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A word about employee engagement with Brian Marshall of Ameriben

Brian Marshall leads a training at Ameriben's headquarters in Meridian. Photo by Pete Grady.

Brian Marshall leads a training at Ameriben’s headquarters in Meridian. Photo by Pete Grady.

Brian Marshall is human resources director for Ameriben, a 58-year-old Meridian company that serves as a third party administrator for self-funded insurance plans.

Ameriben handles retirement administration plans and other human resources consulting functions for companies around the country – most of them in the West – and employs 600 people in Meridian. It’s building a new headquarters in Meridian.

Marshall joined the company about a year ago after working as an attorney for about 13 years. He spoke with Idaho Business Review about the most important issues facing human resource departments these days. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s happening in HR these days?

There has historically been a bit of a division between the leadership development side of Human resources and the compliance legal side of HR. A number of laws apply to human resources issues.

Health care is always an issue; it’s such a major expense to companies that they have got to be mindful of strategies in order to be competitive. Obamacare was huge but we seem to be dealing with that.

The really hot topic right now is changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act, with changes to the exempt and non-exempt employees. We have about 600 employees at Ameriben; about 20 of them, 4-odd percent, are affected by those rule changes. Essentially what it does is rule for who can be a salaried worker. They set the wage limit at $32,000 years ago, and it was a fixed rate that Congress never revisited.

This comes with some challenges, because there is freedom to being a salaried employee. If we try to engage our employees so they want to put in extra time and effort, it’s hard to do that on a rigid schedule if they have to punch in and out.

How do you help employers with this?

We did a webinar last week, and we had 160 people attend from all over the country. We have a number of strategies to talk about the issues it’s representing and what the best strategies are.

We’re finding that if they’re close, it’s better to just raise the wages a bit and get them within that salary and raise the status quo. If they’re not as close we have a few months within now and December – the best practice is to start tracking hours, see what kind of hours they’re putting in.

It’s been a standard for so long that nobody really knows exactly all the effects. The more we talk to people about it the more things start to be revealed. Salaried employees feel some pride in being salaried. Going to hourly feels like a demotion even if nothing else else changes.

I am not criticizing the change, I think it’s probably appropriate, because it protects workers who are being taken advantage of. If you’re working 80 hours a week at $30,000-some-odd dollars a year, that’s probably not fair.

What else are your clients asking you about?

Here’s where I see the pain, as I talk to executives. Almost no executive boards in the companies I work with include a human resources director. Human resources is considered the department of “No.” They’re always telling us what we can’t do. It’s very focused on compliance.

When I ask CEOs and vice presidents what they’d like to see, almost universally it’s, “I’d like to see more strategic thinking, more compliance.”

Ninety percent of the human resources people you’ll visit with will come across with a risk-averse personality and are very compliance-oriented.

They understand the kind of trouble they can get into if they get sued.

What they don’t have training or experience with is the overall view of the opportunities or threats to the greater business, and in the boardroom they want people who can think about those issues, the employees, the human elements, and the way to meet those opportunities and threats.

What’s happening on the leadership development side?

The watchword right now is employee engagement. Statistically, according to Gallup, only about one-third of Americans are actually engaged in their job, which means they’re kind of phoning it in, doing the bare minimum to collect their check to go home. They only come to work because they need the money, and then a segment are actively disengaged. They’re the Dilbert people who are ready to take the whole organization down with them, making everyone else miserable.

We have a lot of work to do. That’s 66 percent of productivity we’re losing out on. We’re not talking about additional money or employees, or investment, just doing business differently so people feel happy and motivated and engaged to do their job the way it’s meant to be done. If you can tap that you’ve tapped gold.

It’s like doubling your workforce without spending additional capital. We find that every issue we face in companies from a human resources standpoint could be answered with higher levels of employee engagement.

Does pay help?

What really makes a difference for engagement is the team leader. If we’re talking the team of 5-10 people with a direct report, their relationship with that person is going to make more of a difference with engagement than anything else the company does.

We’re constantly on the lookout for people who get it, who know how to be transparent, trustworthy, personable with their employees – it’s not a natural talent, it’s got to be developed at some level.

So how do you find that good team leader? And isn’t the word leadership becoming overused? 

People are desperate for leadership, and I mean real leadership the way it used to mean something. So many people recognize that it’s valuable, that they have to pretend to have it, to the point where that word has been diluted.

Leadership means taking the initiative to accomplish something greater than can be accomplished by an individual. By definition, it requires more than one person. The leader is the one who is gathering support and coordinating the effort to accomplish a greater goal.

But where that term loses its meaning is when people stand out from a crowd and say “Follow me” without having anywhere to go. Unfortunately, that happens all the time.

So much of the management material, which I distinguish from leadership, is focused on manipulative behaviors by the managers, we’re trying to focus on the core leadership values that inspire. That’s carrots and sticks, with, “Do this and I’ll give you that; don’t do that and I’ll punish you.” It’s fear-based and it’s not inspiring or motivating in an individual.

What does good leadership look like?

Employees are taught principals and given the freedom to apply them with their own initiative, as opposed to an office which is run on rules which are very prescriptive and top-down. Not to say we don’t have rules, but the focus is different.

Has the gender and bathroom issue affected your clients? 

I haven’t heard from a lot of folks worried about it. I know this is a hot topic nationally, but I think companies have been dealing with transgender issues for long enough now that most of them have some kind of policy in place.

There are companies that have created such an unfriendly environment they don’t have transgender people working there. Bringing them into the 20th century is going to be a challenge. But the grand majority of our companies who have transgender employees have found a reasonable workaround, it’s come not to rules but down to communication and how do we work with this?

We have transgender people in our company and I have asked a couple difference times: Do we have an issue there? And I would say universally the response has been that it’s not a problem.

I don’t mean to minimize the issue, but the answer to a lot of those questions really is taking the fear out of differences and focusing instead on human dignity and seeing what we can appreciate in others’ differences. That, in my experience, always wins out.




About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.