Articles from June 2010



Some Final Thoughts on SHRM

As the 2010 SHRM conference draws to a close, here are a few final (and random) thoughts about the event (and my first blog post filed from an airplane).

Best news coming out of the conference: 11,000+ attendees! After a couple of years of major belt tightening, companies appear to be spending once again.

Most discouraging observation: On day one, folks stuck around to hear Steve Forbes pretty much until the end, even though he had little to share on the topic of HR strategy. In contrast, on day two, I’m told they left in droves soon after a panel of senior HR executives began to tackle some of the profession’s more pressing challenges. What gives?

Best performance by a ’70s band: Hall and Oates (so what if they were the only ’70s band to perform).

Most popular show giveaway: You guessed it, the iPad. (If you want to know what next year’s big giveaway will be, just check out Apple’s product pipeline.)

Longest line for a  ’70s celebrity on the expo floor: Attendees (mostly women) who were eager to meet and greet Erik Estrada (of CHiPs fame) at the Columbia Southern University booth. (Didn’t personally see, but was told he looks the same.)

Worst part about the venue: Overcast skies pretty much the entire time, with cooler than usual temps for San Diego.

Best part of the venue: It wasn’t 95-degree, 90-percent humidity New Orleans! (Remember last year?)

 

Redford Talks Creativity in the Workplace

What do Hollywood actors know about managing people? Apparently, a lot.

Robert Redford learned plenty over the years, mostly through mistakes like making bad hires and becoming more of a friend to his employees than a boss, he told a group of businesspeople at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in Philadelphia last week.

The Hollywood icon who’s starred in such films as All the President’s Men and The Natural, is also the founder of Sundance, which includes the Sundance Film Festival, the Sundance Film Institute, a TV channel and apparel catalog.

“I didn’t imagine that I’d be hiring anyone in my life,” he said. “I made the wrong choices. I chose people by whether I liked them … and that didn’t work.”

Admitting that he “stumbled into business” Redford discussed how buying land in Utah as a young adult allowed him to eventually use it to promote little known independent filmmakers through the festival (which brought in $90 million and drew 41,000 last year.)

He also spoke about the power of inserting creative, artistic people into a corporate environment. Redford relayed the story of a global warming conference he sponsored at Sundance attended by mayors of different cities across the country. Before the conference started, the mayors were relaxed, cordial and speaking to each other in polite, political jargon.

Enter a 17-year-old slam poet from a San Francisco group called Youth Speaks. His loud, passionate reading shook up the mayors and helped put the issue into perspective.

“He just rips, I mean he just rips! It was so incredible,” says Redford. “To watch what happened to these mayors, they were all sitting back and sort of stiff, not knowing what to expect and this kid comes up just roaring and comes alive, and then you watch the mayors completely taken… when it was over they came over applauding loudly.”

The addition of an artist set the tone for the conference, and helped the mayors get energized to take it more seriously—the same result can happen in any business environment, says Redford.

Craig Sanders, vice president at the Philadelphia office of management consultancy, North Highland, says he agrees that the addition of artists in a business environment can be positive.

“It keeps people focused and engaged,” he says, “and allows them to visualize the message.”

The program, Cultivating a Creative Workforce, was sponsored by Towers Watson, Americans for the Arts, the Arts and Business Council of Greater Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

A Brighter Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics may not show it yet, but companies that deal with hiring are seeing a definite uptick in job searches. During the SHRM convention, I’ve had the chance to meet with several of those companies and they were sounding pretty positive.

Kurt Ronn, president of HRWorks, which offers executive search as well as RPO on a project basis, says he has seen “a very big uptick in the market” over the past six months.

Rich Milgram, CEO and founder of Beyond.com, which provides thousands of niche job sites, agrees, noting that Q1 was when he first saw hiring take off. In Q4, however, he expects a “big pick up.”

“Last year this time,” says Alex Douzet, president and co-founder of The Ladders, “[hiring] really hit bottom between May and August. September, we started to see the market coming back. Now, it’s more similar to second half of 2008.”

