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Hire Authority

All Aboard! How to Ensure Onboarding Success

Posted by Elaine Varelas March 4, 2013 09:00 AM

Company insiders are those in the know. They have the pulse of the organization, know who to call on to solve every conceivable problem, have the ear of leadership, and understand how to get things done in the organization. Insiders are invaluable.
The trick for HR professionals is to speed up the transition from new hire to insider. This is where onboarding comes in.

At many organizations, the onboarding process is little more than a new employee orientation. However, by taking such a bare bones approach to welcoming and indoctrinating new employees to the company, HR leaders are all but ensuring that new employees will falter and ultimately fail.

Statistics show that the more senior the role, the less chance for success for new hires. This poor retention score is detrimental to the organization’s recruitment efforts. Too many resources are poured into finding and hiring the right executive for an open position. Yet, too often, organizations invest heavily in the hiring process only to bumble the next step. “Change agents” are hired to make an impact, but they never completely understand what it is they are trying to change. Onboarding should not just be for executives though. This process should occur for key positions throughout the organization to smooth the transition from new to knowledgeable.

The goal of onboarding is the ensure the success of the person in the role. This process is more involved than software training and benefits review. It relies on culture and connections. The person must have a strong understanding of the company culture and have established relationships with people who will be invested in his or her success.

New employees must be aligned with what is culturally important at the company—both formal and informal aspects of the culture. They need to understand the reality of the culture—how it is after everyone stops behaving nicely. Is it competitive or cooperative? Emails or phone calls? What is rewarded? What isn’t valued? What is the important history? What are the obstacles to success? What is the leaderships’ agenda? What is the hidden agenda? What are the landmines that should be avoided at all costs?

Of course, the only way a new employee could gather the answers to these questions is through relationships with current employees. Onboarding can’t just be about information, it also is about connecting new hires with established people within the company. A good assistant is a must, to help the person avoid the common newbie pitfalls. However, this is just a first step. Fresh hires should have two or three other allies within the organization from different parts of the company. A senior mentor can serve as a window into leadership, a colleague within the same department can give a heads up about group politics, and an a representative from another business area can give an outsider’s perspective. Through these relationships, a new person can glean a better understanding of the mechanics of the company, assimilate to a new way of working more quickly, and avoid the frustration of figuring it out along the way.

As an HR professional, you may be thinking, “This all sounds good, but how do I make it happen?” How can you get employees to be invested in another’s success? At some organizations there is a financial incentive. Mentors are rewarded if the new employee survives and thrives. A monetary incentive is not the only way to get employees to become champions. It may just be a matter of assigning value and time to the task. If being an onboarding advocate is an important position in the company, many employees will want to take part. Of course, these employees must be given the time to do it right. They can’t be expected to mentor on nights and weekends. It has to be built into their job description and work day—at least for the short term. Communication can also be useful. If employees can better understand how that person’s success will ultimately impact their own success (i.e. sharing the department work load so everyone isn’t so stressed, taking over a task that the person is ready to give up, allowing them to take on a new position), they will be willing to help.

Some HR people may consider this type of onboarding practice to be a drastic step. Isn’t it risky to expose the organization for what it really is—warts and all? The answer is, it can be. That’s why choosing the onboarding partners is important. This isn’t about hooking up new employees with the company gossip. It is about feeding vital information to new employees to ensure that they become familiar with the workplace, and work customs so that they can be successful. Will the information help or hinder that success? Warts are a natural part of most businesses, and hiding them won’t help a new employee reach his or her potential. Giving new employees are true, realistic view of the company and culture up front, and partners to help navigate those tricky first few months, will lead to less frustration for the individual and better retention for the organization. All aboard for onboarding!

Developing the Next Generation of Leaders

Posted by Elaine Varelas February 4, 2013 08:00 AM

by Elaine Varelas

Despite the best of intentions, most people give up on their New Year’s resolutions by mid-January. Maybe they expect instant results (lose 10 pounds in 24 hours!) or tried to do too much too soon (exercise just three hours a day!). The most successful people are those who take a longer-term view; they look at the big picture instead of instant gratification. This same philosophy should be adopted for business goals. Developing the next generation of leaders cannot happen overnight. HR professionals need to look at implementing a long-term strategy to grow and develop the leaders of the future.

Many HR professionals and company leaders approach leadership development with too much short-sightedness. They often zero in on their people. Who do we have? Who is missing? Where can we find people to fill in the gap? While their instincts are correct that people are a vital part of the process, they may be jumping the gun. Before they decide who they will need, company leaders should first determine what they will need.

The first questions HR professionals should ask when looking to develop leaders should focus on the business. What will our organization look like in two years, five years, or in a decade? How will our business strategy evolve? Will the organization be going public? Working on an acquisition? Developing a new business line? Once leaders have a vision of what the company will look like, they can develop a vision for their leaders.

When executives know their direction, they can shift the focus to locating the skills, qualifications, and experience of the people who will get them there. For example, an organization that is looking to go public soon may need a leader who is entrepreneurial, dynamic, and charismatic. This person’s qualifications would not be a good match, however, for a public company that needs to say on course. While this may be a simplistic example, it illustrates the importance of matching the leader’s experience to the stage of company growth.

It often falls upon the HR professional to deliver less-than-popular messages to the leadership team about staffing and development. It’s possible that the organization’s current leader(s) are not the people who should continue at the helm going forward. The Golden Boy or Girl who led the company to where it is today may become a liability for future growth.

This strategy of matching your leadership to the company’s needs is not just for the executive suite. As HR professionals look forward, they should keep the qualifications of their future leaders in mind as they fill department head and manager positions. HR may want to consider developing leadership benchmarks to guide hiring and development. By creating leadership standards, the organization is announcing, “These are the leadership qualities we value.” Employees will know what is expected of them as leaders, and those target skills and behaviors should be recognized and rewarded throughout the organization.

Once the organization has determined what it will be and the type of leaders it needs to reach those goals, it is then time to look at the organizations’ people. Who are the high potentials? What are the developmental needs necessary to meet objectives? How can the future stars flex their leadership muscles? This process shouldn’t occur with just a chosen few. Succession plans only work if there are back-up players to pick up the slack if a leader leaves. Development strategies should encompass a group of people.

Approaches to development can range from targeted training to stretch assignments to lateral transfers. For example, some global companies require leaders to accept an overseas position on a short-term basis to gain some international perspective and experience. Development strategies should be focused and individualized to cultivate the type of leaders that will advance the business.

Typically, future leader identification is shrouded in secrecy. HR professionals are worried that if they let their high-potentials know they are being put on a leadership track, it could alter the balance of power in the relationship or could lead to changes in employees’ behavior at work. Worse yet, HR leaders fear that they may groom an employee for greatness only to find out that the “this is it” position never materializes.

However, having a conversation (or several) with the organization’s future stars helps to set expectations and can encourage buy-in from employees at the start of the development process. Employees can also weigh in on what they want for their careers and from the organization so that a shared vision can develop and a mutually-beneficial arrangement can be reached. Transparency in the process can better serve the organization and the individual. If an employee knows what the “this is it” position is, he or she can have a hand in creating that position.

Developing the next generation of leaders should start with a thorough examination of what the organization will look like in the future. Once the needs are determined, only then should HR professionals look at the skills and talent they will need to meet the organization’s business goals. Approaching leadership development with a long-term, thoughtful, and well-communicated plan, organizations can identify and develop their people for future success. This is a resolution worth pursuing!

Manager Makeovers: Building Better Managers for Organizational Success

Posted by Elaine Varelas January 7, 2013 09:00 AM

by Elaine Varelas

Makeovers are becoming a cultural phenomenon. Television, magazines, and blogs often showcase extreme transformations of people, houses, relationships, and even pets! Since New Year’s is often a time for people to focus on self-improvement (I’m going to: give up sugar; go gluten-free; start exercising—AGAIN!), we thought we’d offer some advice to make over your organization’s managers. As you look to your organization’s strengths and challenges, so much of your success stems from your people. By building better managers you can bring extreme positive change to your company. Here are five areas you can guide your organization’s managers to focus on in the New Year:

Over communicate—Most managers understand intellectually that communication is important, but how does that translate to their daily interactions with people? Make sure you let managers know what effective communication looks like. Managers must be direct, clear, and articulate. It isn’t possible to over-communicate! Employees appreciate any information offered because it helps to guide their work. They want to know the plan, the strategy, and the rationale behind decisions. When in doubt, communicate! Another important piece of communication that many of us often overlook is that it is not all talk, but listening too. One of the biggest employee complaints is, “Nobody asked me, and nobody listens to us anyway!” Employees are in the trenches everyday, working directly with clients and customers. They are full of great ideas—if somebody just asks and listens. Heard employees are also happier employees.

Recognize—When it comes to recognition, employees are insatiable. Aren’t we all? If we’re doing a good job, we want to hear about it! If we don’t hear about it, what’s the point in working so hard? In general, recognition is underplayed in most organizations. Of course, the thanks must be sincere and deserved or else it loses its value. Give managers ideas for expanding their recognition-providing efforts. Saying a direct “thanks” for a job well-done is not enough (although it is important). Managers should look for other creative ways to recognize employees, including small groups, newsletters, and management meetings.

Set expectations—Employees want to succeed and do their jobs well. They will accomplish tasks and reach goals, but only if those goals are clear. It is a manager’s job to set expectations, communicate them clearly, explain the ramifications of not reaching goals, and ensure buy-in—all employees must understand what is expected of them and why. Setting expectations is not just a one-time gig. Managers should check in periodically to make sure milestones are being met and employees are on track. Managers shouldn’t set expectations to punish employees (“You didn’t do what I asked!”), but to reach set goals as a team.

Delegate to grow—Delegation is an important skill for managers to learn. They need to be able to get work done utilizing other people. Many managers believe in the motto, “If you want something done, you have to do it yourself.” But managers who try to do everything aren’t able to do the most important tasks well. HR managers can encourage managers to keep a running list of “to dos” and only focus on a handful of areas. The rest can be delegated. Delegation is also a great development tool. Managers should consider handing off some of the high impact projects to employees. Stretch assignments can be a useful learning opportunity. The manager can be there to serve as a coach or mentor. Managers should also consider allocating high-visibility or exciting projects to employees. By delegating these types of projects, managers can contribute to employee development—and retention.

Find your blind spot—Encourage managers to conduct a realistic self-assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. It is imperative that managers play to their strengths—great communicators, for example, should continue to build on and develop their communication skills. It is also essential for managers to identify their blind spots. What is that one area of weakness that is keeping the manager from exceling or moving to the next level? In addition to working to develop their employees, managers need to work on their own development. Hopefully, the managers in your organization have their own managers who encourage them to take stretch assignments and step out of their comfort zone to improve those skills that need tweaking. Of course, not everyone can be their own coach. HR managers can step in to offer support and development opportunities for managers when they need it.

As we embark on a New Year, HR managers and company leaders everywhere are looking for that competitive edge to propel them forward in 2013. At The Hire Authority, we are confident that that edge can be enhanced by focusing on people. Building better managers can create a massive impact throughout the organization. As an HR manager, it is your job to encourage and support your organization’s managers as they work on their self-improvement by providing guidance, ideas, and development opportunities. Wishing you much success in the New Year!

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Manager Makeovers: Building Better Managers for Organizational Success

Posted by Elaine Varelas January 7, 2013 08:00 AM

by Elaine Varelas

Makeovers are becoming a cultural phenomenon. Television, magazines, and blogs often showcase extreme transformations of people, houses, relationships, and even pets! Since New Year’s is often a time for people to focus on self-improvement (I’m going to: give up sugar; go gluten-free; start exercising—AGAIN!), we thought we’d offer some advice to make over your organization’s managers. As you look to your organization’s strengths and challenges, so much of your success stems from your people. By building better managers you can bring extreme positive change to your company. Here are five areas you can guide your organization’s managers to focus on in the New Year:

Over communicate—Most managers understand intellectually that communication is important, but how does that translate to their daily interactions with people? Make sure you let managers know what effective communication looks like. Managers must be direct, clear, and articulate. It isn’t possible to over-communicate! Employees appreciate any information offered because it helps to guide their work. They want to know the plan, the strategy, and the rationale behind decisions. When in doubt, communicate! Another important piece of communication that many of us often overlook is that it is not all talk, but listening too. One of the biggest employee complaints is, “Nobody asked me, and nobody listens to us anyway!” Employees are in the trenches everyday, working directly with clients and customers. They are full of great ideas—if somebody just asks and listens. Heard employees are also happier employees.

Recognize—When it comes to recognition, employees are insatiable. Aren’t we all? If we’re doing a good job, we want to hear about it! If we don’t hear about it, what’s the point in working so hard? In general, recognition is underplayed in most organizations. Of course, the thanks must be sincere and deserved or else it loses its value. Give managers ideas for expanding their recognition-providing efforts. Saying a direct “thanks” for a job well-done is not enough (although it is important). Managers should look for other creative ways to recognize employees, including small groups, newsletters, and management meetings.

Set expectations—Employees want to succeed and do their jobs well. They will accomplish tasks and reach goals, but only if those goals are clear. It is a manager’s job to set expectations, communicate them clearly, explain the ramifications of not reaching goals, and ensure buy-in—all employees must understand what is expected of them and why. Setting expectations is not just a one-time gig. Managers should check in periodically to make sure milestones are being met and employees are on track. Managers shouldn’t set expectations to punish employees (“You didn’t do what I asked!”), but to reach set goals as a team.

Delegate to grow—Delegation is an important skill for managers to learn. They need to be able to get work done utilizing other people. Many managers believe in the motto, “If you want something done, you have to do it yourself.” But managers who try to do everything aren’t able to do the most important tasks well. HR managers can encourage managers to keep a running list of “to dos” and only focus on a handful of areas. The rest can be delegated. Delegation is also a great development tool. Managers should consider handing off some of the high impact projects to employees. Stretch assignments can be a useful learning opportunity. The manager can be there to serve as a coach or mentor. Managers should also consider allocating high-visibility or exciting projects to employees. By delegating these types of projects, managers can contribute to employee development—and retention.

Find your blind spot—Encourage managers to conduct a realistic self-assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. It is imperative that managers play to their strengths—great communicators, for example, should continue to build on and develop their communication skills. It is also essential for managers to identify their blind spots. What is that one area of weakness that is keeping the manager from exceling or moving to the next level? In addition to working to develop their employees, managers need to work on their own development. Hopefully, the managers in your organization have their own managers who encourage them to take stretch assignments and step out of their comfort zone to improve those skills that need tweaking. Of course, not everyone can be their own coach. HR managers can step in to offer support and development opportunities for managers when they need it.

