Archive for November, 2009
(This blog first appeared as a guest post at Creative Chaos Consultant. Thanks to VM for giving me the opportunity to post it there and inviting me to cross-post it here.)
Everyone who is a human resources practitioner in the United States has their professional life impacted by employment law. In fact, the smaller your HR department and company, the larger your direct role in legal compliance probably is. Even VPs of HR, whose entire job may be to determine strategic initiatives, don’t move without considering if those initiatives are legal.
So how does HR learn the law and become the company employment law guru? How can HR use existing employment law – often seen as a liability – as a leveraging tool for positive change?
Each one of those questions require a lot of words to discuss and answer in any meaningful way, so there will be a full blog devoted to each topic.
HR and LAW – Part 1
People just don’t play together nicely sometimes. That’s why laws exist. Think of your company’s internal “laws” – the rules, policies, and procedures. Why do you even have them? You have them because the long history of the human race shows us that people, as a species, can’t always be trusted to behave the way they should. Laws and rules are based on evidence of bad behavior. Back in the Industrial Age, when the USA was moving from an agrarian society into an industrial/commercial giant, employers were not playing fair. So state and federal legislators began requiring or prohibiting certain behavior from the employer. And that legislative push is not stopping anytime soon, because people – and the companies they run – are still not always good sandbox buddies. So my first rule for the HR practitioner who wants to be legally compliant (and keep their company out of expensive employment law trouble) is:
PLAY NICELY AND BEHAVE
Change your behavior if you need to; don’t force lawyers to make you treat your employees fairly.
It’s too late to make that your total strategy, though, because there are already tons and tons of laws on the books that you have to adhere to, no matter how nicely you are playing today. This means that you actually have to KNOW some law, as much as it may hurt. But how do you get that legal knowledge?
Many HR departments are totally dependent on counsel, either outside or in-house. I’m not against that strategy (I am, after all, a lawyer), but I don’t recommend an attorney as your exclusive source of legal knowledge unless your company is large enough to have in-house employment/labor counsel. (More on this subject in a minute.) For most HR practitioners, and for those HR Generalists working in a solo environment, I say:
GET A MANUAL
You heard me. Get a comprehensive manual that is written (1) by lawyers in your state, (2) for an organization that represents businesses, (3) is updated at least every two years, and (4) covers both state and federal laws. Yes, they are usually a little pricey, but they are far cheaper than calling outside counsel every time you have a question. If you have in-house employment counsel, go borrow theirs, because I guarantee you they have one.
I can’t recommend a specific manual because you need one that covers your own state as well as federal law. I’m located in Michigan, and I prefer the manuals published by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce (The Employment Law Handbook), and the Institute for Continuing Legal Education (Employment Law in Michigan, An Employer’s Guide). No one paid me to say that.
I don’t recommend doing legal research on the web, because the information is far flung and often informal, and you need to ask a really pointed, specific question to gain anything valuable. It also takes a long time to sift through all of the noise. Use the manual first, and then supplement the details on the web if you need to. If you insist on using the web, try the official government site for the bureau that monitors the specific law, like the federal Department of Labor.
Unfortunately, a manual is only going to go so far. It will give you some sound guidelines for your company behavior and requirements, but there may be issues or specific problems that need a more knowledgeable take, because I know you are not going to memorize that entire manual. So dealing with an attorney is not only inevitable, but often desirable. I have words of caution on this subject, though:
GET AN ATTORNEY WHOSE WORK YOU LOVE
Most people and companies spend far more time agonizing over what type of computer to buy than what type of legal services to buy. If you have actually used your manual and have some knowledge of the law, buying your legal service will become an easier task. Repeat that: YOU are the buyer. Your company pays the attorney, and they provide service to you. If you are not happy with that service – CHANGE IT. It’s a lot easier than changing your HRIS.
Here are some of my feelings about the type of lawyer to hire (both in-house and outside counsel):
- Find an employment/labor law specialist. Don’t hire or use your cousin just because they are cheap and available.
- Find a “can do” attorney. One of the biggest complaints of HR pros is that the attorney always tells them what they CAN’T do, instead of helping them DO it properly. It’s an entirely valid complaint. Yes, there are attorneys who help companies find a solution, instead of always telling them “don’t”, or “you can’t”. They’re out there – look harder.
