list:

  • The Obamacare changes are a long-term issue. It is unlikely that employers will need to change anything for 2017, and even 2018 is uncertain.
  • State and local legislative developments will become a bigger area of concern. Issues such as minimum wage increases and paid family leave are likely to see more movement at the state and local levels than through Congress.
  • Diversity practices may get murkier. The mandate for affirmative action at federal contractors may be weakened or repealed, though Congress might push back on President Trump on this issue if he goes too far. HR will need to work with organizational leaders in determining the best diversity policies for their workplace.
  • Also on the diversity front, employees with strongly held religious beliefs may seek greater freedom to object to work assignments and/or to display signs of their beliefs in the workplace. With Christians feeling empowered and Muslims feeling threatened, greater religious tensions in some workplaces are possible. HR will have to assist managers in working through these conflicts.
  • Whether President Trump will support broader immigration reform and whether Congress can pass such legislation are unknowns at this time.

The Society for Human Resource Management has set up a page monitoring workforce developments under the new Trump Administration. It is worth following.

I’ll revisit these issues in a few months to see what changes have developed.

HR professionals, which issue do you most hope changes under the Trump Administration?

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Performance Management Isn’t About Deadwood


MP900341467I recently wrote about performance management and the abolition of performance reviews at certain companies. Then I read a Wall Street Journal article last week stating that one of Kimberly-Clark’s goals is “managing out deadwood.” So much for doing away with performance reviews at that company.

The article states that Kimberly-Clark has about a 10% total turnover (voluntary and involuntary), and that employees are expected to “keep improving—or else.” I don’t disagree with a focus on continuous improvement, and a 10% turnover is not excessive. Still, performance management and “managing out deadwood” are two different things in concept, if not always in the end result. And they have different consequences both from a legal and from an employee relations perspective.

From the legal perspective, talking about employees as “deadwood” can lead to complaints of age discrimination. See Herr v. Nestlé U.S.A., 2003 Cal. App. LEXIS 855 (June 12, 2003), described here.

Any indication that an employee over age 40 is past his or her usefulness is problematic. Of course, employees can be ineffective performers at any age, but the tendency at many companies that initiate performance improvement drives is to focus on employees who have been sitting around for awhile—and who tend to be in the protected age group.

From the employee relations perspective, it can be demoralizing to adequate performers to know that managers are snapping at their heels, that as soon as the worst performers are out, a continuous improvement drive will mean employees who are in the lower mid-tier are now at the bottom.

Yet a true continuous improvement program means there is always someone at the bottom. It’s not like one manager told me once, “We’re done—we fired all our poor performers last year.”

Despite my quip above (“so much for doing away with performance reviews . . .”), there actually is no disconnect between abandoning annual reviews and an emphasis on performance improvement. In fact, it may be easier to focus on performance issues with the more regular discussions between managers and employees advocated by such companies as General Electric, Adobe Systems, and others.

Whatever performance culture a company decides to adopt, the important thing is to train managers to handle it well, to avoid the legal pitfalls of only focusing on older low performers or others in certain protected groups, and to keep the emphasis both encouraging and disciplined.

Performance management isn’t about getting rid of deadwood. It’s about improving every employee’s performance—including that of managers.

When in your experience has a performance management emphasis caused legal or employee relations problems?

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The Lonely Role of Human Resources Professionals


HR wordle“I don’t think I can ever join their book club,” an HR acquaintance of mine told me one time about a group of employees in her division who socialized together. “I know too much.”

I was also in Human Resources at the time, and I’d been a corporate attorney before that. I knew exactly what she meant. HR professionals—and employment attorneys also—sometimes learn too much about the people they work with to be comfortable socializing with other employees.

office 2 people Y01VDYAX63HR can be a lonely profession. You know who is on a performance improvement plan. You know whose jobs are about to be eliminated. You probably even know who is having an affair with whom. In all these situations, confidentiality is important. There are few people you can share information with—and typically, the fewer the better.

As social media options expand, the choices that HR professionals must make become even harder. Do you “friend” or “follow” others in your organization, knowing that you might see posts about their off-work activities that could have implications at work? What if they post racist or sexist comments? What if they post a photo of themselves lifting weights at the gym when they have lifting restrictions at work? (Don’t laugh—it’s happened.)

Some HR employees set firm policies for themselves that they will not follow anyone from their company on social media. Some won’t use social media themselves. And yet, our co-workers are often our best friends. By limiting our social media and other communications, we limit our social interactions.

book BCLRC8HNEOI am in a book club with a senior HR manager in the company I used to work for. While we gossip about common acquaintances, she is discreet about what she says. I am no longer privy to confidential information about these individuals, but she still is. I respect and admire her circumspection.

I remember being in her shoes and not having anyone to talk to about particularly thorny situations—such as when a senior corporate employee had been accused of sexual harassment, or a well-respected employee had serious medical issues. Those were difficult and lonely times.

When I was in a senior HR role, I was fortunate to have a couple of fellow HR professionals whom I respected and trusted. Sometimes I felt comfortable using them as sounding boards to talk through difficult cases. I could role play with them or talk through likely responses from the employee in question.