As we embark on a New Year, HR managers and company leaders everywhere are looking for that competitive edge to propel them forward in 2013. At The Hire Authority, we are confident that that edge can be enhanced by focusing on people. Building better managers can create a massive impact throughout the organization. As an HR manager, it is your job to encourage and support your organization’s managers as they work on their self-improvement by providing guidance, ideas, and development opportunities. Wishing you much success in the New Year!

Ring in the New Year! Resolutions to get you closer to the C-Suite in 2013

Posted by Elaine Varelas December 3, 2012 09:00 AM

It’s December (already?) and if you’re like us here at The Hire Authority, you’re probably up to your mistletoe in holiday preparations. ‘Tis the season for office parties, gift swaps, and don’t forget work too! Yet, 2013 is just a few short weeks away. It isn’t too soon to begin thinking about your New Year’s resolutions. How will you wow the leadership team next year and ensure your spot in the C-suite? Here are eight edicts to resolve to follow next year to ensure you become indispensible to your organization.

Be true to your culture—What does your organization’s culture boast ? Are you living up to the hype? Whatever your organization points to as its cultural strong point, you have to back it up. If your culture is committed to employee development, make sure your company offers multiple learning opportunities and stretch assignments. If you brag about innovation, invest in it. You may also want to explore new ways to support your culture. Try brown bag lunches with the CEO, using humor as development opportunity instead of discipline, or a vacation day lottery. What could you do to reinforce or inject some energy into your culture?

Be flexible—Policies and procedures should support the company, not the other way around. Do you stand by your rules even when they hurt the organization (“Sorry, that’s against protocol.”)? For example, a manufacturing company had a policy against overtime. When the equipment broke down at day’s end, employees couldn’t stay to fix it. A few hours of overtime is far less costly to an organization than a day without production. Don’t let your policies become roadblocks on the way to reaching business goals.

Be vulnerable—We know that transparency is key to employee engagement. Of course, showing vulnerability is part of transparency. It’s also the scary part! We all saw Obama’s tears while addressing his campaign staff post-election. Regardless of your political leaning, he exhibited genuine emotion to his staff. Showing your true selves, weakness and all, builds trust throughout the organization. This is important for HR to adopt, as well as the leadership team. Employees will see their leaders as authentic and relatable.

Have a plan—What is your HR strategic plan? The “war for talent” may be a tired expression, but it is also a re-emerging fact of business life. Where will your organization’s growth come from? Who are your next leaders? Identify your stars within the company and develop and retain them. Look to outside recruitment to fill in the pieces. Don’t forget development at the executive level. If your leaders think they’re exempt from development initiatives, make changing their minds a goal for your 2013 plan.

Cultivate relationships—Relationships matter. Your relationship with each employee should hold as much weight as those with the leadership team. There is no longer an employment contract, but each employee association is still significant. Employees will become more productive contributors if you base the relationship on respect and integrity, instead of animosity. The relationship should remain consistent through the employee life cycle—not just during recruitment, but development and transitioning out as well. Aim to create an alumnae base full of allies, not enemies.

Become a consummate communicator—If you haven’t done it already, 2013 is the year to master social media. But don’t just post, blog, and tweet to keep up with technology. Use social media strategically. Of course, technology shouldn’t come at the expense of interpersonal communication. One-on-one meetings are still an important tool for HR professionals. Hand written thank you notes are becoming a lost art, and therefore, have a major impact. A colleague of mine has one tacked up on his wall that he received years ago. Emails just don’t have the same impact! Resolve to hand write and snail mail at least some of your thanks in 2013.

Don’t forget your personal goals—When listing your resolutions, don’t forget yourself! What career goals do you want to achieve this year? What do you want to learn about inside the organization? What about outside? What relationships do you want to initiate or foster? As you work to improve the organization, keep your own development in mind.

Commit to innovation—We all know that innovation is essential to business success. While people often link the word “innovate” to products, you can also look at innovation in terms of how you manage and grow the company. What worked in the past could work in the future, but what else is there to try? If your organization is like many others, you may consider your employees your biggest asset. What innovative programs and strategies can you implement to catapult your organization forward? Keep an open mind and take “no” off the table.

Every action you take as an HR professional should directly correlate to impacting and improving the business. Following these resolutions will help to make you indispensible to your company in 2013, not just for the HR department, but the organization as a whole.

What Would The Hire Authority Do?

Posted by Elaine Varelas November 5, 2012 09:00 AM

You may have seen What Would You Do?, ABC News’ hidden camera show hosted by John Quinones featuring real (unsuspecting) people put in the middle of an ethical dilemma. During the ads for this salacious show, where people are witness to cheating, lying, and verbal abuse, the announcer’s booming voice asks viewers, “What would you do?” Despite your feelings about the show or premise, it is a fascinating concept. Most of us at one time or another have been faced with an ethical quandary on the job. We asked some of our readers to submit their stickiest workplace scenarios and put our resident HR expert, Elaine Varelas, on the spot to see how she would handle these situations. We asked Elaine, “What would The Hire Authority Do?”

An employee comes into the office clearly impaired. If the person is sloshed on one too many martinis or hopped up on painkillers, an HR professional’s first responsibility is to make sure the person is safe, and that others in the office are too. The workplace is not the environment for someone who is under the influence. If the person is coherent, make sure you provide transportation home to avoid the person getting behind a wheel. Next, you need to assess the situation, which can only happen through an honest conversation with the employee. Is this a one-time thing (a non-drinker tried a cocktail at lunch at a client’s urging) or is this a pattern of behavior? The employee may need a warning or help getting into rehab. Of course, this conversation has to take place on a different day when the person is sober.

Someone’s BO is causing employees to be KO’d. Needless to say, discussing a person’s smell requires extreme sensitivity. The HR manager needs to make sure that this conversation takes place in private, so the employee isn’t called out and embarrassed in front of co-workers. It helps to start with a question: “Have you gotten this feedback before?” If you’re met with surprise, you need to address it firmly: “Your body odor is strong and it is distracting your colleagues. Let’s see what we can do to take care of this.” You may need to tread lightly, especially as our workplace goes global. You may have employees from different cultures that have less rigid guidelines about hygiene than here in America.

The CEO’s very public divorce has employees’ tongues wagging. Too often, leadership teams choose a strategy of ignoring an issue, believing that if it isn’t addressed directly, it will blow over. Of course, this approach often has the opposite affect. The issue becomes too big of a story not to talk about, as employees wonder why it is such a big secret. In this case, the issue of the divorce must be addressed, and the leadership team should present a united front in support of the CEO. Often, it is the organization’s HR person who needs to drive the process. The HR executive can help develop a public statement for the leadership team. This can read something like, “We have an outstanding CEO who is going through a trying time. This is an extremely personal situation and we hope that you will respect (name of CEO’s) privacy.” This statement doesn’t give any additional information, but employees will see that the divorce was addressed and it should help to get those tongues back where they belong!

In a pet-friendly office, a man’s dog’s flatulence is keeping others from coming in to the office. It’s one thing if it was an employee passing gas, but this is a pet. Bringing pets to work is a wonderful perk at many offices, but Fido’s flatulence can’t take precedence over employees coming in to work. During a conversation with the dog’s owner, the HR manager needs to explain that the dog is causing a problem and disrupting the productivity of other employees. The choice is to either get the dog’s digestive issues under control or leave Fido at home.

An employee is fired and takes everything off her desk (including the company-owned lap top and client files) except a gift her boss gave her years before. In this case, it is important to determine what really matters and what doesn’t. Taking company property, a computer and files, is theft. Someone from security needs to contact her to tell her to return those items. Is it annoying that she refused a gift given in good faith by her boss? Sure. Was she making a statement? Probably. Is it worth making a production out of it? No.

While these situations may seem extreme or even funny at times, they do happen. If one person has the courage to bring up an issue to human resources, you can almost guarantee there are many others suffering in silence. Not addressing them quickly and thoroughly can disrupt the workplace or even cause a hostile work environment. HR is the first line of defense. While it may be human instinct to ignore these issues, it typically doesn’t work because they don’t go away, and can even escalate. As HR professionals, we need to protect the safety of our employees and ensure that they are able to be productive and comfortable at work.

Swing for the Stars—Preparing Leadership, Your Organization and Yourself for Your HR Home Run

Posted by Elaine Varelas October 1, 2012 09:00 AM

HR professionals have made huge strides in changing the perception of the role of human resources in business. Through our efforts, savvy leadership teams are beginning to understand the impact of people on the organization. Our job isn’t just to fill empty positions; we can also give our organizations an edge. Rather than being solely task-oriented—working on benefits, employee complaints, and vacation schedules—HR Professionals are increasingly being asked to help craft the goals and direction of the company.

This shift has moved HR people to leadership roles. Yet with this responsibility comes risk. Throughout history, the most effective leaders have always been risk-takers. HR professionals have the opportunity, and frankly the obligation, to undertake “reach” initiatives in their organizations—endeavors that will most likely drastically alter the way business is done within the company. By embarking on these lofty assignments, we can earn our place on the leadership team by actively providing value and focus to the organization.

You may have your reach initiative in mind, but how do you go about introducing and following through with it? How can you ensure that it will be successful? That you will be taken seriously? And that you can eliminate the roadblocks that stand in your way?

It is natural for your organization, and even your leadership, to be change-averse. People get nervous about disrupting the status quo. After all, why fix what isn’t broken? Why invest in an unproven theory? People like to throw darts at those who suggest change. Knowing that you will be up against skeptics and doubters, what can you do?

It is a massive undertaking, so train for it. Marathon runners know that you shouldn’t just wake up one day and run 26.2 miles. You must train, build up your mileage, tweak your diet and sleep schedule and get great running shoes. In other words, you need to prepare. The same can be done for your reach assignment. Preparation is key. You can’t just blurt out your idea at a staff meeting without having done some research and without anticipating questions and possible objections. If you do, your idea will be shot down before you have a chance to grow it.

Before you announce your initiative, consider instituting a “reach initiative incubator.” At this beginning stage, you should take an honest look at your idea, your organization, and your leadership. Here are some things to consider:

Identify your opposition and sell your position—What will be the biggest obstacles in launching your initiative? Anticipate what the doubters will say. Be prepared to provide data and statistics as to why your program is necessary. Give examples of success stories at other organizations. Document all of the benefits you foresee (especially financial), as well as the possible downsides. With any change, there are bumps. What will those be? How will you mitigate them? How can you show the value despite these issues?

Understand how change works—Research the model of change to understand what you can expect from the process and when. Why are people reluctant? How long will it take to win people over? If you aren’t sure about the intricacies of organizational transition, check out William Bridges, an author and change management consultant. You can see more about his work at:

Develop an education plan—Don’t just say “trust me.” Give leadership a reason to buy into your initiative. Show them how you will make it work, create a reasonable timeline, and short and long-term goals.

Build support—Bring your idea to key people in the organization to garner support before presenting it to leadership. Your biggest allies will be in finance, accounting and operations. You need to assert that your reach project will positively impact the bottom line. Leadership will also be more willing to undertake a project that already has buy-in from a cross-section of people in the organization.

Share accountability—Once the project is launched, it is important to spread the wealth! Make a clear timetable of deadlines and tasks with names and departments assigned to each one. You should also identify all points of failure (not just critical ones) and the repercussions of not meeting them. If assignments and time frames are clear, anyone on the team can call another to task if the deadlines are not met—not for blame, but for prevention.

Over-communicate—When in doubt, over-communicate! Communication should be a continuous process from beginning to end. Typically, if leadership feels overburdened with the amount of communication, it will feel like just the right amount for employees.

There is risk involved with embarking on a reach assignment. But, as with any risk, there can be great reward. You can establish yourself as a leader in your organization, help to impact your company’s bottom line, and give your career a boost by successfully implementing a reach project. By fully preparing yourself, your leadership team and the organization for your initiative, you can help mitigate the risk and set the organization on track to realize the benefits of your “reach.” Swing for the stars!

The Big Three—Tough Questions Every HR Manager Should Answer

Posted by Elaine Varelas September 3, 2012 09:00 AM

by Elaine Varelas, Managing Partner, Keystone Partners

It’s September and here at The Hire Authority, we’re taking a cue from the co-eds who are heading back to school. It’s time to wipe those vacation cobwebs from your eyes, shake the sand from your shoes and focus on work. Class is back in session. We’ll start by asking you the “Three Big Questions.” The answers to these can propel your organization into the future, position you as a leader in the company, and define your career in HR. Prepare for your first day of school pop quiz!

HR professionals often shy away from—or freak out about—these lofty, pie-in-the-sky exercises. But it is essential for constructing a focused and comprehensive strategic vision for HR. If your organization, like many, boasts that its people are the differentiator, then this is essential for the entire organization. Of course, if your organization is developing a company-wide strategic vision, your leadership team may be coming to you with these questions. Be one step ahead of your CEO and present her with your answers (instead of scrambling to think of something!). The questions are centered around the most important people issues—retention, recruitment, and leadership.

Who do we keep?
Who will we hire?
Who will lead?

Who do we keep?Of course, the answers to any of these three question must be closely aligned with the company’s business plan and strategic direction. In order to know who you want to retain, you need to have a vision of where the organization’s growth will be. What are the company’s business goals? What parts of the business will be developed over the next few years? Which of your current employees will help you reach those goals?

Once you’ve identified your MVPs, you need to develop strategies for keeping them.
You must implement the programs that are important to people. It has been proven countless times that money and perks aren’t what keep employees engaged. Employees would skip a free lunch in favor of a stretch assignment and other development opportunities. There needs to be a commitment company-wide for education and training opportunities. Employees want to hone their skills so they can be more marketable. (This is also how you develop your leaders.)

Equally important is to answer, who do we not want to keep? Some people have skills that may need to be phased out. This doesn’t mean wide-spread lay-offs. Your organization can take a more subtle approach. You could have a planned attrition, where you stop hiring for certain positions and skill sets, or active attrition where you can help people find external opportunities.

Who will we hire?
If you haven’t hired in a while, you will need to look at your hiring competencies. The skills and experience you hired for five years ago, may not be what you need this year or in the future. Unfortunately, many managers are so focused on immediate need, they hire to solve yesterday’s problems. In this time of economic thrift, it makes sense to hire for what the organization will need in the months and years ahead.

