Posts tagged ‘HR’

An Unexpected Roadblock to Some of Our HR Automation

We are trying to use some of the available tools out there to better automate our application and onboarding process for employees.  Though we are not a huge employer (about 350 part-time people) we hire and fire them all every year, so there is a lot of burden for our size on the HR system.

We are running into a frustrating issue.  Most of our employees are older and often have limited computer skills, but we are getting past that.  But we tend to hire couples, and it turns out in the over-50 set that couples often share the same email address.  I can't even imagine having the same email address as my wife and having to filter through all of her business, but there it is.  Unfortunately, in the world of web accounts, must vendors use the email address as the one reliable unique identifier for a person and thus use it for the user name or expect it to be unique.

This is throwing us for a loop.  It is less of a problem in the application system because most of our couples just want to submit a single joint application anyway.  But for onboarding, they  each need their own W-4, I-9, etc.  So they need separate user accounts.

The question then comes down to this for us:  I can require them to get a second email address, but that is likely going to flummox some folks and require my manual intervention to help them.  Do I thus cause more tech support issues for myself than I save from the automation itself?

No point here, just venting on a problem I have not figured out how to fix.  And no fair saying stuff like "gmail is free and easy to sign up for, just make them get another gmail account."  I have managers who do a fabulous job for me that it took me days to teach how to log into and use Gmail.  A better and fairer comment would be "you have 20,000 applicants, make the application process require separate emails and even make it a little technically challenging so you limit your hiring pool to people who are better suited to using modern computer tools."  And yes, that may in fact be our solution.

The Madness of Software Design: Designs that Require Customizing Browser Setting to Operate

We are looking at a number of third-party internet-based software solutions for a range of things from HR onboarding to safety and training management.  With minimum wages and other government-imposed employment costs rising, we are looking for ways to automate anything we can.

We have run into a useability issue on most of this software.  As a note, my employees tend to be 55 years old and older, and so many do not have a firm handle on computer skills.  So stuff needs to be simple and just work.  Unfortunately, no one seems to be willing or able to design a system that works with default browser settings.  In particular, everyone wants to design their software to require popups.  I have no idea why.  But time after time I put a system out for a subset of my employees to test and I immediately get 19 people calling me back saying that it does not work, they can't get in, etc.  The typical problem is that most of this software seems to require that the browsers popup blocker be turned off.  Why in the world would you design software for a feature that 99% of browsers today have turned off by default?  And worse, that require users to change a setting that only exists deep in setup menus most users don't even know exist.  I am pretty capable and it took me some poking around to find the popup options in Chrome.

This makes me totally crazy.  I had a long talk today with my onboarding company trying to explain why getting rid of an hour of HR time with their software at the cost of an extra hour of IT support time for each new employee trying to access the system does not save me any freaking money.  We received access to a training and safety system for free from our insurance company but it took so much of my personal time to get each employee able to successfully log into it that we abandoned it this year, despite it having a lot of good resources in it.  I will tell you guys that despite the world of these business solutions being apparently crowded, there is still room out there for someone who can program a front-end that reliably works with a variety of browsers and systems.

I Wish The NY Times Would Hire This Kid As A Science Writer. He Would Do Better Job Getting His Facts Straight

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Postscript:  And I am making this kid my new head of HR

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Dispatches from California

1.  On the lighter side, a customer came into our establishment in California the other day with a horse.  Claimed it was a "therapy animal" and therefore it would be a violation of the ADA to not allow the horse in.  Not knowing the law but with some experience with California, my managers rightly let the animal in, then researched it later.  It appears that we are safe denying entry to animals that are not licensed service animals, but this is an evolving part of the law, apparently.  Since it costs us about $25,000 a pop to get even the craziest suits dismissed in California, we will continue to err on the side of caution.