But twice that I can recall I was involved in negotiating a severance agreement with the individuals who managed my trusted peers. I could not bring them into the situation, and therefore had no one to review the situations with. On another occasion, I had to discipline one of my HR peers for violating corporate policy. Again, since the individual was not being fired, I couldn’t talk about the case at all.

The higher up you are in Human Resources, the lonelier it is. The more you know about the organization and its future plans, the more prominent people you work with, the less likely it is that there is anyone to discuss these matters with. In fact, CEOs typically use their chief HR officers as their sounding boards about any and all talent issues in the organization, from performance problems of corporate officers to succession planning to how to integrate or downsize a newly acquired unit. What can the HR VP do when he or she would like a sounding board to discuss the CEO?

The worst thing that can happen for an HR professional is to lose the trust of the people in the organization. As a matter of course, HR employees walk a line between being viewed as management shills and employee coddlers. HR has to keep the long-term good of the organization in mind, and not lean too far toward either management or employees. In fact, HR needs to knock down the walls between management and employees by building a strong employee relations culture.

Still, losing trust is easy to do. Any ethical lapse or revelation of confidential information, and HR loses its effectiveness. So loneliness is part of the job. Good HR professionals learn to live with it.

When have you faced loneliness on your job?

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Matrix Organizations: Advantages and Disadvantages


matrix-organizational-structureI’ve been thinking about matrix organizations recently—about the pros and cons of these complex structures and about my experience in one many years ago.

A matrix organization is one in which there are dual reporting structures. In the typical matrix, subject matter specialists—such as finance, human resources, or I/T specialists—report both to management in their specialty and also to management in the line area that they support. Matrix organizations vary in which of the two reporting relationships is direct and which is indirect.

For example, when I was a Human Resources director, I reported directly to the line area and indirectly to the Vice-President of Human Resources. But similar matrix organizations might well choose to have the direct reporting relationship be to the Vice-President of Human Resources, and the indirect reporting to the line area.

Obviously, a matrix reporting structure adds complexity to an organization. Sometimes it is higher cost as well. And employees in the matrix do sometimes get pulled in conflicting directions—when there were differences of opinion between my direct boss and the V-P of HR (who were peers), I and others in my same role in the organization had to exercise a fair amount of diplomacy to work our way through the situation.

So the benefits of the structure must outweigh these disadvantages. What are the benefits? Here are the main advantages I see:

1. Better service to the business

When HR and other corporate specialists are not aligned with the business units they support, they often develop a rigid silo mentality. Finance specialists do not consider what each division needs to measure for greatest productivity. I/T specialists develop systems in a vacuum. And HR specialists impose performance incentives that do not relate to the work being done.

The conflicts I experienced in the matrix organization where I worked were occurred when the HR division rolled out such initiatives as management training programs and compensation systems that did not work in the part of the corporation where I worked. The challenge I faced was in working with both HR and the line area to adapt the corporate system to what would work in my division. I think our division—and therefore the entire corporation—was better served because of this attention to what was needed and not needed in different work groups.

2. Expertise and flexibility of specialist functions

Although having a group of corporate specialists can develop programs that are extra work in some divisions, they are also able to make world-class expertise available across the corporation. This prevents specialists from becoming stale in what they can offer the company.

Had I been aligned solely with the business, I would not have had the opportunity to work with as many HR specialists and learn as much about my area of expertise. The matrix permitted our corporation to have more HR specialists who could develop more leading-edge programs that we could take across various divisions. Not every program worked everywhere (as explained in the preceding section), but we were still better off for having tried a variety of new things.

A recent Wall Street Journal article stated that improvements in military trauma care are limited in part because

“no single general is in charge of battlefield medicine. Combat commanders—infantrymen, artillery officers and others with no medical training—are in charge of medical personnel on the front lines.”

In other words, if there were a matrix organization giving a medical professional oversight of all battlefield medicine, in addition to the combat commanders, trauma care might improve.

3. Better development of specialists

I acquired better HR knowledge faster by working in a matrix organization than I would have working by myself in the line division. I gained a broader perspective on the organization from seeing how other HR specialists worked in their divisions, and I saw my particular division at a deeper level than I would have if I had worked only in HR.

I also learned better “managing-up” skills than I would have in a siloed organization. By having to serve two masters, I learned tact and persuasion. I also learned to find my allies and how to predict when I might face an exploding grenade. Sometimes I could even prevent the grenades from landing.

Conclusion

As one article stated, “Organization structure should always follow strategy.” Where integration across divisions is important for corporate strategy, then a matrix organization makes sense. Just be aware of the pros and cons when choosing this complexity.

Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that every organization is designed perfectly to get the result it gets. The reporting structures and matrix relationships will impact organizational results. According to Jay Galbraith, strategy, structure, processes, rewards, and people all need to be aligned to successfully implement a matrix organization.

For good information on matrix organizations, see

What is your experience with matrix organizations?

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