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Trendy Topics Grab Ink, but HR Hot Line Reveals Basic Workplace Worries

May 10, 2011
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Managing Change, Strategic Planning, Featured Article
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In a time when legislative and economic issues are evolving as rapidly as interpersonal and social dynamics, perhaps no business discipline has been transformed as much in recent years as human resources. Or has it?

Cincinnati-based Employers Resource Association’s 2011 list of the top 10 questions received on its human resources hot line reveals that while bedbugs, social media and background checks are among the hot topics in the mainstream and business media, demand is still high for expertise with HR staples such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, discipline and termination, and performance management. According to Dan Chaney, the association’s director HR Advisory Services who handles the majority of inquiries, more than 15 percent of the calls relate to FMLA.

The not-for-profit organization, which specializes in human resources consulting, training, development and legal updates, receives more than 8,000 calls each year to its phone and email HR Hotline from human resources professionals in the Midwest who work for businesses and not-for-profits of all sizes.

The association has compiled the list for several years but has only published it since 2010. The new list released in March reflects the concerns of years past, Chaney says. Termination or discipline issues ranks second among the queries after FMLA, followed by questions regarding performance management, Fair Labor Standards Act and immigration.

“This list highlights several topics on the minds of both employees and supervisors,” says John Robak, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Greeley and Hansen, a global environmental and engineering consulting firm in Chicago. “In my experience, employees are often looking for clarification of company rules, regulations and policies. One of the first places they turn to is the human resources department.”

Ed Lawler, a professor of business and founder and director of the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, believes that’s a dilemma for HR professionals.

Lawler, who is the author of Management Reset: Organizing for Sustainable Effectiveness, says, “Our data shows that the HR function has stayed the same. HR folks get caught up with these day-to-day transactional issues and don’t see the bigger, more strategic issues of the business and therefore are not included in strategy discussions.”

Robak says he would like to see more emphasis from HR on ways to increase employee engagement and reduce staff turnover.

“My hope is that over time more employees and supervisors will transition toward asking questions on ways to create a stronger work environment and culture and on how to manage work flow more effectively,” he says.

“In general, I believe this list is an accurate reflection of what’s happening in the human resources world today, but I would move No. 3 [performance management strategies] to the No,. 1 spot [FMLA]. The issues I deal with most for clients revolve around performance,” says Michael Newman, labor and employment partner at Cincinnati-based Dinsmore & Shohl, a client of the Employers Resource Association.

Newman also handles numerous Americans with Disabilities Act claims, noting that almost every lawsuit he sees involves retaliation.

“This is huge,” he says, “and HR professionals need legal advice on how to document and fire a nonperforming employee to avoid lengthy litigation.”

Some of the calls are from people who are in a bind, Chaney says.

“They either ignored the basics of consistency, fairness and documentation or simply were over their heads in HR practice or law that they didn’t understand,” he says.

According to Lawler, part of the answer is to create separate pieces of the HR function with different areas of expertise, such as a division that is dedicated to issues other than administration or outsourcing.

“So much knowledge is needed, and we’re seeing growth in outsourcing, especially in the areas of compensation and employee assistance programs, done more for cost than for strategic reasons,” he says.

Robak believes the questions HR professionals ask will evolve over time as companies place even more emphasis on communicating their mission and values and improving their methods to effectively onboard new employees.

“This transformation is necessary if organizations are to truly create an environment where staff is highly engaged and upwardly mobile,” he says.

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