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Aitken Guides HR Organization Through Policy, Politics

August 24, 2009
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, The HR Profession, Medical Benefits Law, Featured Article
Every year, Mike Aitken delivers one of the most popular seminars at the Society for Human Resource Management’s conference, laying out an overview of the workplace policy landscape in Washington for hundreds of SHRM members.

In March, Aitken, director of government affairs for the organization, gave a similar presentation to a record 650 attendees at the SHRM Legislative and Employment Law Conference in Washington.

At these events, he shows himself to be the ultimate political junkie. The first part of his talk invariably includes an analysis of a recent or upcoming election and how it could affect employment law.

“Politics drives policy,” said Aitken, who has been at SHRM for six years and was a lobbyist for another HR professional association for 14 years before that. “It’s important to understand that relationship.”

He illustrated the dynamic in the March conference when discussing the prospects for a bill, the Healthy Families Act, that would require companies to offer employees seven paid sick days annually. It is sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, who is battling a brain tumor. The measure may be moved along quickly by his congressional colleagues as a way to honor Kennedy.

That insight resonated with Alice Barela, a law student at the University of New Mexico and SHRM’s state legislative director.

Barela was one of 260 conference attendees who took part in SHRM’s lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill at the end of the conference. The conference-goers planned to express concern to members of Congress and their staffs that the paid-sick-leave bill might undermine paid-time-off programs.

“It’s good to know the political context with Ted Kennedy,” Barela said.

She credited Aitken with inspiring her to attend law school, where she is specializing in employment and labor law. Prior to enrolling, Barela was an HR generalist at Applied Research Associates, a science and engineering firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

She says she got excited about compliance issues in part because of the way that Aitken connects the subject to employees and explains how HR professionals can influence decisions in Congress.

“He truly lives and breathes the topics,” Barela said. “He makes you passionate about the issues. It’s contagious.”

Aitken tries to engage his audiences with humor. He also employs dry wit to make a point, often chuckling at his own jokes.

In describing the effect of a recently signed law that would allow workers to sue for pay discrimination dating back decades, perhaps involving supervisors who have died, he said: “When you start to think about expert witnesses, it may not be too far out of the realm to think about seances.”

Behind Aitken’s smile is the spirit of a savvy legislative veteran. “I appreciate this bulldog,” Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, told a SHRM breakfast meeting on Capitol Hill. “This guy is tough.”

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