2.  Perhaps even crazier, we recently were forced to institute an HR policy in California that working through lunch is a firing offense.  One warning, then you are gone.  Why?  California has a crazy law that allows employees to collect substantial ex post facto compensation if they claim they were denied a 10 minute break every four hours or a thirty minute unpaid lunch break after five.  Suffice it to say we have spent years honestly trying to comply with this law.   The 10-minute break portion is less of a compliance hurdle, but the lunch break portion has caused us no end of trouble.   Theoretically, under the law, the employee has a choice - work through lunch paid, eating at the job post  (e.g. in a gatehouse of a campground) or leave the job post for 30 minutes for an unpaid lunch break.   As background, every one of our employees have always begged to have the paid lunch because they are from a poorer area and need the extra 30 minutes of pay.

Unfortunately, it does not matter what preferences the employee expressed on the job site.  In the future, the employee can go to the labor department and claim he or she did not get their break, and even if they did not want it at the time, and never complained to the employer about not getting it, the employer always, always, always loses a he-said-she-said disagreement in a California Court or review board.  Always.  Sure, it takes someone utterly without honor to make this claim in Court, but there seems to be no shortage of those.  So, we took a series of approaches to getting people on-paper, on-the-record as having asked to work through lunch.  Unfortunately, one court case after another has demolished each safe harbor we thought we had.

A few weeks ago I was advised by a senior case-worker at the California Department of Labor that the only safe harbor left for employers is to FORCE employees to take an unpaid lunch.  This means they clock in and back out, this means they have to leave the job site (because if a customer happens to ask them a question, then they are "working"), and this means we have to ruthlessly enforce it.  Or we are liable for scads of penalties.  So, we find ourselves at the bizarre crossroads of making working through lunch a firing offense, and employees who generally want to work an extra thirty minutes each day to earn more money are not allowed to do so.  Yet another example of laws that are supposed to be "empowering" to employees actually ending up limiting their choices.

College Grade Inflation

Apparently the news of the week is that the letter grade "A" is now the most common.  Mark Perry has more on college grade inflation.

I am actually a fan of the grading system at Harvard Business School when I was there.   15% of the students in each course get the top grade (category I) -- no more, no less.  10% get the bottom grade (category III) -- again by rule, no more and no less.  All the rest are in the middle.  It effectively acknowledges that for most folks, the point is to demonstrate you have satisfactorily learned the course material, while still allowing folks to distinguish themselves on both ends.  Budding young executives who complain that it is unfair to automatically "fail" the bottom 10% of each course are reminded that this is exactly how many Fortune 500 companies run their HR systems, seeking to constantly weed out the bottom 10%.

Update:  The argument usually is that students need high grades to compete with other kids from grade-inflated schools in the marketplace.  I just don't think this is true.  Colleges themselves deal with this all the time in admissions.  When they get a high school transcript, attached to that transcript is a fact sheet about the high school that gives its distribution of grades.  That way the recipient can discount the GPA as appropriate.  Every company doing hiring should demand the same of colleges.

Here is a personal anecdote.  My son Nic's school grades hard.  Something like 2 kids over the last 2 decades have graduated with a 4.0.  One could argue my son's grades could have been higher at another school, but knowledgeable consumers of high school GPA's know how our school works and we have never felt he somehow was at a loss due to the school's grading policies (but Oh God can type A parents fret about this incessantly among themselves).   [edit:  took out brag about my son.  Nothing more boring than other people bragging on their kids.]

Pretzel Logic

This is an amazing contortion:

According to Phil Klein of the American Spectator, Christina Romer, head of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, had this to say today about the Senate's proposed excise tax on high-end health insurance policies:

"Part of the idea of how that is going to work is precisely because it does empower consumers. It empowers each of us to have an employer-sponsored plan to call our HR office and say, "˜Would you negotiate harder? Would you think about (whether this) is the most efficient plan out there, because I don't want my plan paying an excise tax.' So I think that's something that is very much empowering consumers."