What are the competencies the organization, and each department, will need to grow moving forward? Does the organization have enough diversity in its’ employee base? What skill sets will be most in demand? Will the business model change? If so, can we fill the need? Where can we recruit these people?

Who will lead?
Take a look at the leadership team. Where are the holes? How will the make-up change over the next several years? Who will be the next CEO? Will you hire a CEO or develop a current employee to take on the role? Sometimes when you bring a CEO into an organization, it just doesn’t stick. It may be a better strategy to bring in a VP level person and groom him or her to become the CEO. This is why it’s important to do internal development to craft the kind of leaders the organization needs, and to take a long term view of recruitment.

Make sure to have a succession plan in place for every member of the leadership team, and a back-up plan in case of changes. This exercise shouldn’t be reserved for just the top, but for every senior manager in the company. In IT, finance, sales, marketing: who will the next leader be? Where are we finding our leaders? Internal development becomes vital to organization because they can grow the type of leaders your organization needs.

Organizations should strive to be more fluid, so a sudden departure doesn’t devastate a company or department. Back-fill positions and try cross-over assignments so employees are well-versed in more than one role.

By asking your team these three tough questions, you can help your organization reach its goals, differentiate your company by putting your people first, and give your HR career a boost by earning a spot at the leadership table.

A Q&A with The Hire Authority

Posted by Elaine Varelas August 6, 2012 09:00 AM

by Elaine Varelas

You have questions about HR? We have answers. Elaine Varelas, the face behind The Hire Authority, answers our readers’ questions:

1. I'm an HR professional with 8 years of experience. I’m in a dead-end job and was thinking about additional education or certification. I want to move into a leadership position in HR, if not at my current company then with another organization. Should I get an MBA or a SPHR (senior professional in human resources) certification?

Congratulations on making the decision to further your education. Many people who feel they’ve hit a ceiling in their current job look to a degree or certification to get their career back on track. Ultimately, you’re the only one who can answer the MBA v. SPHR dilemma, but I can help you through the process.

The first step is to do a frank career assessment. What are your strengths? Weaknesses? What is keeping you from moving forward? Are you lacking practical HR skills or leadership and business expertise?

Next look to where you want to be. Who are the people that hold your dream positions? What is their background? Look at their career and education histories. What degrees or certifications do they hold? If possible, set up an informational meeting with a role model.

Your decision may also be affected by geography. In the Northeast, an area strongly entrenched in academia, graduate degrees are desirable—especially ones from prestigious business schools. In the Midwest, however, SPHR certification is valued by many employers.

2. I'm taking a two week vacation this summer and thought I'd catch up on some business books. What are the new must reads for HR professionals?

Here are 5 great books for 2012:

1. The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg 2012

2. How Will You Measure Your Life?, Clayton Christensen (HBS Professor and author of The Innovators Dilemma), 2012

3. Abundance, The Future is Better Than you Think, Peter Dimandis and Steven Kotler, 2012

4. Megachange: The World in 2050, Daniel Franklin, The Economist, 2012

5. 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, Karl Pillimer, Ph.D, 2012

3. I recently got a promotion. One of my new responsibilities is to serve as hiring manager for my division. My company hasn't done any hiring in several years, but we're set to hire sometime this summer. My problem? I haven't ever interviewed anyone before! I am feeling the pressure to do a good job. Do you have any tips for an inexperienced interviewer?

I can understand why you’re feeling pressure to perform, especially since your company hasn’t hired in some time. However, with the right preparation, you can ace these interviews! Before you begin, think about the kind of people your organization needs. If you haven’t hired in years, most likely the competencies have changed dramatically. What worked in the past won’t be right for the future.

One step you can take to prepare is to familiarize yourself with the legalese that’s common to the hiring process. What questions can you ask and which are off-limits? You may want to compile some questions ahead of time and ask advice from colleagues or associates who’ve interviewed recently for any tips. You also want to sell the company. What makes your organization unique?

You also need to ensure that the interview process is streamlined and efficient. A disorganized and drawn out process will result in a big black eye for the organization and can hurt your recruiting efforts. Make sure to respond to candidates promptly and show them courtesy and respect throughout the process.

4. I work in HR for a mid-sized company. Over the years, I've had requests from employees to work part-time, telecommute, job-share, or work flexible hours. While these schedules wouldn't work for every employee in the company, it would work for some. Unfortunately, the CEO is an "all or nothing" kind of guy. He wants people in the office during office hours and doesn't see any need for change since our retention is steady. At the very least, I think our organization's lack of flexibility is taking a toll on employee morale, but I also think we're going to lose people, especially when the economy improves. Do you have any advice on how I can make a case for flexibility?

Instituting this type of program can only succeed with buy-in from the top. You may have to do a little digging before you embark on this endeavor. What is your CEO’s true objection? Is it lack of trust in managers? A loss of control? Deciphering the answer can help you address his concerns.

Think about recruiting a champion for the cause. If a valued member (by the CEO) of the organization believes in the project and can help spearhead it, you will be more successful.

You may also want to start small. Suggest a pilot program with one manager and a few employees with a clear start and finish. If you’re successful, you can build upon it over time.

I applaud your dedication to creating flexible schedules. It isn’t just about retention, but also about recruiting. Remind your CEO that flexibility might be just the key to attracting top-tier candidates in the future.

It’s Time to Pump It Up! Build Your HR Muscles By Taking These Ten Challenges

Posted by Elaine Varelas July 2, 2012 09:00 AM

Summer is often touted as an ideal time to slim down. It is swimsuit season after all. What if I were to tell you that it is actually a great time to bulk up? Bulk up your HR skills, that is! Summer is typically a slower time at work—people take vacations, deadlines get stretched and many projects are put off until the fall. While it may seem like an opportunity to slack off and set cruise control until the leaves change, you may wan to consider challenging yourself to be a better HR professional. You can take advantage of the slower pace to improve your HR prowess. Instead of checking out, engage. Consider tackling one or all ten of these challenges to heat up your career this summer:

1. Take a meeting—There are meetings that are a priority (think clients, managers, CEO) and those that you may try to avoid. Try saying “yes” to a meeting that you typically wouldn’t take. Say “yes” to those informational meetings, lunch with a vendor, or an appointment with a salesperson. You may also want to seek out a meeting. Is there a client or customer you’ve been coveting? A mentor in your field you’d like to meet? Most of us have a lighter schedule during the hotter months and you can often make these meetings happen. Use this time to build new relationships and learn from them. You never know where they may lead.

2. Get published—Work to get your name in print. Write an article or column for you company newsletter, a trade association publication, or your local newspaper or business magazine. You’ve got opinions and ideas about what is happening in your industry. Share them!

3. Blog it!—You may have more than just one idea for an article. In addition to getting published in a media outlet, you can also start your own blog on your company web site or through LinkedIn or another social networking site. Blogging is a great way to demonstrate your expertise, increase exposure for you and your organization, and connect with clients and job-seekers.

4. Try to be more social (media)—As an HR professional, you’re probably on LinkedIn. Have you tried Facebook or Twitter? You may believe that Facebook is too social for business or Tweeting is just a waste of your time, but how do you know unless you try it? Commit to a 30-day trial of a social media site you haven’t considered before. Even if you don’t continue your subscription, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision.

5. Those who do, teach!—Make a goal to become a teaching organization. Recruit a junior person on your team as a student and teach him or her how to do a part of your job. This doesn’t have to be a formal mentor relationship, you can spend a hour or two teaching someone about the what, how, and why of any task. Encourage other managers in the organization to do the same. This can build morale in the company and foster more informed and engaged employees.

6. Branch out—Look into joining a new trade group. Many professional associations take a summer hiatus from meetings, but you can start your research. What groups could expand your network? You many want to look at an organization outside of HR. What are some of your organization’s vertical industry groups? Where are your clients and customers members? Which associations have a membership similar to your organization’s wish list of recruits?

7. Team up and cross train—Make a point to work across divisions on a project. If your focus is in employee relations, team up with a benefits professional in your company. This practice will help your organization’s HR team work more cohesively together and help each member brush up on some broader HR skills.

8. Get a speaking gig—Look into presenting at a trade show, a local professional group meeting, or a college class to share your expertise. You can build your brand while you hone your public speaking skills.

9. Read a book—Summer is traditionally time to devour a trashy novel, but once you’ve read that pick up a business book. You may want to re-read one of your favorites or pick a new tome that you’ve been meaning to peruse.

10. Get certified—Make a commitment to your education and your career and get your Senior Practitioner in Human Resources (SPHR) certification. Sign up for the test or join a study group.

Forget summer slacking, it’s time to bulk up! By following some or all of these ten tips, you can increase your HR knowledge, marketability, and expertise. Take advantage of the slower pace at the office and make a commitment to yourself and your career this summer and strengthen your HR muscles!

Manager Makeovers: How to Build a Better Manager

Posted by Elaine Varelas June 4, 2012 09:00 AM

One of the most important jobs for HR managers is doing periodic check-ins with managers. How are they performing? Do they need any other development, skill-building, or support? You may have exceptional managers in your organization, but there is always room for improvement. As the summer months approach, it may get less hectic at work, making it the perfect time to introduce the Manager Summer Institute. It could be your own version of Extreme Manager Makeover! Even if your managers don’t need a complete overhaul, it may be an ideal time to build on certain important skills with support from the human resources department. Here are some not-so-common strategies HR managers and other company managers can pursue that can drastically improve employee productivity, loyalty, and engagement:

Know what motivates your team—Discover that one thing that keeps each employee motivated at work. Is it a rearranged work schedule? Working from home two days a week? More salary? Positive reinforcement? A chance for development? Learning a new skill? A reach assignment? Talk to employees to find out what will get them jazzed about the job. Then develop individualized strategies to help keep them motivated.

Know what worries your team —What life challenges are dogging your employee? Is it an out of work spouse, that pesky two hour (each way!) commute, or an aging parent with medical issues? These are the concerns that consume your employees. They can’t stop thinking about them! And when they’re preoccupied with an issue outside of the job, it impacts their work. Managers may think these employee problems are none of their business, but the bottom line is that they impact productivity. Approach team members and create an open environment to talk about their life woes (of course with a guarantee that it won’t affect their standing at work). Sharing can help alleviate some of the burden they are carrying. The consequences of avoiding these conversations can mean a loss of productivity or even the employee. That out-of-work spouse may find a job across the country or a person may have to quit to take care of family or find a job with a shorter commute.

Address their needs—It’s one thing to know what keeps employees awake at night (and distracted at their desks) and another to do something about it. You don’t need to be Mother Theresa and solve all of your employees’ personal problems, but look for ways to make connections, introductions, or provide resources. Can you connect that out-of-work spouse with a recruiter or the HR director for an informational meeting? Can you make a connection on LinkedIn? Would you consider letting that commute-dreading staffer work from home one or two days a week or alter his work schedule to avoid heavy traffic times? Can you contact an EAP professional to lend assistance to the employee with an aging parent? Leverage your business and personal relationships to help out your team.

Be a chatty Cathy—Leadership teams often get together to develop a values-driven mission statement, a cutting-edge sales strategy, or a sound plan for growing the business with short and long-term goals and a timetable. Then that information stays at the top of the organization. Encourage managers to communicate important information to their teams. What is happening at the leadership level? How is this economy affecting us? What is happening with hiring? What are our leaders’ plans? How do we rate against the competition? How does each person’s role impact the organization as a whole? Treat each member on the team as if he or she is a stockholder. Communicating this information helps employees feel more invested in the organization and their work.

Give positive recognition in public, negative criticism in private—Don’t be a Bobby Valentine! Employees should be able to trust that their manager won’t throw them under the bus or bad-mouth them to others. The manager is ultimately responsible for the team’s success or failure. You want to present a united front to the rest of the company and the outside world. You should appear to everyone else (as well as strive to be in private) a cohesive team. Employees should also show their managers that same respect (no bad-mouthing at lunch!).

Ask for and use your feedback—Most organizations have multiple avenues, both formal and informal, for getting feedback—360 reviews, surveys, performance reviews and one-on-one meetings. What do managers do with this feedback? It isn’t always easy to hear constructive criticism, but it can be even more difficult to do something about it. Listen to feedback with an open mind and develop a plan for addressing your employees’ concerns.

Even if the managers in your organization don’t need an Extreme Manager Makeover, most can benefit from some development and skill-building. By following these six tips above, managers can become better at what they do and have happier, engaged, and more productive employees—creating a better work environment for everyone.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do—When To End Professional Relationships

Posted by Elaine Varelas May 7, 2012 09:00 AM

By, Elaine Varelas

Nobody likes a break-up. They can be painful, messy, and emotional. Yet, ending a relationship isn’t always such a bad thing. Once it is over, we often realize in retrospect, that break-ups can be liberating, empowering, and even peaceful. Then why do so many of us have a hard time saying sayonara to our professional relationships? It isn’t easy to break up in the digital age, especially when it is such a breeze to stay connected.

We are intrinsically connected with virtually everyone we’ve ever met via cyberspace. We have online relationships with friends, family, colleagues—past and present—former classmates, clients, vendors, even our chiropractors, vets, and dentists!

In the past, if a colleague took a job at another company, you might run into her at a conference, but wouldn’t see her on a daily basis. Now, even if we don’t see people often, they can pop up on our computer or smartphone screens with regularity. When our relationships change in “real life”—a colleague leaves, you switch vendors, lose a client, or change dentists—they don’t automatically disappear online. You need to make a conscious decision about if and how you will maintain that relationship on the Internet. Do you continue to stay connected or disengage? What if that colleague now works for a competitor? What if the client is working with your rival? What if the vendor is now a sheep farmer in Scotland? What if your chiropractor provides hourly updates about the most mundane details of his life?

The other issue we face is that we live in a culture of “More! More! More!” In fact, many people judge themselves and others by how many friends they have on Facebook, how many connections they’ve made on LinkedIn, and how many followers they’ve built on Twitter and blogs. We’re programed to believe that having more connections implies success and increased business prowess. Many of us don’t see the advantages of ending professional relationships, especially online. What is the harm of having too many connections? Why bother ending them?

We can’t be connected to everyone in the world—and why would we want to be? Relationships take time, and in this 24/7 business reality, our time is a precious commodity. We’re making an investment every time we check in online to read posts and comment on items from people in our network. Some of us don’t have that time and so we, in turn, are neglecting our relationships. But our professional connections are extremely valuable. In some cases, when colleagues become competitors or a contact moves light years out of your business orbit, it may make sense to let them go.