Sectors ahead of the curve, he says, are in financial services, technology, aerospace, pharmaceutical, engineering and the service industry. The “very slow” sectors are construction, real estate and manufacturing, while on the cusp are consumer goods and logistics.

So, maybe Little Orphan Annie was right. But let’s hope tomorrow comes sooner, rather than later.

Lessons in HR Transformation

As I prepare for the SHRM conference each year, I often lament that there aren’t more HR executives presenting.  Personally, more often than not, I much rather hear what they have to say about a particular issue or topic, rather than a consultant or vendor.

That’s why I was pleased to see the Tuesday morning program open with a General Session panel featuring senior HR executives. (Hopefully we’ll see more sessions like this in the future.) It’s also why I set aside some time later that morning to catch a Mega Session entitled “HR Transformation: What Comes Next” by one of the opening-session panelists.

Conrad Venter, global head of HR for Deutsche Bank AG, detailed some of the steps taken by the bank to transform its HR function. Deutsche began its HR transformation efforts in 2005, during a period when the firm was facing some formidable global challenges.

In response, Venter said, Deutsche set out to restructure HR, putting “the right work in the right place.” Those efforts included moving much of the transactional work outside of HR.

What were some of the lessons that were learned along the way? First, he said, “we learned that one size doesn’t fit all.” He also noticed the importance of being “fluid” and continuing to “tweak things” long after they’ve been implemented.

“The soft stuff is really the hard stuff,” he said.

Repeating a comment he made during the opening panel, Venter also suggested that HR leaders might want to describe what they do as “people strategy” rather than “HR strategy,” to create more buy-in and less finger pointing.

Risks of the Recovery

Better times are coming. More people are looking for work. Wages are thawing out. Defined-contribution employer matches are returning.

But before your workforce rebuilding goes full bore, consider the landmines of the recovery, Matthew S. Effland, employment lawyer with Olgetree Deakins, told attendees at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2010 conference.

Despite the name of his session, “And the Tide Rolls Back In — Legal Issues in Rebuilding Your Workforce Post-Recession,” Effland’s warnings were not confined to the law. He spoke a lot about ”survivor anger” spreading through corporate America right now — among people who’ve been working on frozen wages, doing the jobs of laid-off former co-workers as well as their own, and feeling minimized by their companies’ efforts to infuse new blood into the organization by recruiting outsiders and paying them higher salaries than their own.

“Think about what you can do to make sure you’re taking care of the survivors,” said Effland. “Their disgruntlement can lead to litigation if you’re recruiting from outside to replace a position equal to theirs at a higher wage.”

Also be careful not to “give into the pressure” to selectively re-hire laid-off employees, those problem workers you were able to let go of in the name of hard times. Those who are not re-hired when others are, or who are told to reapply for the same position, “will feel some sense of entitlement, and may sue, and may have a case” if they fall under a protected class, he said.

“Avoid the shortcuts and the push for speed-hiring,” Effland said. ”And make sure you fully document your hiring process. When you decide not to hire someone back, you better be able to justify it and explain it in a court of law.”

Some Disquieting — and Costly — Facts

Every 1.5 percent increase in unemployment equals a 21 percent increase in employee lawsuits, said Shanti Atkins, president and CEO of ELT in a standing-room-only session on “2010 EEO Trends” at the SHRM convention in San Diego.

She also noted that corporate spending on legal fees and costs to defend employment cases jumped 54 percent from 2008, and that 2009 saw the second highest number of discrimination claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in U.S. history.

Retaliation is now the most common claim filed, followed by race discrimination and sex bias.

What many front-line managers don’t know — and it is they who “are the ones creating the risk, she said” — is that a retaliation claim can succeed whether or not the underlying discrimination claim has any basis in fact.

Another thing managers don’t understand, she said, is that no “incredibly dramatic” actions are required to show that retaliation has occurred. It can be a cold shoulder, poor work assignments, a series of minor events.

And the average jury verdict for a retaliation claim? $200,000.

Facilitating Age-Bias Suits

Proposed federal legislation that would overturn a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year has a “real good chance of becoming law,” said Mike Aitken, SHRM’s director of government affairs.

The Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act would not only overturn Gross vs. FBL Financial Services, but would go beyond it, he said during the organization’s annual conference.

In a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that employees must show age discrimination was the direct cause of an adverse employment decision, and was not just one of the factors playing a role in that decision.

The proposed law would find it unlawful if age was “a” motivating factor. In addition, that standard — known as a mixed-motive standard — would also be applied to all federal discrimination, retaliation and whistleblower suits.

So, HR beware: With the aging of the workforce, it may be hard for companies to avoid age being a factor in employment decisions.

Experimental HR

Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, a global IT services company headquartered in Noida, India, urged the SHRM audience to treat HR “as an experimental journey,” and to consider follow his example of treating the employee first, the customer second.

Management doesn’t create value, he said. It can only “induce, encourage [and] enable the creation of value by the employees.”

HR leaders, he said, should consider the leadership of Ghandi, MLK and Nelson Mandela. What they did, he said, was create dissatisfaction with today and develop a romance among their followers with tomorrow.

Autocracy doesn’t work, he said. Democratize the workplace. Managers need to be answerable to employees instead of just the other way around. And the result of treating employees first is that customers will be served better.

To create an environment conducive to change, however, requires trust. In his company, Nayar facilitated that trust by providing an environment of 100 percent total transparency. His 360-degree assessment is posted on the company intranet. If an employee asks him a question — and 99 percent of the questions are negative, he said — his answers are sent to all employees.  (The questioners must also reveal who they are.)

His $2.3 billion company continues to grow rapidly — without new services, new products, new locations. It’s due to placing trust in his employees.

“Transfer the problem to them. They create magic in the interface of customers and employees,” he said.

Healthcare Reform via Video

Charleston, S.C.-based Benefitfocus just announced at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2010 conference a pretty straight and simple way for employees to understand how healthcare reform will affect them — without bugging their HR executives.

It’s called the Healthcare Reform Certification Program, but don’t let the name fool you. It’s more about education than certification — though visitors to the site can actually become “certified” by passing certain quizzes to test the knowledge they just acquired.

In a nutshell, the new offering is a simple collection of bare-bones information and a series of videos, professionally created in the company’s high-definition studio in Charleston, to guide everyone — including those under 30, who are still trying to get their arms around the benefits morass — through HDHCs, HMOs, PPOs, HSAs, FSAs, you name it.

The videos are designed to transform complex concepts into short, easy-to-understand sound bites. Each segment communicates a different provision of the law, using chalkboard animation to bring the legislation to life. Visitors can view the videos as many times as needed.

The Benefitfocus platform is a Software-as-a-Service model, available for a monthly fee to companies; the certification program is free, with no codes or customization work needed. “We’re calling this video-as-a-service,” says Jim Kelly, vice president of employer sales. “It basically answers the ‘What’s in it for me?’ question — ‘What does healthcare reform mean for me?’ We think it changes the game dramatically.”

Wayne Cascio Honored at SHRM

Turnabout is fair play, I guess, as Wayne Cascio, winner of the $50,000 Michael R. Losey Human Resource Research Award, promptly donated $10,000 back to the SHRM Foundation, on whose board he has served for eight years.

The Foundation, along with the HR Certification Institute and SHRM itself, selected Cascio because of his “high-impact contributions to both academia and the practice of HR,” said Howard Winkler, chairman of the HRCI board of directors.

He cited Cascio’s research on the the effect of downsizings, which “often fail to achieve [their] objectives,” as well as his research on virtual teams, women in global assignments, and the correlation of age and job performance, as well as his extensive outreach efforts to HR practitioners.

William Schiemann, chairman of the Foundation’s board of directors, spoke of Cascio’s work on trust, ethics and global issues, calling him a “great thinker, a wonderful humanitarian, a colleague of so many and someone I cherish to personally call a friend.”

During his brief remarks, Cascio lauded the namesake of the award, “who tirelessly has promoted the use of HR management practices that are informed by established research factors.”

And in donating back one-fifth of his award, he recited the words of Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”