How to Build a Strong Human Resources Partner

By Derek Carissimi

Dec. 8, 2006

“Employees are our greatest asset.”

“We are nothing without our employees.”

“Our strength is our employees.”

We’ve all heard these words, or something similar, uttered at one time or another by every CEO in the country. We’ve heard these words so often they’ve become cliché, and almost meaningless.

    How many organizations really believe these words and conduct business accordingly? How many give human resources equal status and importance with finance, marketing, medical affairs and patient services? The good news is: more and more every day. The bad news is: not enough.

    As staffing shortages continue; the true cost of employee turnover finally hits home; the connection between employee satisfaction and patient satisfaction is recognized; the importance of effective employee relations understood; the number of dollars and percent of budget devoted to employee benefits acknowledged; and the exposure to employee-related lawsuits realized; organizations throughout the country are coming to appreciate that employees truly are the organization’s greatest asset–and expense.

    As such, human resources, which is charged with managing the “people function,” is a very important role and needs to be on the same level of the corporate food chain as finance, marketing, IT, et al.

    That being said, what is the secret to creating and managing a successful human resources function? With so much at stake, HR must step up and demonstrate it is worthy of the human and financial capital entrusted to it.

    Traditionally, this has not been a strength of human resource leaders. Reliance on the touchy-feely and warm-fuzzy intangibles is no longer adequate as HR must step up to the plate and become a true business and strategic partner.

    How to step up to the plate? Here are the building blocks to establish an effective human resources function:

Aggressive recruitment
   Keeping the organization staffed is, and will continue to be, an essential function of the effective HR department. Today’s recruitment strategies, however, must be different than in the past.

    Very few organizations have invested in the most fundamental and necessary component of a strong recruitment program—that being the preparation of a workforce projection document. Workforce projection consists of an in-depth analysis of the staffing needs of the organization five to 10 years into the future.

    This analysis, done by job classification (i.e., staff nurses, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, food service workers, etc.), must include the following components: (1) projected voluntary and involuntary turnover; (2) projected retirements based on the current age of employees in each job classification; (3) projected growth or decline of each of the organization’s service lines; (4) anticipated population growth or decline in the community or communities the organization serves; (5) geographic shifts in the population, anticipated growth and strategies of the organization’s key competitors; (6) future plans of local and state governments.

    Only after the workforce projection analysis is complete is human resources in a position to aggressively recruit, and even more important, direct resources in the proper direction, effectively utilizing budget dollars.

    Aggressive recruitment in today’s world is definitely different than in the past.

    Newspaper advertising, long the staple, is no longer effective. Spending significant amounts on newspaper recruitment is a waste of resources. Instead, more creative methods are required.

    Today’s recruitment requires the extensive utilization of on-line methodologies, including resume mining, applicant tracking, on-line applications, the extensive use of banners and headlines, and direct messaging to the targeted audience.

    Cold-calling, direct mailings, recruitment events, employee referrals, internal career mobility programs and the use of targeted professional journals are the ways to attract candidates. It is also important to include current employees in the formulation of strategies and focus groups in the community, and elsewhere, to determine what the public thinks of you as an employer, and why current employees came to, and stay with, your organization.

    It is also crucial to have a robust exit program to determine why employees leave the organization. Lastly, recruitment must not be the sole responsibility of human resources.

    Hiring departments–and indeed, all managers–must have a stake in keeping a low vacancy rate. The best way to accomplish this is to include it as a performance measurement item that determines pay adjustments.

   Invest in your employees. Once on board, new employees must be immediately immersed into a culture of continuous learning.

    Starting with the new-hire orientation program, employees must feel the organization’s commitment to education and continuous learning. Such commitment translates into an investment on the part of the organization to its employees.

    Meaningful tuition reimbursement programs, salary increases for certifications, salary adjustments for the attainment of degrees, tapping skilled employees to teach, career ladders, the opportunity to attend internal and external workshops, rewards for publishing articles and books and for presenting at professional conferences, mentoring programs and internal career mobility programs are all ways to demonstrate commitment to education and a culture of continuous learning. With a little creativity and innovation, these outcomes can be achieved with less expense than one might think.

   Communicate early and often.

    There is no substitute for communication in establishing a loyal workforce. Human resources should be the focal point for employee communication.

    Organizations frequently hide behind the cloak of confidentiality as a reason for not communicating with employees. In reality, however, there is a lot we can tell employees without hitting the confidentiality barrier.

    To be credible, communication needs to be open, honest, truthful, frequent and humble–and should disclose as much as possible, good news or bad. It must also be two-way and come in a variety of formats, such as newsletters, open meetings, letters to the home, opinion surveys, 360-degree evaluations, management rounding, rumor hotlines, open-door policies, broadcast voice mails, management meeting minutes and information centers.

    There is no secret to effective communication. It is easier said than done, however. If an organization trusts its employees as stakeholders in the business, this process of communication will come easily. Without trust, it will prove very difficult.

    It is human resources’ responsibility to develop the good will and foundation for effective communication. It is then HR’s responsibility to coordinate the ongoing process of solid two-way communication.

    Without a good communication program, there is no way an organization can succeed. With one, there is no way it can fail.

   The fourth building block for constructing a strong human resources function is an organized and methodical employee recognition program. Many organizations believe they have a recognition program because they have a service awards luncheon once a year and an annual company picnic.

    These activities are good if part of larger effort, but virtually worthless if they stand alone.

    Today’s recognition programs must be broad-based, long and short term in nature, individual versus event-oriented, and woven into the culture of the organization. A culture of recognition is one where employees know they are appreciated every day, without corny or awkward gestures from managers and administrators.

    There are five objectives for a recognition program:

  • To build a long-term relationship with each employee.

  • To promote strong supervisor-employee relationships.

  • To involve and encourage employees to contribute to solutions.

  • To let employees know they are key to the organization’s success.

  • To address issues before they become major problems.

    Recognition programs sound like a no-brainer. It’s hard to disagree with the concept, isn’t it?

    Nevertheless, a relatively small number of employers actually have one. It’s easy to throw together a couple of events every year and say we have a recognition program.

    But we don’t.

    A true recognition program must be systematic, methodical, in writing and measurable. It must also allow for spontaneous recognition every minute of every day, and it must allow for employee peer recognition. A recognition program that doesn’t allow for spontaneity, and for employees to recognize one another, is doomed to failure.

    Organizations without comprehensive recognition programs should remember the following: (a) praise and recognition are keys to employee satisfaction; (b) employers receive the lowest ratings from employees in the area of recognition; (c) high employee satisfaction equals low turnover; (d) according to employees, being ignored is the worst.

    In conclusion, despite the cliché, people really are the organization’s greatest asset; as managers of the people function, human resources deserves recognition as a business and strategic partner, but must step up and prove its understanding and connection to the business; and the building blocks of a strong human resources function are (1) aggressive recruitment, (2) education; (3) communication and (4) recognition.

    An HR function strong in these four areas will be successful and meaningfully contribute to the success of the organization.

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