You should be regularly taking stock of your online relationships. Some may have changed since you first connected. You also need to give yourself permission to be selective and end relationships. It is okay to go against the trend of more is better. What do you want out of your relationships? What do they mean to you? Identify those people with whom you are actively engaged in a positive professional relationship. The others? If you like these people on a personal level and want to keep in touch, by all means do. Otherwise, hit delete.

You’ve weeded through your online contacts and are ready to disconnect, but how do you do it? Should you make a stealth maneuver and unfriend your colleagues under the cover of darkness? Do you need to call a meeting to give people your reasons for termination? In most cases, you don’t need to give notice. There may be some instances when you want to contact people by phone or email and give an explanation as a professional courtesy. For example, “Now that we work for competing companies, it’s probably best if you don’t follow me on Twitter anymore.” For most relationships, however, you can just end it.

That, of course, begs the question, how do I physically end relationships online? On LinkedIn, click on the “Contacts” tab and then hit “Remove Connections” in the upper right hand column. If you want to “unfriend” someone on Facebook, go to that person’s profile page, hover over the “Friends” box at the top of their profile and click “Unfriend.” Blocking a follower on Twitter is also a cinch. Just log onto your Twitter account, go to the profile page of the person you want to block, click the “person” icon, and then select “block.”

Now that you know how to end your online relationships, try it! You may be surprised at how easy it is and how great you’ll feel! Despite our obsession with having more friends, followers and connections than everyone else, it can be a drain on your time and can even hurt the business relationships you value most. Not only can breaking up be good for you, but it isn’t so hard to do after all!

What’s New In Social Media?

Posted by Elaine Varelas March 5, 2012 08:00 AM

I know of at least a few HR traditionalists who were secretly hoping that the social media frenzy would quickly go the way of the mimeograph machine and typewriter, becoming obsolete and fading away. In fact, the opposite is happening. According to a comScore report, social networking accounts for one of every six minutes spent online. It’s growing exponentially and has a significant and dynamic impact on business. Having a social media “presence” isn’t enough any more. Organizations that don’t have a concentrated, encompassing social media strategy are being left behind.

While social media’s early adopters may have been the ubertechies and middle-schoolers, it isn’t just the realm of teens, tweens, and geeks anymore. Believe it or not, according to a 2011 Pew Internet and American Life study, the average age of Facebook users is 38! Social media sites, such as LinkedIn, Pinterst, and Twitter, are being utilized by millions of Americans for professional endeavors. Here’s what you need to know and do to be a social media star:

Accept it –Social media is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. It isn’t just “fun” or “interesting,” but is quickly emerging as a powerful tool for HR and other business areas. Once you accept this fact, you can figure out how it can (and will) impact your organization. If you can learn how to harness it you, can get out in front of it.

Change your perceptions (and those of leaders) —There is an erroneous perception that social media is for the slacker generation. But it isn’t just for people who like to while away hours on the computer playing silly games or those who are too socially awkward to connect face-to-face and have to resort to hiding behind a computer screen. Social media is a viable business tool. It isn’t just for the marketing team or IT department. Used the correct way, it can drive business, attract customers and employees, and help to build a brand. HR professionals may have to work within the organization to change these perceptions. Those whose job it is to take the lead on social media strategies cannot be deemed as having a less important—or more frivolous—job than others in the company.

Educate yourself –If you think a Tweet is a sound a bird makes and Pinterst is a typo, it is time to learn about social media. You may have a personal understanding of social media (hey, you’re on Facebook!) or a peripheral knowledge of how the technology works, but you need to build your business-based knowledge. How can you drive business, attract customers and clients, and recruit new employees? How are job seekers using it? Customers? Competitors? You can educate yourself, take a seminar, or enlist an expert at your organization to become your social media mentor.

Get a person (or a team) —Have a designated person to work on social media strategies. If you’re in a large organization, you may need a team or a department. Social media is fluid. It changes everyday. You can’t just put a plan in place and follow it. The plan could be obsolete within a week! You will fall behind if you don’t have that person to update and implement your plan.

Have a strategy —It is possible to waste your time on Facebook or Pinterest (face it, we’ve all done it). While it’s okay to waste a few hours on a Saturday morning, it shouldn’t be done on business time. Have a policy of “who” and “what”—who should be using the technology and how. What is expected of people in different positions? At many companies, middle managers aren‘t even on LinkedIn. They may think they “don’t have time” or that time spent on social media won’t be valued. Management also needs to be educated about how social media can help the organization, not to mention how it can help them reach their own department (customers, sales, referrals, retention) goals.

Take the lead —Where do the social media conversations happen? Who is involved in making decisions? It should be done at the leadership level. These aren’t backroom conversations in the IT department. Social media can reach active and passive job seekers. It can also be a valuable retention tool and help to build brand and company awareness and loyalty. It can touch almost every aspect of business so it needs to be given credence by company leaders. Not too long ago company leaders were wondering if every employee should have a computer. Leaders should be having these same conversations about social media.

Despite your secret wishful thinking, social media is here to stay—and it is changing at lightning fast speed. Instead of lamenting it, get out in front of it. It is time to embrace social media before you miss out on a tremendous business tool.

Business Ethics: Does HR Have a Role?

Posted by Elaine Varelas February 6, 2012 09:00 AM

By Elaine Varlelas

It seems as though we can’t open a newspaper or click on a news web site these days without reading about yet another business scandal--insider trading at prominent hedge funds, Ponzi schemes, falsified data at biotech companies, and breaches in accounting and reporting practices. It seems that fraud and wrongdoing have become commonplace in business.

Kenneth Lay of Enron, Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco, and Bernie Madoff, king of the Ponzi scheme, are just some of the most prominent poster boys for corporate scandal. Ethical gaffes are becoming so prevalent that it is no longer a matter of if another person will be added to this cast of characters, but who and when. Americans’ trust in business has eroded to a point of widespread dubiety. How does this phenomenon affect your organization? As an HR professional, what is your role in addressing ethics within your company?

Given the sheer amount of scandal lately, it would be irresponsible--and even dangerous--for HR professionals, or any business leader, to ignore ethics. Of course, it’s a slippery topic. It is difficult to define, and often can’t be categorized into neat boxes of right and wrong. The complexity and ambiguity of ethics could lead many HR professionals to want to avoid the topic altogether. Yet, addressing ethics is an important part of any business plan. If an organization’s leadership only focuses on results, the methods used to attain those results could be suspect. Even Bernie Madoff started out with good intentions!

Yet with such a lofty and complex subject, how can HR managers include ethics into company policy and strategies? The first step is to invite ethics to the table. Ethics need to be part of every organization’s culture, business plan, goals, and mission statement. It should be a focus of the onboarding process, leadership training, and board retreats. Ethics should help shape the organization’s values and culture.

It isn’t enough for a company’s mission statement to include a vague line about being ethical. HR professionals should help leadership and employees define what that means for the organization. Having real conversations about what could happen in a given organization or industry will help to bring the topic closer to home. What is happening elsewhere in business? Have any competitors been cited for ethical breaches? What types of ethical issues could unfold at this organization? What safeguards can we put in place to make sure that doesn’t happen?

The surest way to prevent ethical slips is to give it credence within an organization. Employees and company leaders can talk about it, evaluate how it can affect their roles in the company, and take steps to avoid questionable situations.

Of course prevention is the best option, but what can HR professionals do next? What if, despite having prevention practices in place, there are ethical breaches in the organization?

First, HR managers need to make sure that whistle-blowers are protected. Employees need to know that they won’t be punished if they report their serious suspicions to human resources. This will help create an environment of trust and transparency in the organization in a supportive manner. Many companies also have ethics panels to review problematic situations and recommend discipline. While this is a worthwhile effort, it’s important to assure that the disciplinary process is consistent, regardless of who may be the subject of the scrutiny. Are managers subject to review, but leaders exempt? Is a poorly performing CEO treated differently than a successful CEO?

It may seem logical to let small indiscretions slide or look the other way when a rock-star leader has methods that are less than ethical, especially if the results are fruitful. After all, who will know? Everyone, in reality. When the organization tolerates exceptions, sweeps things under the rug for certain people, or ignores ethical breaches altogether, these insidious behaviors become part of the organization’s culture.

One way to gauge a response to an ethical situation is to imagine that every employee, as well as the world outside the company, would find out. If it was certain that news of the breach would hit the Internet tomorrow, would you do anything differently? This strategy can help put the situation in perspective and can keep an organization’s solution to an ethical issue in check.

Ethics are part of every decision, every action, and every strategy within an organization Build high ethics into the core fabric of the culture so that it influences all behavior. This may seem like a “Pollyanna” view of the world and business. But we’ve seen many companies implode because of scandals. The tombstones in the businesses-that-were graveyard are numerous. By keeping ethical discussions at the forefront of your organization’s business strategy and addressing ethical breaches promptly and fairly, you can ensure a long and healthy life for your organization.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner of Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career consulting firm.

The Year In Review: Best and Worst in HR

Posted by Elaine Varelas January 9, 2012 09:00 AM

Happy New Year! We hear this greeting every January, but there is something different about 2012. Colleagues, clients, and business executives around Boston and beyond are looking at the new year with a mix of anticipation, enthusiasm, and anxiety. All of us are hoping that this is the year the economy goes from shaky to robust, consumer confidence is restored, and we can all stop holding our breath!

As we embark on a new year, it is a perfect time to reflect on the past 12 months. As HR professionals, what did we do well and what can we do better? What can we resolve to change for 2012? Where should we focus our energy to create strong teams, engaged and productive employees, and a sound organization?

Here is a list of the Best and Worst in HR last year. There are some cringe-worthy “worsts” and some “bests” that shine a bright light on the HR profession and show how human resource professionals can change and grow an organization. Here ‘s the worst of the last year:

Not hiring the unemployed--Being unemployed does not mean people are unemployable. There is a shameful trend among hiring managers of not even considering people who are between jobs. There is no reason for it! Many highly capable professionals were laid off because of the economy. They are not inferior and not suspect. Denying people a chance because of their employment status and not their knowledge and experience goes against the strategy of building a skilled and valued talent team. HR professionals should be vociferous in speaking out against this practice.

Lack of follow-up--Yes, organizations are being inundated with resumes from eager job seekers looking for work. Hiring managers may have thousands of resumes for each open position. It may be impossible to get in touch with every person who sends in a blind resume (although an auto response email is a welcome courtesy and not costly). There is no excuse, however, for lack of communication after people have interviewed. These people have invested their time and deserve a personal follow-up conversation (no form letters or emails!). Making those unpleasant calls is part of being a grown-up HR professional.

Lopsided networking--Savvy HR professionals use their network for making connections, getting introductions, and finding talent. Yet too many people forget that a network is a reciprocal relationship. It may be inconvenient to return those phone calls or take a meeting, especially if you don’t see yourself “needing” anything from your network soon. Of course, you will utilize your network one day and if you dip into your network pool too many times without refiling it, it will dry up.

Don’t fret though, last year’s HR trends weren’t all bad. Many organizations’ HR practices have been exemplary. Here is the best of 2011:

HR professionals as lifelong learners--The practice of HR is continuously evolving and many professionals are pursuing advanced degrees, HR or coaching certification, and other educational opportunities to round out their repertoire of skills. This is an important development because leadership at many organizations are (finally!) investing in their HR teams because they recognize that talented HR professionals are vital to remaining competitive in business. HR professionals should seek education, degrees, and certifications to further their practice and give their organizations an edge, not just to pad their resumes and add letters to the end of their titles. All education is enhanced, however, when coupled with everyday experience in the workplace.

Talent is tops--The most successful organizations have a talent strategy that is pursued as aggressively and with the same amount of integrity as their financial, IT, or other imperative strategies. Talent management is no less vital. Are your organization’s decisions about talent made with the same vigor, logic, and strategic connection as your products, finances, and other business lines? The most competitive organizations are already doing this.

Engagement starts with leadership teams--During the recent recession, many organizations changed their business strategies, working towards efficiency and cost-cutting. Some applied the “cut and slash” mentality to their employees--eliminating bonuses, cutting benefits, and restricting rewards. Yet many organizations have weathered the downturn without excessive employee fall out, keeping their culture intact. They have taken a long-term view to talent and realize that the economy doesn’t change how employees are treated. It isn’t something that is affected by financial tides. Senior leaders are visible and accessible. Generosity and appreciation are practiced because leadership realizes that talent is the most important resource in a company.

It is a new year and an opportune time to resolve to discontinue the “worst” practices and make a commitment to follow these HR best practices. By doing so, HR professionals can showcase their skills and help guarantee their organization’s employment brand for 2012 and beyond.

Make a Wish--Here’s What Tops Employees’ Wish Lists

Posted by Elaine Varelas December 5, 2011 09:00 AM

by Elaine Varelas

We’ve all seen the stereotypes of bad bosses in the media: the Ogre, the Scrooge, the Sexist, and the Dictator. The portrayal of crummy bosses garners big laughs and big bucks. The movie Horrible Bosses, The Office television show, and the Dilbert comic strip all capitalize on clueless, nasty, and punishing leaders. Of course, these are popular for a reason. Most of us can relate to the caricature of the hideous employer. It may resonate even more today since employees have been knocked around by the recession (lay-offs, cut backs, and skeleton crews) and the oh-so-slow climb out of it.

As another economically tumultuous year winds down, many corporate leaders are making their pleas to Santa with their business wish lists. They’re wishing for an influx of new business, bigger operating budgets, and a year flush with cash. As an HR professional in your organization, you are helping these wishes come true with your talent management strategies and programs. At the same time, you’re also probably making your gift lists for your kids, best friend, and grandmother. As the holidays approach and the frenzy ensues, don’t forget the wish list of the VIPs of your organization--your employees.

If your employees could be candid and honest with you about what they want and need from your organization, what would they say? Here at The Hire Authority we’ve persuaded employees to whisper in our ear about their wish list. These wishes are not just from your current employees, but we also contacted the ghosts of employees past and future (we are the Hire Authority after all!). Here’s what HR professionals can do to tune into employees’ needs and help meet them:

All we are saying is give us a chance--John Lennon may have been referring to Peace on Earth when he sang this line, but employees are setting their sights on something else: they want a chance to work for you. The current trend of employers becoming extremely rigid in their hiring criteria (only hiring people who are currently employed or have an exact experience match) automatically excludes too many highly talented people from the hiring mix. HR managers should encourage their organizations’ leaders to take that chance on the people who aren’t a perfect fit, but would still be a valuable addition to the team. People have a long memory. When the war for talent heats up, those people will remember that your organization didn’t give them a chance in 2011 and will reciprocate.

