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.”

The Meaning Behind the Work

Dave and Wendy Ulrich made a nice coupling on stage Monday at their session, “The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Deliver Value to Employees, Customers, Investors and Communities.”

No surprise the joint session at SHRM worked, considering the Ulrichs have been married for many years and share three children and a granddaughter. But it was their joint message and the subject of their new book, The Why of Work, that carried an especially cohesive and cogent argument — that organizations would do well to start looking at themselves as places where people find meaning and purpose. More importantly, that organizations should be looking for ways to cultivate that new realization and approach.

“We’re taking a different cut from human resources,” said Dave Ulrich, professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a prolific and well-published HR expert. Wendy is a professional psychologist and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth in Alpine, Utah. “We’re basically combining HR and psychology,” he said.

They’re also taking their show on the road, if you will, to refute the notion that fostering the relationship between worker and work, and helping employees find meaning and purpose in their jobs is some warm and fuzzy, soft and cuddly notion. “I hear this criticism in some circles,” said Dave Ulrich. “I tell them they’re just wrong. Still, I can’t convince everyone.”

The Ulrichs’ base their premise on the early works of Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. At the time, Frankl discovered that, even in the harshest and cruelest of settings, some people remained vibrant and vital because of their stories and their strengths, and the strengths they could bring to one another. They found meaning in their identities.

So, too, should “organizational strategies be stories,” said Ulrich. ” Successful leaders should be meaning makers. We want to begin to change the conversation” about what HR’s purpose should be as well.

Calling on another famous thinker from the past, Wendy Ulrich told the story of medical researcher Jonas Salk, best known for his discovery of the polio vaccine. Salk, in one interview, recalled how his mother found lessons to be learned in all his setbacks. She created the learning environment that, in turn, created the famous scientist.

“Do we inculcate a learning environment in our organizations?” she asked. “How do we learn from our setbacks, and help our employees learn from theirs? What are we doing in HR to promote that?”

One clear path to helping people find meaning and happiness in an organization, they said, is to promote the importance of the team and relational strengths. “HR,” said Dave Ulrich, “is the force of the organization that shapes identity.

“One of my greatest fears in HR today,” he said, “is that we’re so worried about talent, we’re forgetting about the organization — its systems and the capacity to work together.” That’s where the meaning and purpose lie, he added — “building on your own strengths to strengthen others.”

Innovating in Turbulent Times

Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, innovation clearly matters.

But at a SHRM session entitled “Innovation in Turbulent Times” held earlier today, Dr. Iris Firstenberg said innovation is often best manifested when times are tough.

Companies would be well served to let go of their traditional ways and look for fresh perspectives, said Firstenberg, an adjunct professor in the Department of Pyschology at the University of California in Los Angeles.  

“Once we have a story, we tend to hold onto it,” observed Firstenberg.  Instead, she said, companies need to “tap into the wisdom that’s out there.”

Firstenberg pointed out that many companies are slow to react to innovation. She cited the slow response of competitors when Johnson & Johnson launched the market’s first non-aspirin product, Tylenol. “When Tylenol came on the market, what did the aspirin makers do? Nothing. So Tylenol had the market to itself for eight years.”

Another example she cited was Blockbuster, noting that it failed to recognize how the Internet was changing its business.

To innovate, Firstenberg said, companies need to pursue the perspectives and “wisdom” of others.

Firstenberg pointed to Cemex, a Mexican-headquartered cement producer, as an excellent example of a company that was able to do just that. In the ’90s, she said, the firm was struggling, partly because of its inability to deliver its products on time.

In response, she said, Cemex visited with companies that excelled in on-time delivery, such as FedEx (24-hour delivery), Dominos  (delivery in 30 minutes or less) and 911 in Houston (where response time averaged just four minutes).

Through those conversations, Firstenberg said, Cemex was able to identify what it needed to do to address its challenges. Today, she added, the company is an industry leader with an on-time delivery rate of 98 percent.

That’s not just an improvement, she told attendees, “that’s a revolution.”

What if Your Star Talent Came Knocking Today?

Gerry Crispin raised a provocative mind-bender at his Monday session at the SHRM conference in San Diego. “If an exact duplicate of your very best employee was applying right now, what would happen?” said Crispin, principal of CareerXroads and recognized recruiting expert.

“More importantly,” he said, “can you afford not to know?”

The purpose of the session, “Mystery Job Shopping: What Happens When You Apply Online to your Own Firm,” was to get HR professionals thinking — or, rather, rethinking — about how they brand — or rather, fail to brand — their organizations through their recruiting processes.

For instance, he pointed out, most companies won’t accept the risk of following up with candidates who weren’t hired, detailing the reasons they weren’t; in other words, the skills they don’t have yet need for the job. The message this could send about how your company cares, and the propsects it could reap down the road in return candidates would far outmeasure the potential liability of providing that kind of information, he told listeners.

“I guarantee you,” Crispin said, “when those people come back to apply at the point they do qualify, they will turn out to be the best employees you could ever hope to have in that position … because you provided the information they needed.” Getting such a practice past your corporate attorneys, he added, means “building the case that this kind of follow-through will be worth the risk.”

Not only was Crispin touting the merits of becoming far more transparent for online candidates who come knocking at your Web site, he was also promoting “mystery shopping,” or applying through your own recruiting process and those of your competitors.’ How’s your time to apply? Are you asking so many questions that you’re losing top talent because their time is too precious to be “writing a dissertation, answering hundreds of questions” the first time they visit simply to poke around? And how about technology and social networking? Have you embraced that? “Can your competitors’ candidates set up a mobile connection with your recruiters and yours can’t?” he asked.

