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Data Accuracy, Privacy Key at IHRIM Gathering

May 9, 2006
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The critical role that the privacy, integrity and protection of employee data plays in organizations was the focus of several sessions at the International Association for Human Resource Information Management conference in Washington, D.C., last month.

At a time when HR software vendors tout "strategic applications" such as performance management and workforce analytics, many companies are wrestling with a much more basic challenge: making sure their information is consistent and their figures add up.

The Progressive Group of Insurance Companies is a case in point. Progressive, a major auto insurance provider, struggled mightily before it made its employee data uniform, said Laurie Munoz, HR systems manager at the company. Munoz told a conference session that Progressive made a big investment in PeopleSoft software in the late 1990s, but the resulting system failed to generate accurate reports. "We got these numbers that were ludicrous, like 475 percent turnover in some areas when we reorganized," Munoz said.

Among the obstacles to arriving at clean data, Munoz said, was a lack of common definitions for such seemingly straightforward terms as turnover percentage and headcount.

Similar issues can plague attempts to create worldwide HR systems, according to participants at another conference session. For example, choosing whether to use the term "family name," "given name" or "last name" in setting up data fields can be tricky. And resolving such matters involves talks with a variety of constituents within an organization, said session facilitator Rob Eidson of Deloitte Consulting. "This is not for the faint of heart," Eidson said. "It’s hard, challenging stuff."

Even such basic data as the number of employees can’t be taken for granted.

"What’s (our) headcount? That’s what we’re struggling with," said Kathleen Murray of Fidelity Investments.

As they work to get a grip on such basic measures, organizations also face laws restricting the way they handle employee data in their HR information technology systems. In a session titled "Can Data Privacy and HRIT Coexist?" officials from Eli Lilly and Co. outlined challenges of dealing with privacy laws and regulations that differ from state to state and nation to nation. "HR privacy is the sleeping giant of privacy issues," said Carolyn Anker, who works in Eli Lilly’s global privacy office.

Consultant Donald Harris went further in another session. Harris, president of HR Privacy Solutions, said many businesses fail to abide by a law restricting transfers of employee data outside of the European Union. "I’m sure that many companies are (violating the law)," Harris said.

Harris led a session focused on "binding corporate rules," which are corporate codes of conduct for data protection that can serve as a way to observe EU law.

If organizations can keep their noses clean regarding privacy laws and keep their data tidy, technology today promises to help companies set better strategies. Munoz said that an HR scorecard at Progressive allowed the company to realize it should focus on employee referrals as a good source of new employees and to slow down its growth in a specific market because of high turnover among claims adjusters.

A key, she said, was having the HR department lead the way in coming to common understandings. "We needed to take control," she said.

Ed Frauenheim

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