Try generosity--Amid the budget cuts and belt tightening so prevalent today, employers are becoming less generous. Companies are slashing perks, foregoing bonuses, and cutting programs. One company in New England whose offices lost power after a freak October snow storm, forced employees to use their vacation time during the days the office was closed. Yikes! Try being generous and not just sticking to the letter of the law. Think less Ebenezer, more Santa. Benevolent organizations have happier employees, and happiness breeds loyalty and productivity.

Let me “get a life”-- Employees want a life outside of work. They want flexibility and don’t want to be penalized for taking advantage of that flexibility. They will get the work done, especially if their employers give them access to the technology to do it. Of course, just because they have technology, doesn’t mean they are available 24/7. HR professionals can help employees strike the right work/life balance.

Invest in our development--Development, training, and continuing education shouldn’t be reserved for just the executive-level superstars. Your leaders were once junior employees too. As budgets continue to tighten, organizations can’t forget about developing future stars. There should be companywide development programs, mentor programs, stretch assignments to make sure that every employee has the chance to be the executive-level superstar.

Give thanks--Too often, employees aren’t recognized for the work they do. A manager takes all the credit or believes that saying “thank you” isn’t important. It may be difficult for organizational leaders to recognize employees with money or promotions during lean times, but HR professionals can still encourage a culture where employees are thanked for the work they do.

Treat us like talent--Employees are the engine who bring in business, deal with clients, and grow the business. They are the organization’s talent and should be treated as such. How do you treat talent? Famous rock stars and actors may demand champagne and green M&Ms, but employees just want to be treated fairly and with respect. They don’t want to be seen as human resources, but as human beings.

As you put together your gift list for the holidays, don’t forget to include your organization’s employees. HR professionals can help ensure that leadership is aware of their employees’ needs and help to institute policies that will retain and delight employees during the holidays and all year long. Happy holidays to you and yours!

Elaine Varelas is a Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career consulting firm.

HR Manager to Organizational Leader--Making the Shift

Posted by Elaine Varelas November 7, 2011 09:00 AM

Securing a seat at the leadership table has been a goal of human resources professionals for over a decade. Those of us who have dedicated our careers to HR are constantly touting the importance of organizational talent and the need to fully utilize the work force’s potential to achieve business goals. Some organizations have embraced this truth, inviting HR executives into the C-suite to help drive business decisions. Leaders at other organizations, however, have yet to recognize HR’s role in company leadership.

Regardless of where your organization currently sits on this scale, now is an opportune time to make the shift from HR manager to organizational leader. The global marketplace and proliferation of technology is changing the way we work--particularly in HR. Our workforce is becoming a global 24-hour a day force, moving out of the cubicle to virtually any corner of the world, making it more complicated to manage talent. At the same time, transactional HR functions--benefits, vacation requests, time sheets--are being replaced by technology as employees go online instead of to an HR representative to conduct some of the traditional HR functions. The role of HR professionals must evolve to remain relevant.

Take a look at how you view yourself in your job. What are your perceptions of your role (knowing that your perceptions help shape those of others within the organization)? What does it mean to be a manager? Typically, managers are task-oriented and reactive. HR managers fill positions, respond to inquiries, and address individual conflicts or issues. In contrast, a leader is a visionary. Talent is not just a vacant position to fill--it is your product. Service organizations are ahead of the curve in recognizing that their people are their product, but this is also true for companies that produce a tangible product. How will your product (talent) drive business services? What is your vision? How will it impact the organization?

A visionary is someone who looks to the future and anticipates needs. Successful organizations will need to be agile, flexible, and forward-thinking to remain competitive. How does your talent strategy achieve these goals? What are your current and future skill gaps? What parts of the business will create the most value going forward? How can you invest in talent in these areas? Can you identify the obstacles to acquiring this talent? How will you overcome those obstacles? At every potential point of failure, how will you address it? Where are your future leaders coming from? How will you develop them? How will you hold onto talent? What is your succession plan? How will you retain knowledge?

Becoming an HR visionary makes sense in theory, but how does it work? It must be a systemic movement throughout the company. Of course, HR managers must view themselves as organizational leaders, but every senior manager in the organization must also be on the leadership track. In fact, at every level within the organization, HR professionals can work to identify, grow, and retain A-level leadership.

It is essential that leadership development opportunities become part of the culture and not just a one-time event. Sending select employees to training once a year isn’t enough--even with the nifty binder they bring back! Leaders need to be groomed throughout the year. Leadership competencies should be part of job descriptions and performance reviews. Leadership training can also be implemented through stretch and lateral assignments, as well as assignments designed to enhance specific skills. Some companies also have a leadership “university” for high-potential employees. Mentor programs can also help to develop leaders and share knowledge. Many organizations also partner with universities, business colleges, and law schools where employees can serve as faculty or board members. Internship and summer programs are a great way to grow and recruit new employees for the organization. Employees can also be encouraged to serve on boards at neighboring non-profits to increase goodwill in the community, raise visibility of the organization, and develop leadership skills.

In order to help the organization make the shift from one that accepts its leaders to one that creates and fosters them, it is vital there be a common language and goal within the organization. HR professionals must make sure there is a clear definition of what it means to be a leader, as well as commonality about how leadership development will happen. It can’t be haphazard or look different in each department. There should also be agreement from the executive team on leadership competencies, which should then be communicated throughout the organization so employees and leaders are clear on what is expected and rewarded.

It’s an exciting time to be an HR professional. The role of HR is evolving as companies go global and technology continues to alter how we work. Talent is emerging as the most important tool in a business’ drive to be competitive. Of course, as an HR professional, you know talent. By becoming a visionary, and anticipating and addressing the future needs of your company, you can make the shift from an HR manager to an organizational leader.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner of Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career management firm.

Demystifying Executive Presence

Posted by Elaine Varelas October 3, 2011 09:00 AM

The next presidential election is still over a year away, yet we’re already seeing ads, debates, and polls. Most candidates, and certainly those who emerge as front-runners and win elections, have a unique combination of intelligence, confidence, energy, charm, and character. They also have that certain something that draws people in, garners trust, and gives the impression that they are born to be leaders: executive presence.

Most HR managers are familiar with executive presence, but it can be elusive and difficult to define. We know it when we see it, and of course we know it when we don’t see it. Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and Warren Buffet are business leaders who exude executive presence. But are people just born with it, or can they develop it? As HR managers we know it is critical to success, but there is no clear roadmap for developing this competency.

What is Executive Presence?
It may help to define executive presence so we can see where HR managers can improve their own, as well as that of leaders within their companies. Executive presence is a combination of the external and internal. The internal is further broken down to include a person’s acumen and core philosophy.

The external are the traits that others see, including physical attributes, facial expressions, voice and articulation, attitude, energy and mannerisms. These are qualities that we are born with, but can be changed. External traits also include dress, grooming, posture, and etiquette.

The internal part of executive presence is divided between a person’s acumen and core.
Acumen are the skills and experience you would see on a resume. They include education, work experience, skills, preparation, and strategic thinking. These qualities drive confidence and credibility.

The core encompasses a person’s values and philosophy. It includes integrity, directness, honesty, sincerity, thoughtfulness, relationships, vulnerability, listening skills, optimism and self-awareness. This is who the person is at his or her core.

The only way for executive presence to emerge is for all of these to work congruently. If one area is lacking, then the whole package is affected. The deficiency isn’t always easy to recognize. For instance, in politics, you often hear, “There’s something about Candidate X I don’t trust, but I can’t put my finger on it.” Identifying the shortcoming can be challenging, but people can improve their executive presence.

Developing Executive Presence
Developing executive presence isn’t easy, but it is possible. It requires focus, commitment, preparation, and practice. The first step is to identify the area for improvement. Is it part of the external, the acumen or the core? It is almost impossible for us to examine ourselves and see our own weaknesses. We may also think that our faults “don’t matter” in the scheme of work when others believe they do. That’s why it is important to gather outside feedback. In some organizations, there are formal feedback channels such as performance or 360 degree reviews. These are great tools for culling information about where you can improve. If your organization doesn’t have these, ask trusted colleagues for help. You can also look at the “stars” in your organization and take note of their skills. This examination can help you determine what qualities are valued within the organization.

Once you’ve identified the area, you need to pinpoint the specific need. For example, if feedback states you look unprofessional, it is most likely part of the external. If there is a question of credibility (“He doesn’t seem prepared. He can’t give our team answers to our questions.”), it may fall under the acumen category. An example of a core deficiency could be, “My manager doesn’t give anyone a chance to speak and doesn’t value input from others.”

Fortunately, these are all coachable, yet some are more easily changed than others. The external issues can be altered with a new suit, hair cut, or accessories.

The credibility issue can also be addressed. The manager would be coached to over-prepare for meetings and show that he is an expert on the topic. He should have supporting documents and materials to back up what he says. He should also anticipate questions. Being prepared and authoritative is one way to increase your credibility.

The manager with the core issue of not listening or valuing others can also sharpen those skills. Her coaching would include arriving to meetings on time with her iPhone turned off. She can practice listening to others, including waiting a few beats after she and others speak to see if they have anything else to add. She can also work on encouraging and validating ideas within the group. Her core values may be influenced by changes in her external behavior.

The key is that this is a continuous improvement model. It is not a singular event. One new suit or being prepared for a single meeting isn’t going to change perceptions. It needs to be a consistent improvement until the change is happening more often than not, and people’s perceptions are influenced.

Whether an HR manager wants to work on her own executive presence or that of her team, there is a framework for identifying the need and addressing it. When the external, acumen and core work in tandem, true, authentic leaders emerge.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner of Keystone Partners in Boston.

Teamwork--Instilling Team Values Throughout the Organization

Posted by Elaine Varelas September 5, 2011 08:00 AM

This has been a stellar year for Boston sports teams. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup, the Celtics advanced to the playoffs, and the Red Sox are gearing up for another World Series win (Go Sox!).

These outstanding performances all have one thing in common: they demonstrate the importance of teamwork. How well a team functions together can make or break a game, a series, or a season. The same is true for business. Successful teams can bring on increased productivity, morale, market share and growth. Conversely, dysfunctional teams can be a drag on organizations.

Much has been written about executive coaching and development. Yet, you can only reap finite benefits from pouring resources into one person. One superstar can’t carry the team (as Boston fans have seen throughout our traditionally heartbreaking history). As every sports fan knows, it takes a team working together toward a common goal to bring an organization’s prosperity to a new level.

In Patrick Lencioni’s bestselling business book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” he describes the top reasons many teams fail, and provides practical advice for teams to overcome these pitfalls and work more cohesively. He identifies the five dysfunctions as: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. By addressing these dysfunctions, he says, teams can “trust one another, engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas, commit to decisions and plans of action, hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans, and focus on the achievement of collective results.”

Lencioni’s book is presented as a business “fable” that illustrates how these five dysfunctions can debilitate a leadership team. Of course, the executive team is a vital part of any organization’s success, but HR managers would be remiss if they only looked at team dynamics for their company leaders. HR managers should look throughout the organization to uncover what the author identifies as the five dysfunctions that can undermine a team--from leadership to interns-- and work to promote the development of a more effective leadership team and, at the same time, create a template for creating stronger teams throughout the organization.

The leadership team steers the organization, but all the other teams within the company are the gas in the engine. Achieving a truly high-functioning organization requires improving the team dynamic from top to bottom. What teams can you identify in your company in the C-suite, mid-level and lower-level? It could be R&D, sales, product development, or the call center. Each of these teams plays a role in the success of the business. Once you have identified your teams, look to see where there is opportunity for development. Are there situations where a team may need to build trust, resolve conflict, recommit, or embrace accountability? Would the exercises and advice presented by Lencioni help to improve the dynamics and functionality of the team? These issue can be identified with some simple assessment work and can be addressed with the guidelines put forth in the book.

HR managers can also start approaching all HR functions and roles in terms of teams. Most often, issues that are brought to HR are presented as interpersonal. An employee complains about a “bad” manager, or a manager has a problem with a specific employee. Yet, when there is a problem with one person in a group, it can often indicate a larger issue with the team. HR managers should take a step back and instead of focusing on the “problem person,” look at the dynamics at play. Work on team-building to address the bigger issues that may be nagging the group.

Another area where it may be beneficial to look at teams is process measurement. HR managers often look at process in terms of individual people, but it may make more sense to measure process and institute process improvement techniques for teams.

Instead of calling out and rewarding individual contributors, reward teams for good work. Rewarding teams can also encourage people to support each other so that the whole teams succeeds, instead of individual contributors.

HR managers can take a cue from the success of Boston’s sports teams this year to examine the team dynamics within their organizations. They can call on the advice of Patrick Lencioni’s book to help improve the functions of teams in the company. The leadership team is an important team to scrutinize, but HR managers should also look at the dynamics of teams throughout the organization. Even a glitch in the team cohesiveness in the mail room can be disruptive to the entire organization. By examining problems from a team point of view, HR managers can help identify and address weakness in the team dynamic and help their organizations achieve high-functioning work groups throughout the company.

Your Burning Questions: The Hire Authority’s Q&A Part Two

Posted by Elaine Varelas August 1, 2011 09:00 AM

Due to the overwhelming response to our first reader Q&A at The Hire Authority, we’ve added another installment. Here are answers to more of our readers’ questions:

Q. My CEO has banned the use of social media sites in the office, but I think there is some business value to using them (especially for recruiting, hiring, and networking). How can I change his mind?

It sounds like your CEO doesn’t understand social media, and may be misled by the word “social,” thinking it is solely a tool for searching for old flames or following a favorite rock band. Social media is here to stay, and banning the use of these sites is akin to forbidding email use. You know that social media is an invaluable business tool, and many organizational leaders agree, as companies continue to incorporate social media strategies into their sales, marketing, branding, and recruitment programs.

You need to present a compelling case that will educate your CEO about the benefits of social media and assuage any fears he may have about the technology.

Do your research. Most CEOs respond well to numbers. Present statistics showing possible revenue growth, market share, and potential customers. You also want to include case studies of companies with similar products or services and show how social media helped them grow their business.