Open Letter to Whole Foods Boycotters

It is good to see that you have found a tangible way to respond to the editorial written by the Whole Foods CEO.  Your ability to pursue such a boycott is one of the great things about a free market. There are literally hundreds of food shopping choices in a large city, with a variety of value propositions from the low-cost but ambiance-challenged Wal-Mart or Target to the farmers market. Its great to see folks exercising their choice in the free market to take their business elsewhere.

Besides, if nothing else, it provides the majority of us entertainment value as we enjoy the irony of people exercising their free choice shopping in the highly competitive and diverse grocery marketplace to boycott someone who advocated maintaining choice and a diversity of options in the health care market. Hope all of you have great success boycotting the single payer medical system you long for when you don't like something it does, and I hope the single one-size-fits-all insurance option you have happens to match your individual preferences.

Anyway, I give you an A for political activism but an F for marketing if you believe Whole Foods customer base is all liberal or progressive. It may be so in downtown SF or Seattle. But most of Whole Foods stores are in places like Scottsdale, and Houston, and Dallas. For a large portion of Whole Foods customers, it is not some progressive statement, but it is simply a premium-priced grocery store selling premium quality foods. Though I suppose the Scottsdale country club mom in her new Jag gets some psychic boost from shopping there, kind of like buying a carbon offset.

Seriously -- I bet that most of Whole Food's most profitable customers just don't care about this progressive stuff. They don't go looking for fair trade coffee, or whatever. They don't care Whole Foods buys all wind power (in Texas, where the market allows this). They don't know how the employees are treated and paid. I shop there and I had no clue as to their HR policies until this week when they have been in the news.

Whole Foods does this stuff because Mackey and most of his team really believe in it. They are truly passionate about it, not like some company like Kraft who creates an organic cheese SKU because the consultants said there was a market niche for it. Really, are there 5 other corporate CEO's in the Fortune 500 whose beliefs and the way they manage more closely match what progressives would want to see? Is there even one? But this is the guy y'all are choosing to go after, this one company out of all the Fortune 500, because he disagreed with the progressive orthodoxy on a single piece of legislation? Jeez, this is like conservatives boycotting Fox News because they put a single liberal pundit on from 2-2:30AM.

This is a Feature of Nearly All Regulation

Via Overlawyered:

Sponsored by Congress' most senior member, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), HR 759 amends the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to include provisions governing food safety. The bill provides for an accreditation system for food facilities, and would require written food safety plans and hazard analyses for any facilities that manufacture, process, pack, transport or hold food in the United States.

It also calls for country of origin labeling and science-based minimum standards for harvesting fruits and vegetables, as well as establishing a risk-based inspection schedule for food facilities. "¦

The [Cornucopia] institute claims the preventative measures [on handling of food on farms] are designed with large-scale producers and processors in mind and "would likely put smaller and organic producers at an economic and competitive disadvantage."

You hear this all the time from proponents of certain regulations -- "even _____ corporation supports it."  GE supports global warming regulation.  Large health care companies support heath care regulation.  The list goes on forever.  That is because regulation always aids the large established companies over smaller companies and future upstart competitors.  Larger companies have the scale to spread compliance investments over larger sales volumes, and the political muscle to lobby Congress to tilt regulation in their favor (e.g. current cap-and-trade lobbying in Congress).  Regulation creates a barrier to entry for potential new competitors as well.

I hate to admit it, but regulation in my own business (which I neither sought nor supported) has killed off many of my smaller competitors and vastly improved our company's competitive position.  It is no accident that the list of the largest companies in heavily-regulated Europe nearly never change, decade after decade, whereas the American list has always seen substantial turnover.

It's Hard To Be A Libertarian

Sometimes, it is difficult to figure out what the libertarian position on an issue should be, because it is so muddled with a history of government interference.

One such issue is the bill that passed the House (but is unlikely to become law) called the "Employee Free Choice Act."  The bill eliminates the requirement for secret ballot elections for forming unions, in favor of card checks (basically similar to signing a petition).  On its face, it is easy to laugh at the hypocrisy of Democrats, who are the first to claim voter intimidation even in secret ballot elections.  In no other context would the Democrats ever support such a voting change, but many in the party are convinced unions need a boost, and this is their solution.

