Hey HR: What Keeps You Up At Night?

Published in North of Boston Business
By: Jennifer L. Parent and Charla B. Stevens

“It’s Time for Companies to Fire Their Human Resource Departments”, contributor Kyle Smith made the pronounced in an April 4, 2013 opinion piece in Forbes magazine. The author conjured up images of consummate 9-to-5ers, who exist “in a bubble” and “revel in red tape”. On our end, we were scratching our head when we finished Smith’s piece.

As employment lawyers who often get off-hours calls from concerned human resource e representatives, we read Smith’s position as out-of-touch with today’s HR professionals. These men and women spend their days and nights walking the tightrope between employer and employee with significant responsibility for managing personnel, budgets, and above all, risk.
In fact, for businesses to flourish today, acquiring and retaining talented and knowledgeable human resource professionals must be a key matter of interest. 
To test our theory, we took a poll of human resource professionals asking simply, “What keeps you up at night?”
Interestingly, the responses we received from HR pople also serve as a list of very good reasons why businesses need them now more than ever:
Compliance Nightmares: Safety plans, ERISA compliance, excessive and conflicting state and federal regulations, Affirmative Action Plans. What format do I file it in and when is it due? How do I get my employees to return that paperwork on time? What leave applies to this request? HR has the important responsibility of keeping operations in compliance, sometimes with minimal assistance from management or the workforce.
Managing Employee Leave: HR is also charged with determining how the Americans with Disabilities Act, Famiy and Medical Leave Act, , maternity leave, worker’s compensation benefits, and the newest sick leave law intersect and overlap – and that’s certainly cause for insomnia. Eligibility requirements are complex, regulations dense, and guidance not always complete. HR needs to figure out how to make sure an employee’s rights are protected AND, in many cases, ensure that there is someone at the desk to take the absent employee’s place – by morning.
Recruiting, Hiring Qualified Talent: The economy is improving, and baby boomers are retiring or reducing their work hours. HR is not only concerned about harnessing the vast knowledge of an aging workforce and passing it on to a new generation, but New England employers also have to be worrying about keeping young families and recent graduates from the best colleges in the country right here where they are needed.
Affordable Care Act Compliance: HR still has an awful lot to do to get ready for the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Between the doomsday predictions, the frequently changing landscape, and the fear of change, HR stands squarely between employer and employee trying to get a handle on complex issues while managing the emotion of one of the most personal issues people face – their health and the health of their families.
Battling Organizational Resistance to Change: No one accepts change easily. This can be a real roadblock for any HR professional who tries to introduce a new program for employees or a new company policy. It falls to HR to communicate to everyone how the change will make things better, more efficient, or directly address a company goal or strategy.
Succession Planning: HR knows that there will be more people retiring than there are people to fill those positions in the coming years. There are also many more reasons besides retirement employees may leave a company – for a new job, unforeseen death, or change in life-style. Companies need to plan strategically for this potential knowledge and skills loss and disruption in business.
Succession planning is more than just recruiting and retaining, it is preparing  today for a key employee’s departure that may occur tomorrow. HR knows that Mr. Big will be leaving the company some day; the fact that he hasn’t faced that himself is a significant source of stress for HR which needs to be a part of the important process of ensuring continuity and even the continued existence of the company.

Training, Mentoring and Organizational Development
:  Far from being a bunch of paper pushers, HR should be viewed as a force in developing the company’s future leaders. Today’s HR team looks at the company as a whole and aims to focus management on training and mentoring those in essential roles within the company.
Keeping Employees Engaged: Recent data suggests that as much as 70-80% of today’s workforce is disengaged at work while about a third of those individuals are actively looking for new jobs. HR asks, How can this be so when we have more employee recognition programs, ice cream socials, and activities aimed at showing our employees how much we value them? What do they want? What more can I do to make them feel valued, and connected to their fellow employees and our mission as an organization?
If HR was ever a dispensable department that fell short of adding strategic value to an organization, it certainly isn’t anymore. On the contrary,  today’s HR pros can serve as a company’s competitive advantage.
Yes, they are responsible for the everyday compliance with state and federal employment laws, but in the bigger picture, they are responsible for the care of every company’s top asset – it’s people.
Jennifer Parent is the Chair of and Charla Bizios Stevens is a Director in the Employment Practice Group with the McLane Law Firm. They can be reached at jennifer.parent@mclane.com or charla.stevens@mclane.com.