- Have a voice in hiring your labor/employment attorney. This may be the most critical component of all. If you need someone to help YOU with your human resources legal compliance, why would YOU let someone else decide who that person is going to be? You would not let someone else take away your decision on other HR resources to purchase or use. Don’t do it with this most valuable of all your resources.
I live in the metro Detroit area of Michigan at Point A (the northern point) on this map. Point B is where I used to live. It’s a 30 minute/15 mile drive between the two, give or take a few miles and minutes. The metro Detroit area is the 11th largest in the country, densely packed, and almost any consumer service is nearby no matter where you live. I can get to a CVS pharmacy in less than a minute. On foot.
But I still use businesses located in Point B to provide me services – specifically my hairdresser and my dentist – even though I haven’t lived there in over 20 years.
It was during a visit to the dentist a couple of weeks ago when the subject somehow got around to the frequency of my visits to Point B. My dentist thought it was ludicrous that I go to Point B at least once a month to get my hair cut.
Him: “How many hairdressers do you think you pass before you get here?”
Me: “About the same number of dentists I pass.”
Him: “Yes, but they aren’t GOOD dentists.”
His point was, of course, that hairdressers are minor, unskilled functionaries who deserve no loyalty, and that he was in a different class. In my book, though, both provide excellent service at a fair price, know me and my needs very well, and are friendly guys that I can talk to while they are performing their magic. I’ve been using their services for over 20 years and I am loyal to both. Given those advantages, a longer-than-necessary drive seems a minor inconvenience.
I can’t say I have afforded the same loyalty to business vendors. In almost 10 years, I changed every vendor I had the power to change, and tried to change at least one other (and was overruled by my business partner). I will argue that I had good reasons to do so (lower cost, more efficient, better product, etc.) and, after all (shades of Tom Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail”), it’s not PERSONAL, it’s BUSINESS.
But that comment by my dentist made me wonder if that is the right approach. Would I have received better service and a better product from a vendor if I had showed more loyalty? Is there any reason to be loyal to a business vendor? What’s your experience?
One of most respected and influential blogs in the HR/Recruiting world is called Punk Rock HR, written by Laurie Ruettiman. She has a straightforward style; honest and biting. She’s a great read; I love her and her stuff.
In her blog this week she wrote:
If you haven’t been able to find a job in two years within your field, the universe is sending you a message. You are no longer part of that field. It’s time to broaden your search. You should have expanded it six months ago, but I don’t want to judge you.
Look for something else. Now.
Shit. Did I waste all of those hours studying for that difficult Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) exam so I could broaden my search to include . . .what? I thought I was already making my search broad by moving from “lawyer” to “human resources professional”. Should I be looking for general office/receptionist positions? How many employers will send me packing if I even TRY to get a less specialized job? I’ve already been labeled over-qualified.
Up until now, I’ve maintained a fairly upbeat attitude. Most of the job-seek advisors tell you to, and it’s not hard for me to maintain hope and optimism. I’m basically a cheerful person, not prone to blaming anyone else for my troubles.
Her words scared me, though, because it’s been 18 months of unemployment for me. Is it time to quit believing that the right job will show up eventually?
Instead of “Shoot for the moon, you may land among the stars”, should my mantra be “Shoot for Mt. Everest, you may land ragged and bleeding in a deep crevasse”?
Friends? A little help here. What do you think?
I’ve started a blog. Two blogs, actually. The first, HR University, is about the human resources occupation and all things related. It is my profession and passion, and it is my premier idea outlet.
But all work and no play makes me a dull girl. So I decided a companion blog was in order – and here you are! This space is for personal randomness and certain things, like my blue jeans after drying on high heat, that just don’t fit.
Thanks for joining me on my journey.
Saturday afternoon the gloves came off.
The last session of the HRevolution un-conference, introduced in my previous blog, was called “The Future of HR”. It was facilitated by the incomparable Mark Stelzner, whose admitted purpose was “to be provocative and shake the room up a bit.” His mission was well accomplished, and the passionate discussion was described by @KristaFrancis on Twitter: Great minds *don’t* think alike and that’s a good thing. Mark summed up the discussion on his blog, but I want to focus on this particular statement:
There was a great discussion on how people need to quit their HR jobs if they are that miserable. In other words, stop complaining and lamenting your non-strategic role and instead find a company that values your contribution.
Why does it pain me to hear and read that people who want to make a difference should just quit their jobs and go elsewhere? Because it’s a strategy that’s far too over-simplified, and the consequences of failure are too dangerous for that simplification. I speak from personal experience.