You will also want to develop a social media policy for your organization. How will it be used? By whom? When? How will you measure success? The more concrete examples you can give about how you envision the technology benefiting your organization’s business efforts, the more willing he will be to move forward.

Your CEO is probably thinking of the pitfalls of allowing social media use in your office (loss of productivity, liability). Address those concerns so you can move him away from fear to excitement.

Q. My company used to have a big employee appreciation party but the event was scrapped a few years ago when the economy tanked. I'd like to resurrect the event on a smaller scale. Do you have any suggestions?

Employee appreciation programs are closely tied to morale and productivity. They become more important during tough times, and unfortunately that’s when many organizations cut them. Kudos to you for resurrecting your company event.

You need to make sure that it is meaningful to employees, not just the company or CEO. If budget is an issue, it can be casual and low-key. You could have a BBQ, a softball game, hit the beach, or give back by hosting a community service day. You could check out some of area’s history by walking the Freedom Trail or checking out Plymouth Plantation. You could also give employees extra vacation days as a reward.

If you have a budget, think exclusive--do something that not everyone has access to. You could get tickets to a game, have a private tour of Fenway, or host an event at a museum or gallery after hours.

Exclusivity is also important for individual rewards. Gift certificates to hot restaurants, hotel stays, or retail stores likeTiffany are special and probably something employees wouldn’t do for themselves.

You can also ask employees what they want, either though an informal survey or by convening a committee to plan the event. Whatever you do, don’t make it a potluck or mandatory event! That can suck the fun out of the reward.

You can’t make everyone happy, but if you offer a range of activities and gifts, your employees will get the message that you value the work they do.

Q. Our company’s CEO is great in many ways, but there are a few areas that could use some tweaking. I know she could benefit from some targeted coaching, but I don’t know how to approach her about her “shortcomings” (as the VP of HR, it really is my place). I don’t want to come off as criticizing or jeopardize my job, but I know she could be a great leader with just a little help. What should I do?

The old-fashioned school of development focused on targeting people’s weaknesses and trying to build them up to an acceptable level. Today, effective coaching and development looks at leaders strengths--especially those that are underutilized--and builds upon those. You really don’t have to address your CEO’s “shortcomings” because the coaching should focus on what she does best and help her do it better. This isn’t just a matter of semantics (say you’re building on strengths when you’re really addressing weaknesses).

Be bold. Discuss what coaching can do across the leadership team, and encourage her to lead the way and develop her strengths. All of us are better at certain things and it makes sense to improve on those skills than try to “fix” something else.

This may require redefining your CEO’s job description or delegating some of her less important tasks. For instance, if she is a great small group communicator, but panics speaking to large groups, assign a VP to be a spokesperson. If she is unorganized, find her an assistant with great organizational skills. I’m sure your CEO will be okay with giving up some of her less favorite tasks.

Five Trends Impacting Employees Today: What Every HR Manager Should Know

Posted by Elaine Varelas July 4, 2011 10:00 AM

Whether you’re a seasoned HR veteran or a newbie, you’ve probably noticed some of the ways you used to do things have changed. Technology, new products, expanding global markets, and the economy all influence how we work, and many organizations strive to be early adopters of innovation to remain competitive. For HR managers, it is equally important to examine the ramifications of significant shifts in the workplace. How does this often lightning-fast change affect employees? Here are five HR trends that have emerged over the past few years, and ways HR managers can help employees better adapt:

1. Metrics for Measurement
Employees have always been evaluated on job performance. Organizations have used employee and peer reviews and customer surveys to gauge performance. Recently, many organization have implemented a metrics-based system to measure performance, utilizing numbers and data to hold employees accountable for activity and results. Metrics measurement is a useful tool for leadership teams looking to eliminate waste or duplication, and to make the organization streamlined, more accountable and profitable.

While this numbers-based system can be beneficial to the organization, it can make employees feel like they are being targeted or micromanaged. HR managers can help alleviate some of the stress by making sure that employees understand the process. Communication is the key. Employees need to know that the organization is not looking to target specific people, but to help the organization become more efficient and effective. Make sure that expectations and goals are clearly explained, and give employees a chance to share feedback.

2. Technology for Transactional HR Functions
There was a time when benefits changes, vacation requests and approvals, and payroll functions were conducted one-on-one between HR managers and employees. Now, these common transactions are often completed online. Converting these transactions to a technology base has eliminated many of the repetitive tasks for HR managers. While it is a positive innovation and a welcome change for many, it can depersonalize the HR process (instead of having a conversation with a person, employees are sending requests through cyberspace). HR managers can make sure that employees still feel connected in other ways by remaining accessible to employees for answering questions or addressing concerns. They should also work to establish and maintain relationships in other ways as their day-to-day contact subsides.

3. Vanishing Support StaffMost employees today are on their own to create a document, make a phone call or unstick a paper jam. There is an increasing need for self-sufficiency among workers because there is little or no dedicated administration or IT support staff. Gone are the days of dictating a memo or asking an assistant to place a call. Employees are expected to know how to use the technology they need to do their jobs. HR managers can help employees by offering training programs or refresher courses in new software or systems (Excel, email etiquette, social media 101) so employees master the skills they need to do their jobs efficiently.

4. Shrinking Office Space
Rising real estate costs, the proliferation of technology, and employees’ fluctuating work schedules have contributed to companies downsizing their office space. Organizations can also save on square footage and cost because equipment is shrinking and files can be stored digitally. Instead of file cabinets and bulky desktops cluttering office space, employees can keep all of their work on laptops and take it home. This makes travel and telecommuting easier to do. One change this presents for employees is that their office space is often shared. HR managers can help employees make a seamless transition from home to work by making sure that office space remains neutral. It isn’t comfortable for any of us to work surrounded by pictures of other people’s kids and pets. Employees should know to leave the space clean and ready for the next person. It is also important to make sure that the items employees need are ready each time they come in, including power cords, cables, printers, and other office supplies. Following these steps can eliminate frustration and increase productivity because employees can get right to work instead of wasting precious office time searching for a stapler.

5. The 24/7 Employee
Just because employees can be reached by phone, text, or email 24 hours a day, seven days a week, doesn’t mean they should be. What are the cultural expectations at the organization? What is the expected return time for emails or phone calls during office hours and after hours? HR managers should work with the leadership team to develop company-wide parameters and then encourage managers to discuss expectations with employees. This task can be daunting for global companies that may require employees to participate in calls or projects after regular business hours. If the requests are reasonable and agreed-upon by all parties, it can alleviate employees feeling as if they are always on-call.

Much has changed in the business world over the past decade. While many of these changes are positive, some can leave employees feeling disconnected from their colleagues and the organization. HR managers can help ease employees into these trends by establishing boundaries, eliminating the hassle, and opening lines of communication.

Relaunch Your Career

Posted by Elaine Varelas June 6, 2011 08:30 AM

By Elaine Varelas

This particular winter seemed longer, colder, and more arduous than years past. I’ve never been more excited to see green sprouting from the icy patches on the ground, the first colorful blooms, or even the bits of pollen flying on the wind (allergies be darned). The slow climb from harsh winter to promising spring is analogous to the recent recession and the subsequent slow climb out of it. The economy was hard hit, but we’re finally seeing the first signs of growth and prosperity. Just as this winter may have killed your lawn or damaged your shrubs, the recession did a number on morale for HR managers. It was a particularly tough time to be in human resources. It’s a great time to harness the hope of springtime and make a renewed commitment to your job. Here are some ways to recharge your career:

Tackle that problem you’ve been avoiding
You can probably think of a nagging issue at work that, for some reason, you avoid solving. Maybe it seems too overwhelming, annoying, or even insurmountable. Yet, even though you don’t deal with it head-on, it is always there taunting you and can even rob you of a good night’s sleep. It is time to deal with the issue and be free of it! It could be something acute like a communication breakdown between a manager and the leadership team or something small, like chronic paper jams in the printer. It may even be a company-wide initiative, such as going paperless or starting a wellness program, that you know you should institute.

Whatever your niggling issue, you’ve no doubt tried to address it before without success. You need a fresh approach to an old problem. Is there another way of looking at the issue? Maybe you need to step back and look at the big picture. Conversely, maybe the problem requires focusing on one component at a time, or taking it apart piece by piece. It might be time to ask for help. A fresh set of eyes can bring a new perspective to the issue. You may also want to consider developing a task force to join you.

If you don’t turn over the soil in your garden periodically, you deplete it of nutrients and it ceases to nourish the plants. Likewise, using the same tired approach to problems can deplete your effectiveness. Once it is solved, you’ll feel sweet relief! You will also build your confidence as you conquer the once insurmountable.

Rethink development
The traditional method of development--identifying weaknesses and trying to remedy them--is so yesterday. Development has been proven to work best when you focus on the positives. Delegate your deficiencies (you don’t need to excel at Excel to be a better HR manager anyway) and concentrate on your strengths. What are you good at? Identify those areas where you shine and work to improve those skills by 10%.

Board service is another great way to work on your development. There are countless non-profit organizations that need people with HR talent on their boards of directors. Give back to your community or a pet charity by lending your expertise. You’ll be able to showcase your talents in a new way while you learn about how another organization does business.

Go exploring
There are some departments and areas of your organization that you know very well, and others with which you probably aren’t as familiar. It is time to go exploring. Who do you touch too much, not enough, and where else do you need to be in the organization? It may be time to make yourself uncomfortable. Is there a manager or VP you avoid? Make it your mission to become indispensable to her. Insinuate yourself in a new area. Pick a new department every week or month to investigate. What can you learn from team members in an unfamiliar department? Have conversations with employees to see how you can satisfy their needs better going forward.

Stop reacting
So much of our jobs as HR managers is reactionary. We step in during times of crises to fix problems, hire people, and fill in gaps when someone leaves. We have lay-offs as a result of the economy. We rush to hire when a department head leaves unexpectedly. We develop policies because of federal mandates. Wouldn’t it be a relief to get in front of the issues at work? It may be time to put on your forecasting hat. While meteorologists are often criticized for not predicting the exact weather, they are right a majority of the time. They can surmise what the weather will be based on research and trends. HR managers can use some of the same techniques. By exploring and having conversations with employees, can you anticipate what your organization’s needs will be? What will arise for hiring? Who will be retiring? What skill sets and technical expertise do you anticipate your organization will require in the coming months or years?

Spring is a time of growth and revival, which creates a perfect opportunity to recharge our careers. With these techniques, you can bring some freshness, renewed challenge, and excitement to your job--just what we all need after a long cold winter (and recession).

Elaine Varelas is a Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career managment firm. She can be reached at

Your Burning Questions: The Hire Authority’s Q&A with Readers

Posted by Elaine Varelas May 2, 2011 08:00 AM

Here at The Hire Authority, we occasionally receive questions from our readers. This column is dedicated to answering some of your most frequently asked questions:

Q. My workplace is not very diverse, but we do enjoy a collegial and supportive culture. Most of us are white, middle-class parents who live in the suburbs (even our single assistants are white and middle-class). We are set to do some hiring and I’d like to look for people to make the workplace more diverse, but the leadership is questioning me. They aren’t resistant, they are just curious about how diversity will improve our workplace. Why is diversity important and where do I start?

Kudos to you for pushing for diversity. Research shows that diversity in the workplace is not just a “feel good” strategy, it can be linked to increased employee retention, productivity, and can impact the bottom line. Ideally, a diverse workforce will be made up of people from diverse lifestyles, different cultures, religions, ages, and races. We all bring our background and life experiences to work with us everyday. By diversifying your employee base, you are inviting different perspectives and experiences to work. This leads to more creative approaches to solving problems, helps to foster new ideas. As our world becomes more diverse, your organization will also be better equipped to respond to your customers’ and clients’ varied needs, and even expand your products or services.

The key to creating diversity in your hiring is to grow your network. If your contacts are made of up white, middle-class suburban parents, you may have trouble finding a person of color, someone non-US born, a gay woman, or a multilingual college grad. Expand your network by reaching out to those groups and organizations whose membership you wish to recruit.

It also helps to have a diversity “champion” on the leadership team to make sure that the process is not just about hiring the “token” anyone to a management level, but to make diversity part of the business strategy and the company’s culture.

Q. My boss seems to be suffering from burn out. He’s apathetic at best and hostile towards me and my team at other times. What can I do besides looking for another job?

Your question brings to mind lyrics from an old blues song: “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.” Are you sure this isn’t really about you? I sense that you may be projecting because you’re unhappy in your own job. Instead of leaving or lashing out (and creating a more hostile environment) take some responsibility. What can you do differently? The first step should be to have a candid conversation with your boss. Remind him that you are on his side and that you are concerned about him. Ask what you can do to help make things easier for him and offer your support. You may realize after you have this conversation that this unease you are feeling at work really is more about you. That is okay too. Maybe you need to look for ways to revamp your own job. You may also want to check out next month’s column, “Relaunching Your Career,” for some creative ideas for reinvigorating your job.

I haven’t had any training in years, mostly because of budget cuts at the company and it didn’t feel right to work on my professional development when so many people at the organization were losing their jobs. I know I could be a better HR manager with some training and development. How can I get my boss to support me when cash flow is still tight?

Desperate times call for creative training. While it may sound appealing to jet away to a tropical location for a few days of R&T (relaxation and training), effective training can happen closer to home and less expensively. Look within your company walls. Where internally can you develop skills? Could the IT department assist you in learning a new software package? What could you learn from the sales or marketing team? Is there a stretch assignment that would challenge you?

Local professional associations also offer low-cost training options. For instance, HR trade groups often have seminars where you can brush up on your skills. You may also want to look at some vertical industry associations. Do the groups to which your clients and vendors belong offer any programs that might interest you? Many trade groups also offer webinars and online training.

The most important part of this process is for you to document how your training is helping you do your job better. If you can demonstrate the value to your boss, he or she will be more willing to support it in the future.

Hitting the Reset Button: Dealing With a New Business Reality

Posted by Elaine Varelas April 4, 2011 08:00 AM

By Elaine Varelas

The first day of spring emerged last week amid snow flakes and numbing temperatures. But those few mild days we have this time of year remind us that warm weather is right around the corner, even if we have to trudge through sleet and freezing rain to get there. Our climb out of the recent recession is taking a similar path. There are signs within many organizations that the economy is starting to thaw and that growth is imminent. We’re over the recession hump, but here’s where the analogy with the weather stops. Most likely we’ll be in early spring mode for months. In fact, some things about the way we do business will be forever changed because of the economic downturn. If your organization is waiting for the big rebound, stop. It’s fruitless to wait for things to “get back to the way they were,” because they won’t. We’ve hit the virtual reset button on the economy and this is the new business reality. If we keep waiting, we’ll be missing out.

