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HR panel: Shelve the policy manuals in favor of training and trust

Anne Wallace Allen 2015The Meridian human resources company Ameriben is a huge place by Idaho standards – it has 700 employees and expects to double in size in the next four years. It hired 20 people just last week. But when Human Resources Manager Brian Marshall needs to find some temporary help, he reaches out to the most local source imaginable: staff friends and family.

Marshall, a panelist on the Idaho Business Review’s breakfast series on human resources on April 11, said he views this practice as a sort of “internal temp agency” with built-in quality control.

When a big project looms, “we find it’s not difficult to have eight or 10 people available for that sort of thing. We hire someone for two months, rather than hiring someone full-time for a permanent position. Those people are very appreciative to have the flexible schedule we’re offering. And when the project is finished we’re able to move on.”

Marshall was one of five panelists at the breakfast series, a program IBR holds every two months. Discussions about workforce always fill the room, because finding and retaining good employees has taken on huge importance locally as the unemployment rate has dropped in Idaho to below 4 percent.

The panelists were asked to talk about conditions in Idaho that help companies find and retain the best employees.

Panelist Toni L. Coleman Carter, a newly hired inclusion and diversity strategy director for the Idaho National Laboratory, cautioned managers that they shouldn’t rely too much on instinct when assessing prospective workers. When they do, she said, there’s a danger they connect deeply only with the job candidates who are most similar to them.

“When people use more intuition and gut in their selection process, women and people of color get screened out. Research shows that,” said Coleman Carter. “So I’m a fan of a structured interview process. When there is a structured process with requirements clearly identified ahead of time, women and people of color are hired more.”

The panelists also talked about how the role of HR leaders has moved in recent years from one of policing and enforcing compliance to one of working in a partnership with company leaders to create an environment where people thrive at their jobs, and hopefully stay in them.

“When HR has to be the police, it prevents us from creating the strategic relationships with managers that we need,” Coleman Carter said.

Moving away from the focus on compliance also means leaving the construction of the dense employee handbook to a staff lawyer or the CFO’s office. Huge policy manuals aren’t needed, said Patti Perkins, owner of Calyx-Weaver Associates, an HR consulting company.

“Less is more,” Perkins told the audience. “You need some policies and procedures no doubt, but I really don’t like the idea of the 900-page policy manual. Nobody would read that.”

Instead, said Perkins and other panelists, it’s more efficient to train managers and employees to use good judgment.

Behaving properly at work “is really just common sense,” she said.

Idaho Power, the INL, and other local companies expend significant time and energy in trying to attract a more diverse workforce. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem; Coleman Carter said such workers are more likely to apply to companies where they see others who look like them.

“The first thing they do is look at your website and senior leadership team, and if there aren’t people like us in prominent places, leading major efforts, we’re not going to want to work at your organization,” she said.

Stephen Cilley, the co-founder of Boise PEO Ataraxis, said he thinks the best way to tackle the problem of diversity is to show people that all hires are based on merit and nothing else.

“I don’t care who is coming to work for me as long as they have the right talent and ability for what we need done,” he said. “We have to get to a point where we say as organizations we are completely blind to everything but talent and ability. That will make it much easier to hire people that are talented and diverse.”

Look for our more detailed report on the discussion in the April 21 IBR.

Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

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