My Personal History
I come from a small (less than 50 employees) food processing/manufacturing plant. My husband and his partner own the business. When I began working there, no one knew exactly what my role was going to be. I fell into an HR function almost immediately, because there was NO HR function there at all. I started learning, and I made myself a HR Manager/Generalist. I had a seat at that strategic table, usually at the head. I made those P&Ls sing.
So why did I leave in June 2008? Because I had a nagging feeling that there was more evolving to be done, and I couldn’t do it where I was. There is only so far you can go in a really small company before some of the work becomes redundant, and some becomes impossible. So I quit (read: no unemployment benefits) and went looking for a company that would “value my contributions”.
It’s now November 2009 and I have yet to find that company. Telling a recruiter or a hiring manager that I left my job because “I needed new challenges” makes them hang up on me. Layoffs and downsizings create sympathy, self-indulgence does not.
I’m lucky – my husband still owns the company and has a job, so I still have sufficient funds to go to un-conferences and listen to people tell me to do what I’ve already done. But suppose I was a sole breadwinner with kids to support and a mortgage to meet? That strategy would have placed a lot of other people in jeopardy. Is Laurie Ruettiman’s philosophy is the better one? She says, ” You get a paycheck. Be happy.”
By sharing that with you, I want to emphasize a point that was touched on at HRevolution but not sufficiently embraced: the enlightened HR group that we are a part of is a very tiny minority of the entire HR population. The solutions and suggestions we propose inside of our “HR echo chamber” will not be embraced by them and will often be actively resisted. We need to help others examine themselves and their roles to see how they can evolve and revolutionize, even if circumstances and paychecks keep them in their positions. A large majority of HR pros don’t even know that people and technology exist to help them make this journey. In other words, they don’t read our blogs. Until a very short time ago, I was one of those people.
When Alicia Arenas asked us in a video to leave HRevolution with a commitment to spread the message, she mentioned college students and local SHRM chapters as examples of avenues to spread our enlightenment. Let’s collectively think of more, and start an outreach program, because we will not succeed without converting others. With that in mind, I am picking up the flag of HRevolution and making this commitment:
I will use social media, personal connections, and any other soapbox that is available to me to encourage, aid, and advise HR Pros and other business professionals to embark on a course of personal development that will expand their knowledge and engage and enlighten others.
By doing this, I hope to move past the idea that HR people should just be happy to get a paycheck. The people I will try to reach may not be able to leave their companies, but they may be able to avoid doing everything “The Company Way.” Viva la revolution!
I attended a strange and amazing “unconference” two days ago. It was called HRevolution and it was a collection of HR and recruiting pros coming together to discuss social media and its intersection with their professional life. It was the first out-of-town HR conference I had ever attended, made up mainly of bloggers (including Twitter micro-bloggers). The ideas flew fast and furiously, and I already have several HR University lesson plans in the works based on thoughts generated at the Revolution. Those lessons will have to be spread out over several posts, but I want to start here with some introductory remarks about the Revolution in general:
- This conference was organized by Trish McFarlane, Ben Eubanks, Crystal Peterson, and Steve Boese. Sponsors included Monster.com, Nobscot, Blogging4Jobs, Sanera, and Fusion Frames. All of these people and companies live and work in different parts of the USA, but they came together seamlessly for an outstanding presentation. My local SHRM chapter, where everyone lives and works within a few dozen miles of each other, needs to take lessons.
- One of the attendees at HRevolution, Frank Zupan, lives and work in Cleveland. He eats corned beef at a deli called Slyman’s; they buy corned beef made at United Meat & Deli (UMD) in Detroit. The corned beef is injected/pumped with pickling brine with a machine operated by Joaquin Arredondo. Joaquin is a permanent resident alien (has a green card) – a status that I helped him obtain as the HR manager at UMD. That circle (Frank to Joaquin to me to Frank) of connectivity wasn’t created by HRevolution or Twitter, but it was discovered there. It makes a compelling argument for the continuing exploration of social media, and it slaps the argument that “people only connect on social media because they can’t connect in person” right in the face.
- Laurie Ruettiman of Punk Rock HR is a true superstar of the HR blogosphere. Ooohs and aaahs were audible when she arrived, and I am old enough to be her mother. In fact, I discovered through conversation with her that I am older than her mother. But she, like the other Gen X and Ys present (which was most of the room), was absolutely energizing. Boomers like me can learn a lot from these smart kids, if we will listen.