Many organizations (HR managers are guilty too) are notorious for reacting to immediate situations. We see an urgent threat or opportunity and we pounce. Instead of always reacting to situations, we should be planning and preparing. This is an opportune time to take a step back and refocus. If there won’t be any momentous occasion for the market to bounce back, HR managers should be looking at their strategy now. Here are some areas that may be forever altered by the recession. Going forward, how will these shape your HR initiatives?

Shifting landscape
The recession has most likely reset some things in your organization. Take a fresh look at your company on the other side of the downturn. What impact did it have on the organization? Is your mission still accurate? Has your business changed? If so, by how many degrees? Do your people have the skills the company needs now? If not, you may need to look at training and development. It also might be time to change your hiring criteria. What should employees look like today, next year, and five years from now?

Evolving mix of employees
Employees are opting out of early retirement--and it isn’t just because of the recession. Not too long ago, it was a given that a certain percentage of people (around 10%) would choose to retire early when they hit their late 50s or early 60s. This isn’t happening as much anymore. While the economy plays a part in this trend, it has more to do with people’s lifestyles. Many people are getting married or having children later so their kids are still in elementary school when they hit their 50s. Others are taking care of children as well as their parents and can’t afford to stop working. How does this trend affect the culture? Is there a lack of “new blood” in the organization? How can you foster fresh ideas and progress with less turnover? Programs to help employees brainstorm new ideas and the creation of cross-departmental teams can help invigorate employees and foster innovative thinking. Also, it may be time to redefine retirement. What does full-time mean? Can retirement-eligible people work part-time or as consultants if they choose? Are sabbaticals encouraged? This is a great way to increase knowledge and give employees more freedom. Can the organization accommodate new ways of working?

Transfer of knowledge needs to be deliberate
The transfer of knowledge from leaders to managers to employees used to happen on an informal basis. It would trickle down from the top and across departments. Teaching employees about jobs other than their own was done by a manager or mentor. Often, organizations would have employees overlap responsibilities to account for promotions and turnover. Today, organizations are becoming so skinny that there is no overlap. Many employees are becoming individual contributors instead of members of a team that share what they know. In addition, as companies become global and more people telecommute, there is less face-time among employees. Without a deliberate plan for capturing knowledge, it can be lost. Mentor programs are a great way to transfer knowledge within the organization. Many companies have also turned to video to record specific technical, cultural, or even anecdotal information.

Employee pool is more diverse
There are more different kinds of people in the workplace than ever before; a vast range of ages, races, and cultures make up today’s workforce. Because of the recession, a new type of worker is making a mark (and growing in numbers) in organizations across the country--the temporary contract worker. Organizations that are skittish about bringing on full-time, permanent employees in a faltering economy are turning to temporary and contract workers and consultants to fill positions. Increasingly, these temporary positions are on the leadership team. This can have a far-reaching affect on the culture if temporary employees aren’t invested in the organization. But it doesn’t always have to be a negative experience. Short-term employees can bring insight, new ideas, and fresh approaches to work. HR managers can encourage the positives in these situations--and mitigate the risks--by making culture part of the hiring criteria.

The virtual reset button has been hit, and as a result, many of the traditional ways of doing business are changing. HR managers can’t put off investing in new initiatives until they receive a more significant sign that the economy is improving. Instead of waiting for the marketplace to get better and then reacting to any opportunities, now is the time to make conscious decisions about HR strategy and put a plan in place for the current economy.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner of Keystone Partners, a career management company based in Boston. She can be reached at

Avoiding a Social Media Melee--Five Things to Consider When Developing Your Company’s Social Media Strategy

Posted by Elaine Varelas March 7, 2011 08:00 AM

by Elaine Varelas

The use of social media sites has exploded over the past several years. Even if you live in a cave, you can have a LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook account, just as long as you have a smartphone and wifi access. It is easier than ever to connect with hundreds, even thousands, of people in an instant through social media web sites.

At the same time, the line between personal and private time is getting increasingly blurred as more people telecommute, bring their laptops home with them to work after hours, and stay in touch with the office virtually around the clock through technology. By their design, social media sites foster a blend of the professional and the personal. On any given user profile, a person is likely to have contacts ranging from college roommates to current clients and colleagues to old flames.

Given their ambiguous nature, social media sites can create a tricky confluence of factors in the workplace. It can be challenging for HR managers and company leaders to develop a policy that satisfies employees, allows people to access the benefits of the technology, and protects the company from the dark side of these sites. Here are five things HR managers should consider when putting together a social media strategy:

No policy is a risky policy
Some HR managers, so overwhelmed by the complexity of regulating the use of these sites, try to crawl into their proverbial caves and pretend the technology doesn’t exist. Others leave it up to individual managers, and still others believe that employees can police themselves (“We trust our employees to make appropriate choices.”). Unfortunately, not having a policy can expose the organization to an embarrassing incident, bad publicity or even legal action. There are currently several law suits working their way through the courts involving people who have sued their former employers after being terminated because of a post on a social media site. While it is noble to trust employees, some people--especially if they are new to a site--may not know how to use the technology appropriately. All it takes to create a potentially cringeworthy situation is one novice user posting in the wrong place.

Blocking sites may hurt the organization
Other HR managers address the challenge by blocking these sites from the company’s server. Of course, this action comes with it’s own risks. By cutting access to these networking sites, organizations may also be turning away business. Many companies attribute a significant portion of their annual sales to these sites, and some organizations request that their employees maintain Linkedin and Twitter accounts. Blocking these sites can also put your company at a hiring disadvantage as they can be valuable recruiting tools.

A policy should be explicit and specific
It only takes one employee who doesn’t understand the ramifications of using a social networking site incorrectly to put the company at risk. Assume everyone knows nothing when developing your policy. Be specific about the dos and don’ts for employees. Some questions you might want to consider are: Can employees list the company as their workplace? Can they befriend clients and vendors? Can they post about clients, vendors, colleagues or the competition? Give examples of what is okay and what is off-limits. Also let employees know the consequences of inappropriate actions. Having a policy also takes the pressure off employees who may not know what is expected of them when it comes to how they should be using these sites at work.

Define private
Many people are under the impression that what they do (or post) during their personal time with their personal computer remains private. Remind employees that posting on public forums is never private. Cyber-bullying a co-worker or badmouthing a manager, direct report or the organization on the Internet is akin to writing the message in spray paint on the office building and signing your name. Just because the action took place after hours and the person supplied the can of spray paint, it is still an attack on the company. Employees need to know that they will be held accountable for what they post on these sites, and that company representatives will be checking sites periodically.

Give employees the tools to use social media effectively
You wouldn’t put employees on a manufacturing floor without being trained in how to use the heavy machinery. The same philosophy applies to social media sites. Organizations can take advantage of the vast business potential of these sites, but they must give employees the training they need to do it properly.

There is tremendous opportunity for organizations to tap into social media web sites to increase their profits. With new users joining every day, it seems irresponsible for companies not to take advantage of this growing potential pool of customers, clients, and future employees. Yet, these sites can be dangerous because with the click of a mouse, employees can broadcast any message or photo they choose across the Internet. HR managers can help their organizations utilize these sites while mitigating risk by creating a detailed policy for employees to follow and giving them the training they need to use the sites correctly. By giving employees reign to use the sites at work along with education and guidelines, they can post, link and tweet their way through cyberspace while growing the business as well.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career management company. She can be reached at

Lessons Learned from Undercover Boss

Posted by Elaine Varelas February 7, 2011 08:00 AM

If you’re a reality TV junkie, you may have seen a show called, Undercover Boss. It is a program where CEOs, owners, or other high-level executives go “undercover” (donning disguises, aliases, and bogus biographies) as entry-level employees at their own organizations. They work alongside multiple employees to see what it is “really” like to work at the company--and for themselves. Along the way, they get into amusing predicaments, unearth some problems within the organization, and get to know some of their employees. Towards the end of each show, the executive’s true identity is revealed, dedicated employees are rewarded, and the CEO works to address the issues and breakdowns within the organization that the other employees helped bring to light.

If you can overlook the happy-ending-in-an-hour format and the requisite reality television manufactured tension and tear-jerker moments, Undercover Boss offers some valuable human resources gems. Here are some lessons HR managers and leadership teams can learn from the show:

Being an effective CEO takes courage--The CEOs on this show are getting some great publicity for their organizations, but they are also exposing themselves and all of their management policies (some of which are inevitably lacking) on television. Yet, CEOs should be brave. Heading up a company is a challenging job that requires risk-taking and unconventional ideas.

Saying “thank you” matters--In every episode, the executive calls special employees to his or her office for a debriefing. At that time, the CEO makes sure to thank employees for their hard work and dedication to the company. This is a highly anticipated part of the show, partly because viewers all over the country are waiting to live vicariously through these employees as the CEO says, “thanks.”

Rewards should be personal--This is also the time when employees are recognized for their work. The CEO always tailors the reward to the individual. The CEO doles out perks based on what employees may need or want to achieve in their careers or personal lives. These rewards may be training and development, help with education costs, financial rewards, a new assignment or promotion, solutions for work/family balance, or vacations.

Small changes can make a big difference--Sometimes the management changes that boost morale and productivity the most on the show aren’t expensive or expansive. In one episode featuring ABM industries, a commercial building maintenance company, one of the housekeepers explained to the CEO that it was difficult to do her job in the company’s uniform, a dress. During the show, her wish to work in a shirt and pants created a new policy for all female employees. She was thrilled by this small--but not insignificant--change.

Every company has room for improvement--During the show, you can see how some programs, products, or policies aren’t working. It is okay to acknowledge that there are problems within an organization. It’s important to address issues and not just ignore them.

Sometimes there’s a breakdown in the management process--Most CEOs on the show are surprised to discover at least one issue on their undercover journey. Leadership teams put policies in place, but they don’t always trickle down to every corner of the organization. Sometimes there is a leak along the management pipes. HR managers need to create opportunities for gathering this important information without putting the CEO in a wig and glasses. There are expensive and in-depth methods for giving employees a voice, such as engagement surveys. There are also less pricey options HR managers can initiate.

If an engagement survey isn’t financially feasible for your company right now, how can you get feedback from employees--either formally or informally--and see where the management process may be breaking down?

• Let managers know it is their job to check in with employees, ask for feedback, and consider employee requests (not just give an automatic “no”). Managers should also have the power to address these problems.
• Let employees know that they are responsible for speaking up. They can’t complain about a problem unless they are working with management to fix it. Of course, employees need to feel safe from punishment when sharing grievances.
• Have a suggestions box--Depending on the size of the company, suggestions could be collected in an actual box, a virtual discussion board, a dedicated email address, or at department staff meetings. I know there are issues, but the input value outweighs the negatives.
• Encourage leadership to take a trip into the culture--The leadership team should be leaving their corner offices to travel to where employees go: the cafeteria, gym, and break room. Informal conversations are a great way to gather valuable information.

Of course, reality TV shows are far from reality. It wouldn’t be possible to unearth and fix every management problem and reward exceptional employees in an hour or even a week. Yet, we can gain some insight by watching someone else’s CEO squirm on network television. From their trials and successes, HR managers can implement strategies to foster a more effective and cohesive organization.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career managment company. She can be reached at

New Year Resolution: Aligning HR Initiatives With Business Strategy

Posted by Elaine Varelas January 3, 2011 08:00 AM

The New Year is the perfect time for fresh starts. There is something about seeing January on the calendar that leads us to take stock, make lists, and get organized. We’re willing to shed what isn’t working (pounds, old practices, and clutter), as well as take on new projects. It may be that our tendency to clean up and trim down is some kind of counterbalance to the excess and chaos of the holiday season. We crave calm and harmony after all the craziness.

This need to organize spills into the workplace too this time of year. Our desire to streamline may be even greater this year, as all of us--HR managers, company leaders, and employees alike--are hoping for some serenity and economic growth after the tumult of the past few years. As HR managers we can take advantage of our (New) yearly affinity for getting organized. It is the ideal time to channel our inner Martha Stewart to bring order to our work lives.

One of the most important items on our to do list should be aligning HR strategy with the organization’s business strategy. HR initiatives can work most effectively if they complement, not compete, with the company’s business goals and initiatives.

Determine the business strategy
The first step is to take a fresh look at the organization’s business strategy with the leadership team. What is the current business strategy? Has it changed because of economic conditions? Does the strategy need an overhaul (New Year, new strategy)? Does it just need to be tweaked? Does leadership simply need to make a new commitment to understanding the current strategy?

Communicate the strategy to employees
Once the strategy is determined, HR managers can help the leadership team articulate it to employees. Too many times, in countless organizations, employees are clueless about business strategy. If asked, they will tell you that they don’t know what it is and some will believe that it isn’t their business to ask. Understanding an organization’s business strategy, mission, and goals is not just an executive-level need. All employees--at every level--should know the company’s direction. HR managers’ roles are vital in this. Once the strategy is set, HR managers should make sure that it is understood and accepted by the entire organization. It may also help to develop a five minute “elevator speech” so that employees can understand and easily relay the organization’s strategy.

Have a casting call
Every employee has a role to play in the daily production of the organization. In addition to understanding the overall business strategy, employees should know how their specific job affects the larger organization. Seeing how they contribute to the success of the company helps employees feel more invested in the organization and more connected to their jobs. Many of us have heard the often-told story of the janitor at a hospital who was asked about his role at the organization. He said it was his job to make sure that the best doctors in the world deliver the best healthcare possible. That is a person who knows how his job affects the success of the organization!

Employees who can see how their job fits into the workings of the larger company are typically more productive and engaged at work. Employees feel valued by the organization when they see that what they do everyday makes an impact.

Aligning down the line
One way for HR managers to ensure that HR strategy reflects the business goals is to incorporate it into every part of the HR process from recruiting, and hiring to the exit interview. The business strategy, and how it relates to specific jobs and titles, can be explained during the interview and orientation process, and can be incorporated into job descriptions. It can also be part of training and development. The employee performance review process is a great time for managers and employees to discuss the business strategy and employees’ roles. This gives employees a chance to give their input about their own roles and how they can contribute on the organization as a whole.