This is the second pay-off to unions the Democrats have put forward.
Yesterday the House passed HR 800, the curiously misnamed "Employee
Free Choice Act" by a margin of 241-185. This act approves the use of
the very public card check method of certifying a union instead of
using a secret ballot.

As I mentioned here,
that opens the entire process to intimidation - on both sides. A secret
ballot was how it was formerly done and should have been preserved. I
can't imagine how anyone can make the argument, with a straight face,
that the card check system

But wait!  What is the individual rights position here?  Freedom of association means the government should not dictate to a group of people on how they organize.  If a group of even two people want to get together at GM and call themselves a "union" and approach management to negotiate, they should be able to have at it.  Of course, they'll probably get laughed out of the room, but it is odd the government should dictate how they can organize.  In a free society, this is how things should work -- any number of employees should be able to organize themselves.  If they get enough people, then they will have enough clout, perhaps, to be listened to by management.

Unfortunately, we don't live in a free society, and the term "union" comes with a lot of legal baggage.  Recognized unions are granted certain legal powers and rights that an average group of self-organized folks don't.  For example, they are the only private organizations in this country that I know of that have taxation power, and the power to demand absolutely that certain monies be withheld from employee paychecks (even of employees not in the union) and given to them.  Perhaps more importantly, companies can't ignore them - they have to negotiate with a recognized union.  Unions also have informal powers.  For example, the legal system tends to tolerate a lot of violence and physical intimidation by union members (in strikes and such) that it does not tolerate in other contexts  (seventy-five years ago, the situation was reversed and the system tolerated a lot of company violence against workers).

So what do you do?  I have the same problem with immigration policy -- I think a free society would allow free immigration, but we are not a free society and have a myriad of government handouts we just can't afford to give to everyone who shows up at the door.  Anyway, in the case of this bill, given the power we have granted to unions, I don't think the secret ballot election requirement is too unreasonable.  Or maybe we could offer a compromise:  Democrats can get card-check voting in unions as long as they allow the same system for presidential voting in Florida and Ohio.

Cost of Centralization

This post actually takes me back to the roots of this blog, roots that most new readers probably have not seen much of.  I originally started this blog as place to share my lessons learned in starting, running, and growing a small business.  I still do some of that, but not nearly as much as I would like.

My company has about 25 line managers who each run the operations for one recreation area (these are spread over 13 states).  I give these managers nearly complete P&L authority.  I set base labor rates and most fee levels, and we have a very clear management process everyone follows.  However, line managers have the responsibility to do all the hiring for their area, as well as most purchasing.   One issue that comes up a lot for us as we grow is how much we should centralize some of these functions for efficiency, most significantly HR and purchasing.  In general, I have resisted efforts to centralize.  Here is why.

Human Resources

Several of my competitors, even ones smaller than I am, have centralized their hiring functions.  They have one person (or more) at central HQ who does all the hiring for the company's operations.  My managers often come to me and say "wouldn't it be more efficient to do this hiring in one place?" 
I say no.  The reason is one of accountability.  I want my managers fully accountable for their operations, and poor-performance excuse #1 is always "well, we're struggling because you saddled us with some bad employees."  No one uses this excuse in my company.  If you have an employee that sucks, you hired him/her and you have to deal with it. 

What I did instead was centralize the Human Resource support for our managers, making their lives easier without relieving them of accountability.  So I invested in some new web sites that capture potential workers and drive them to an application database that collects 10 resumes a day  (I am results 1,3, 4 &8 on Google for camp host jobs and results 5, 6, & 7 for campground jobs).  Then I built a system where all my managers can access these resumes.  I also centralized the HR record keeping and payroll processing.