- None of the attendees at HRevolution had met me before; they only knew who I was because of my Twitter presence. Yet almost everyone who knew who I was (because of my avatar) hugged me. It was marvelous because I really like hugging.
- HRevolution attendees have an absolute fascination with bacon. I have no idea what the origin of this fascination is, or why it continues. I am happy to indulge the fascination, though. The first HRevolution attendee who comments (10 words or more required) on this blog post will receive the book “Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon” as a gift from me.
More lessons to follow; stay tuned!
At my direction, my veterinarian
killed euthanized this dog today. He was very old and very sick, and it was my first experience with this most humane and selfless of acts. Since I have four more dogs at home, it will certainly not be my last act of this kind. I know that good and responsible pet owners welcome the ability to euthanize their animals to end their pain and suffering; it is the ultimate and final act of kindness to the animal, even though it causes the owner great sadness.
In reflecting on my life with this dog, I found some analogies that could be drawn between pets and employees. Not, of course, that employees are pets or should be treated like them. But how WE behave, or should behave, toward our pets can be helpful in defining our HR behavior.
It’s easy for everyone to spend time with a new puppy or a kitten - they’re so cute and delightful! Even the youngest owners can’t wait to play with them or stroke them. But as the puppy or kitten grow into larger animals, many people lose interest in playing with or exercising or engaging their pet. Their basic needs of food and shelter may be provided, but little else. Unless the pet needs discipline or restraining, the pet is simply left to amuse itself. A good pet owner is different – a good pet owner knows that the pet is a vital part of the household and makes sure that the pet is walked, played with, trained, touched, or talked to as much as the pet needs. Forever.
There is often a similar honeymoon period with a new employee. HR makes sure the employee is successfully onboard, and hovers a little bit while the employee gains their footing and grows confident in their surroundings. But all too often, once that honeymoon period is over and the employee is trusted to perform on their own, the employee is essentially forgotten. Sure, the basic needs (pay and benefits) are met. But no one attempts to engage the employee, to seek him or her out and make sure they remain interested, motivated, trained, or involved. Unless the employee needs discipline or counseling, the employee is often completely forgotten about by HR.
Good HR is like good pet ownership: there should be resolve to stay interested and engaged with the employee forever – not just the first weeks or months. Seek out your employee and find out what you both need to do to stay involved with each other.
It is sometimes very difficult for a good pet owner to determine if their pet has a problem that needs attention. Since pets can’t talk, good pet owners are vigilant in watching for signs that the pet is in trouble: Is he eating properly? Does she seem lethargic? Is he pooping too much? Too little? What does the poop look like? FIVE dogs – and I could tell each one of their feces apart. I had to, because it is an early – sometimes the only – sign of distress.
Employees can usually speak, so the HR pro doesn’t have to go to such extreme measures to determine if there are problems needing attention and discussion. Unfortunately, many are not taking the time or making the effort. When did you last ask an employee if everything was alright, or if there were any issues or concerns that you could help them address? Too often, we expect the employee to come to us if they need or want something. But often a problem is not discovered until an exit interview, when it is too late to fix (at least for that employee). It’s natural for an employee to prefer to be asked to give information, rather than have to demand it be given.
Good HR: be vigilant and care enough to look for warning signs indicating a problem. Communicate with the employee and make sure that trouble is addressed as early as possible. Ask the employee before s/he asks you.
Every good pet owner buys, rescues, adopts or otherwise obtains a pet with the knowledge and agreement that their obligation to that pet is forever. Good pet owners expect that their home will be the animal’s home forever. Yes, sometimes unforeseeable and insurmountable problems arise that cause pet and owner to be separated. Even then a good pet owner will work to re-home their pet so that the pet’s well-being is maintained. When the time comes for the pet to be released from its physical pain or suffering, the good owner does what is necessary, no matter how hard, to help the pet die in peace and with dignity.
I harbor no illusions that employers have a lifetime obligation to their employees. But HR should hire an employee with at least an idea that they are going to commit to the employees professional well-being for as long as they possibly can. If HR has shown that commitment to the employee, consistently engaged and communicated with the employee, and has acted similarly to the good pet owner throughout the employment relationship, the end, even if involuntary, will be more dignified.