Crispin also spoke in favor of picturing recruiters and providing simple instructions for constant access to them. “How available is your recruiter?” he said. “You need to think about what you’re doing and how transparent you’re being. You gotta figure smart candidates know how to find your recruiters anyway, through LinkedIn and other modes. If you’re refusing that kind of accessibility, that says something about you, and it isn’t good.”

Your company brand, your commitment to sustainability, your value proposition as to how people should be treated … it’s all in how you present yourself through your online recruiting, Crispin said.

One recruiter in the audience admitted she went through her own system anonymously just to see what experience her department  was providing. “How was it? Crispin asked.

“It was awful,” she said.

Crispin: “I rest my case.”

Tough Topics

Every one of the 340 seats were filled and so was most of the floor space and entry ways when Paul Faclone, vice president of employee relations for Times Warner Cable, took the podium to talk about tough conversations.

As the poor SHRM volunteer was frantically trying to comply with the fire codes of the San Diego Convention Center and not let the doorways be blocked or the room be more filled than permitted (a losing battle made even worse when Falcone encouraged some of those in the doorway to take over some of the empty floor space up front), Falcone told the audience the one item he would like them to take away from the session:

“Perception management is the most important thing I want you to take away from this session,” he says. “It’s like feelings — they are not right or wrong; they just are.”

Perception, he says, is the reality — until proven otherwise.

Tough conversations, he says, will nearly always take place when someone is feeling vulnerable. It doesn’t take much to move that vulnerability to anger.

Treat people with respect. And remember, “it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it” that may leave the most lasting impression.

The Ambiguity of Employee Engagement

Most HR leaders would be quick to say that employee engagement is a good thing; far fewer would actually be able to definitively define it.

That’s because there seem to be a zillion definitions out there. But many employers and consultancies continue to attempt to measure it, nonetheless.

Right Management is no different, but Douglas Sietsema, its talent management practice leader, (who I caught up with at the SHRM convention) mentions an interesting correlation.

One recent survey found that 65 percent of employees said their managers positively impacted their engagement, while 25 percent said managers had a negative impact and 10 percent said no impact.

What’s interesting, he notes, is that the numbers are pretty similar to another survey — this one measuring leadership.

In that survey, 60 percent said their companies provide some leadership, 22 percent said no leadership and 15 percent said consistent leadership.

“That’s where we started to see leadership, engagement — that correlation kind of thing.”

Leaders provide a sense of identity, of buy-in, he says.

“Leadership is what leads to engagement,” Sietsema says.

Military Cross-Cultural Issues

There’s a big push during the SHRM conference this year — rightfully so — on hiring veterans. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be winding down, there may be many military personnel looking for work in the civilian world. Should the economy ever truly recover, companies may even be able to hire some of them.

Should that happen, HR leaders should consider that the civilian leadership/organizational structure just doesn’t speak to many people trained by the military — most of whom were young when they entered the service and may not have held another real job beforehand.

And that lack of understanding leads to disillusionment and turnover, says Emily King, president of, who works with companies to help them better onboard vets.

“It’s like going to another country,” she says. “You don’t know the language.”

Part of the problem is that in the military, the mission is simple, straightforward and understood by everyone. In private organizations, it’s often just the opposite  — with the mission becoming more diffused as it filters down the ranks.

Vets have an abundance of positive abilities to share, she notes, including leadership and loyalty, but those traits are not free and have to be earned by the organization.

By the same token, it’s really the vets that need to change — to learn how to fit within the organization.

“Trying to push back against an entire organization doesn’t work,” King says.

Globalizing HR

That fact that 100 or so HR professionals at the SHRM conference woke up in time for a 7 a.m. session on Building a Global HR Dream Team is indicative of the growing importance of globalization in today’s world. 

Even the presenter, Manjushree M. Badlani, chief HR and administrator officer of Jhpiego, said she “didn’t expect so many people here.”

After talking about the four typical types of global HR organizations (centralized, decentralized, regionalized and divided between headquarters and country), she split up the audience into groups and asked them to select the competencies and attributes required for each of them.

The attributes, developed by SHRM, were credible activist, culture and change steward, talent manager/organizational designer, strategy architect, operational executor, and business allies.

“All of them” was the common response — although each group selected a few and ranked higher than others, depending on which type of HR organization was being discussed.

When drilling down to discuss specific attributes, Badlani suggested a few she think may more be more important than others when working in cross-cultural situations: humility, good listener, customer focus, agility, unafraid to go beyond one’s comfort zone, and unflappable.

A sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either. “You have to laugh at some of the absurdities and some of the demands that people put on us,” she said.

From Cradle to C-Suite

You can never get started too early when it comes to building the workforce of the future.

Certainly that premise is at the heart of SHRM’s decision to join a business coalition, managed by the Pew Center, to study later this year what steps employers should be taking to prepare the nation’s infants and toddlers so they’re able to lead tomorrow’s businesses. The initiative was mentioned during a press briefing held on the conference’s opening day.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that meeting the needs of the workforce of the future means meeting the developmental needs of children today,” explained Deb Cohen, chief knowledge officer of SHRM.

A SHRM brochure describes the challenge as follows: “In order to compete, U.S. employers must attract and retain a team-capable, job-ready workforce that can spur and maintain continual innovation. The foundation of skills required to achieve that end is built in the earliest years of life—between birth and age 5—yet we do not give our young children the early educational, health and social supports they need to get there.”