Purchasing

Centralized purchasing has been a harder impulse to resist, but I still do so.  We order a lot of the same supplies in our various locations, and with more and more stores, many of the same goods for resale.  But I still have my local managers buy most of that stuff for themselves.

Am I crazy?  Well, I would have thought so when I was in business school.  After all, its fairly easy to demonstrate that vendors will give better rates for larger orders, and surely it's inefficient from a labor standpoint to disperse purchasing and to duplicate efforts.

First and foremost, though, I am still a stickler for accountability.  Much of my thinking was shaped by Chuck Knight at Emerson Electric, who was nearly always willing to trade centralized cost savings for accountability.  I would much rather my managers have no excuses than save a few pennies on toilet paper purchases.

However, there are a few things we can do.  We are starting to build a shared supplier database, where managers can share particularly good supplier deals with their peers.  We also have centralized purchasing of uniforms and forms, but even here we have been burned.  In the past, we assigned this task to a central person, who eventually built up a huge warehouse of crap it has taken us years to clean out.  Though we don't get quite as good of a deal, we now have printing and uniform contracts with negotiated corporate rates based on our combined corporate usage, but where managers place their own orders and shipping is directly to the field (rather to a central location for reshipment).  Net, we saved thousands in labor, shipping, and inventory getting out of the central break-bulk business.

For our resale items, I get a lot of presure from individual store managers to let them do purchasing of so-and-so product for the whole company in order to get quantity discounts.   I have allowed this in a few cases, but it may cause more problems than it is worth.  I immediately started getting complaints from manager A that manager B was buying all the wrong stuff, or whatever.  Soon, the folks doing the central purchasing started demanding that they needed more and better information, and started asking for written inventory reports from various store managers each month.  Eek! 

I think instead that I am going to mostly stick with the approach of negotiating corporate deals, and having local managers continue to do their own ordering using these deals.  I also work hard to make sure managers understand that in most cases the corporate negotiated products are optional, and that they may buy other products if they think those are better for their locations (I can guarantee that visitors in Northern California, Nogales Arizona, and Central Florida want different things).

Not to Know it is to Love it

In a recent post, I started to develop the theory that people who are positive to neutral about the regulatory state may be so in part because they don't encounter it - e.g. an employee tends to be sheltered from the mind-numbing body of labor law that regulates his relationship with his employer because more efficient HR departments and payroll companies shelter people from this mess.

By the way, let me digress just one second on the nature of my blogging.  When I said above that it was a theory I started to develop in a post, this does not mean that I sat around for days, came up with the idea, and started to flesh out my well-oiled thinking on the topic in that post.  It means it occurred to me literally while I was typing my post, somewhere between paragraphs 3 and 4.  I use the act of blogging as a way to test-drive my thinking on certain topics, which puts you the reader in the position of something between a intellectual sounding board and a psychotherapist.  I actually spend my time trying to keep my business running -- my college roommate is the only one I know who gets paid to sit around and think deep thoughts.

Anyway, with that out of the way, I can return to the actual point of this post which is to point out that the same attitude of "not to know it is to love it" may well apply to torts and litigation.  All romantic and heroic as portrayed in the media (e.g. Erin Bronkovitch), torts as practiced in real-life seldom so heroic, either in their details or their outcomes.  Here is Bookslut wondering about her opposition to tort reform now that she has witnessed some silly lawsuits in her area of familiarity.  Overlawyered has background on the case in question/

Roundup of HR-Related Posts

George's Employment Blawg has a roundup of a lot of good HR-related blog posts.

Good Labor Law Site for Employers

Just added George's Employment Blawg to my blogroll. As a small business, the biggest shock has been dealing with employment related issues (working for large corporations, this stuff was all invisible to the average general manager - huge departments of HR people just sortof took care of it).

I like what I have seen of this site, and its got some other useful links in the blog roll. It is written from the perspective of the employer (which is actually unusual for labor law sites - most are run by lawyers who represent workers and are mostly instruction manuals on extracting more money from businesses).