Change is the only constant
Once you’ve aligned HR strategy to reflect the company’s business initiatives, your work isn’t done. Most likely, each strategy will continue to evolve. Every time there is major change, whether economic or personnel, the strategy should reflect that change, and HR executives need to communicate that change throughout the organization. It may be a good idea to revisit the strategy every New Year, when there is executive-level turnover, or when the business is affected by competitive or economic factors (either positive or negative).

This month, when we’re all motivated to organize, streamline, and get things done, it is a great time to align HR strategy with the organization’s business initiatives. As we embark on this New Year, here’s to a booming economy and a prosperous and aligned 2011!

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career managment company. She can be reached at

‘Tis the Season to Re-gift

Posted by Elaine Varelas December 6, 2010 08:00 AM

by Elaine Varelas

As the holiday season approaches, many organizations are looking for ways to celebrate on a budget. Some companies are hosting toned-down holiday parties or forgoing the festivities altogether. Many managers and leadership teams are also abstaining from gift-giving as well. Maybe in this time of belt-tightening, we should consider re-gifting this year!

Typically, re-gifting takes all of the fun out of opening presents (If your Aunt Julie didn’t care for the vase she got at her 1983 wedding, what makes her think you’d like it?). Re-gifting at the office can also be a no-no. While most of us wouldn’t mind getting the keys to the CEO’s vacation home on the Cape, we could do without the hastily-wrapped tote bag left over from the corporate golf outing. Is it ever okay to re-gift at work?

Yes. There are some gifts that are guaranteed to be beloved by all employees no matter the age, sex, or shoe size of the recipient. HR managers can help identify these gifts by thinking about what they most want from leadership. If you could ask your leadership team for ANYTHING to make your job better, what would it be (minus the six figure bonus and summers off with pay)? If you could sit on Santa’s lap, whisper in his ear--and poof--you get your wish, what would you ask for? What do you need from the corner office to do your job well? I wish leadership would:

Tell me everything--I can’t do my job well if I am only getting part of the story. Leadership needs to be candid, honest, and forthcoming in all of their communications so I am armed with information and can respond quickly. This transparency should be spread throughout the organization so that employees know where they stand and can get on with their work.

Trust me--Trust is the foundation of any positive working relationship. Have faith in me that I will do my job, and do it well. I want this company to thrive and I am invested in it’s success. Let’s work together towards that same goal.

Acknowledge I have a life outside of work--I love my job, but I also need some down time. Please don’t expect me to be on-call every weekend. If I don’t respond to an e-mail you sent late Saturday night, please don’t call my house at 7:00 am on Sunday. While I don’t mind staying late once in a while, I would also like to have dinner with my family too.

Stop berating me--Yelling is only acceptable behavior if the building is on fire or there’s a half-price sale at Tiffany’s. Please do not scream at or belittle me alone or in front of others. And don’t look the other way if other managers berate their team members. Inflammatory language or even raised voices should never be tolerated in the organization.

Take care of your problem child--Please don’t take the easy way out and ignore that manager who is causing problems for employees. As a leader, you need to take action before it gets out of control. Also, if I come to you with a problem, please address it. If I have the courage to bring it up, please don’t push it aside and hope it goes away on it’s own.

Stop being a hater--Please do not tolerate any form of sexism, racism, or any other intolerant behavior--ever. Put a stop to it at the first sign, even if you are worried about being labeled too PC.

Say thank you, and mean it!--Please recognize me when I’ve done a good job and be sincere about it. There is nothing worse that a forced thanks (except maybe none at all). You also don’t have to be stingy with your accolades. I will gladly accept a “thank you” for delivering a report or making a phone call for you. You don’t need to withhold your appreciation for big projects only.

Wouldn’t it be a “wonderful life” if you actually got all of these things on your leadership wish list? You could be so productive! You’d love going into work everyday! The best part about receiving these gifts from leadership is that you could pay-it-forward by re-gifting these precious gems to all of the employees in the organization.

As HR managers we have the opportunity to make it happen. Work with the leadership team to make these gifts part of the foundation of the organization. Let leaders know that these basic tenets are important to the morale and retention of employees, not to mention the vitality and the success of the organization. Train managers so that they have the tools they need to work and manage within these parameters. When HR managers can ensure that these principles are followed throughout the organization, they have a gift that’s worthy of re-gifting.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career managment company. She can be reached at

The Work/Life Balance Myth

Posted by Elaine Varelas November 1, 2010 08:00 AM

The Work/Life Balance Myth

by Elaine Varelas

Just thinking about our “to do” list for any given day is enough to keep us up at night (staff meeting, conference call, budget sheets, quarterly report, doctor’s appointment, daughter’s basketball game, vacation reservations, dinner). It’s exhausting trying to squeeze it all in! Adding to the pressure is our quest to strike that perfect balance between our work and personal obligations. Yet, by striving for that balance every day, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

In fact, achieving work/life balance is a myth. Our lives—both work and personal—are always in flux. Our daily demands are ever-changing and difficult to predict—a project might go awry and we’re at work until late; or a death in the family may keep us from coming into the office at all. “Balancing” these demands every day is virtually impossible—and truly unnecessary. We need to rethink the way we look at balance. Instead of trying to strike a balance on a daily basis, we should instead aim for equilibrium over time. Juggling life’s demands is more like riding on a seesaw. Sometimes it’s up and sometimes it’s down. It’s difficult for two kids on a seesaw to keep it balanced in mid-air (and no fun). Accepting that work/life demands don’t need to equal out on any given day—or even week—can help take the pressure off employees and managers. It’s not that we can’t have it all—we just can’t have it all ALL of the time.

HR managers should determine how much of a priority work/life strategies are for the organization. For some companies, work/life policies are a cornerstone of recruitment and retention. If this is true in your organization, how can you make it work? The idea is to be transparent and look long-term. Here’s how:

Focus on goals
HR managers need to encourage managers to take a goal-oriented approach to managing. The focus should be on completing projects and meeting deadlines. This process requires less micromanaging and more autonomy for employees and groups. Managers must be clear on the goals for the short- and long-term. What needs to get done today? This week? This month? This quarter? Managers should also figure out how best to check in with employees to determine the status of work.

Support managers
Taking a goal-driven approach to work may be a foreign concept to some managers. They may have come up through the ranks punching timecards and docking pay for missed days. Most managers know that just because people are physically in the office doesn’t guarantee that they’re working, but they might struggle with not having more oversight on a day-to day basis. Focusing on goals can require an attitude adjustment. If an employee wants to leave early on Wednesdays during the summer to coach Little League, he isn’t “sneaking out” or “stealing time.” Managers shouldn’t punish employees if the work is getting done. Of course, this goal-oriented management technique won’t work with managers who have a “crisis du jour,” where everything becomes a major issue. Help managers plan out their own workload over the long-term, so every day doesn’t produce a new work emergency.

Step up communication
Employees should meet with managers to have a candid conversation about goals and expectations. It is an ideal time for employees to present requests and schedules (“I would like to volunteer at school on the third Wednesday of every month”) and deadlines. Both the work and personal obligations should be made clear so that the manager and employee can come up with an agreed-upon plan.

Strive for flexibility
Flexibility should be built into this system to accommodate the give-and-take necessary to make it work. Some projects may require multiple late nights in the office (the seesaw is up), and sometimes a sick child may take an employee out of the office for several days (and back down). Employees can’t feel like they can never take any time. On the other hand, managers need to know that the work is getting done, and that they can rely on their team members.

Build up trust
Trust is the basis of any positive relationship and is an intrinsic part of this process. Managers need to trust that work is being done and people aren’t leaving early every Friday just because they can get away with it. Employees also must trust that they won’t be punished for being upfront about communicating their needs or wants for personal time.

Make sure to re-visit
There needs to be a periodic “check-in” meeting between managers and employees to make sure the process is working. If deliverables aren’t being met for either party, the manager and employee need to have another candid conversation to revise the plan.

HR managers, company managers, and employees should stop working so hard to achieve the elusive work/life “balance” and instead work within the natural rhythm of work and life demands—sometimes they’re up and sometimes down. HR managers should work towards balance over time—the give-and-take will even out eventually. If managers can strive for equilibrium for the long-term, employees might actually be able to enjoy the ride!

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career managment company. She can be reached at

What Are You Waiting For? Four HR Initiatives You Can Do Now to Reach Your Post-Recovery Goals

Posted by Elaine Varelas October 4, 2010 08:00 AM

By Elaine Varelas

As Tom Petty elucidates in one of his hit songs, “The Waiting,” well, it’s the hardest part. Waiting is not fun to do, yet many organizations seem to be in a holding pattern these days. Many HR initiatives are being put on the backburner until a future time (when the economy improves, cash flow loosens up, or just one more client comes in). Some organizations are putting off projects because investing now is too risky. But if HR managers and company leaders wait too long to implement important HR programs the risk can be even greater.

I have a friend who has big plans for herself once she loses weight. She says, “When I lose 20 pounds, I’m going to learn to dance, take a beach vacation, start dating again, and buy a new pair of jeans.” Meanwhile, her life (at least her fun life) is passing by. We sometimes make excuses for waiting, when it really isn’t in our best interest.

That is definitely true for organizations that are holding projects until the economy improves. According to a recent report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the recession ended in June of 2009. Many businesses didn’t feel any immediate relief from the downturn’s official end and we still don’t know how quickly the economy will recover from the slump. Of course, there may never be a “perfect” time to reinvigorate stalled programs, but now is a great time to identify those projects we would do (if the HR budget fairy paid a visit) and get started.

While it’s true that some initiatives require a significant financial investment, organizations may be able to do others less expensively by rolling out a pilot program, using resources they already have available, or starting small. There are creative ways to embark on programs in uncertain times. It may be more costly for organizations that don’t. According a survey from Regus, 40% of the American workforce is displeased with their organizations and are planning to change jobs as soon as the economy improves. If you want to hold on to your people—and be in a position to recruit others—look into ways to revive your HR programs now.

Here are four common initiatives that many organizations are currently putting off and ways HR managers can get them going:

Recruit new talent
Your organization may not be in a position to take on additional salary costs, but imagine if it were. Who are the people you would be targeting? Who will help your business grow? Identify that talent now. Will you be looking to add recent college grads, one experienced leader, or a select few with specific technical skills? Once you’ve determined the type of hires you would need, revamp your networks. Reestablish relationships with college alumni offices, recruiters, and possible targets. Look for opportunities to “grow your own” by cultivating people already within your organization who may be right for these positions. Create a presence where your target people are so you’ll be in a position to make decisions quickly.

Start a wellness program
Wellness programs are extremely popular with employees and can cut future healthcare costs for employers. Yet, some HR managers are overwhelmed by the price tag and time investment it takes to begin a comprehensive program. One option is to introduce a pilot program. You could start with a project that would make the biggest impact, such as a smoking cessation program. You could also try creative ways to get more employees involved in different programs, such as morning or lunch-time walking programs, weight loss or quit smoking “buddies,” or a “Biggest Loser” challenge.

Recognize employees
While it would be ideal to begin giving employees bonuses once again, it isn’t in every company’s budget. Yet, bonuses are an acknowledgment for a job well-done and there are other, less expensive ways to recognize employees. HR professionals can encourage managers to celebrate small successes—with coffee cards, lunches, and long weekends. You can also institute incentive programs, where employees are rewarded for bringing in clients or finding ways to reduce overhead. Employees want to feel engaged and have a sense that the organization is invested in them, so be sure to encourage transparent leadership and open communication throughout the organization.

Ramp-up training and development
Training and development programs are a surefire way to keep employees engaged (and retained), but they may seem out of reach for HR managers. There are creative ways to train and develop employees on a shoestring budget. Look at your teams: could you do any cross-training (IT teaches sales how to use a new software and sales teaches the marketing department about public speaking). Consider starting a lecture series with guest speakers from your client base, vendors, or local universities. Mentor programs are an organic way to foster learning. Horizontal stretch assignments can also challenge and educate people and get them ready for the promotion when it is financially feasible. By showing an interest in employees’ development you are demonstrating an investment in the person and that person’s future with the organization.

If you take small steps to implement important HR programs now, your organization will be better poised to engage and retain employees when the economy takes off.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career managment company. She can be reached at

Recruiting 101: Five Surefire Ways to Attract Top Talent

Posted by Elaine Varelas September 6, 2010 08:00 AM

By Elaine Varelas

Now that the once-stalled economy is starting to budge again, many organizations are looking to hire. Where is your organization in the recruitment process? Is it, “Quick! We need to dust off that decade-old recruitment plan!,” or has your organization been “recruiting” all along, even during a hiring freeze?

There’s a reason our profession is called human resources. It is about people, and more specifically about relationships. How an organization’s own people: it’s leadership, employees, and HR team, choose to relate to others defines the organization. Those relationships can be with other employees, clients, prospects, candidates, recruiters, college representatives, and community members. It is the public perception of these relationships that forms an employer brand. It is not something that can be created in a day (or when the market dictates). This brand should be cultivated over time—even when the organization isn’t hiring. Here are the five most important long-term strategies organizations can implement to recruit (and retain) the best employees:

1. Know your target and your message
The most effective way to attract top talent is to define what an “ideal employee” means for your organization. What type of people do you need? What skill sets are no longer relevant? Once you determine the kind of employee you want, develop your sales pitch. What do your target employees need to know about your organization? What will they find attractive, interesting, and challenging? By knowing your audience, you can better hone your message.

2. Streamline the staffing process
The biggest complaint from job-seekers is that they send their resumes out to companies, but they feel like they’re launching them into a black hole—they never hear back from organizations. Granted, the volume of candidates applying for jobs is massive, and it is difficult to keep up with the demand. Yet, an organization’s staffing activity is the best way to attract better prospects. If organizations do it well, word spreads. If they don’t, word spreads even faster. How an organization treats people during the application and interview processes is a telling sign as to how they treat their employees.

A good rule of thumb is that the organization should give back what an applicant puts in. For example, if someone submits a resume, that person should get an automated email response acknowledging receipt. If a person comes in for an interview, he or she should get a call back from a manager—and the response needs to be timely. Many HR managers think this is already happening at their organizations, but it needs to be formalized. A manager who does the interview might think that the hiring manager will get back to the interviewee and vice versa. The best way to avoid this confusion and simplify the system is to assign a point person. After interviews, candidates should have a business card with contact information for a specific person to answer any questions they may have.

3. Revamp your exit strategy
As important as it is to value people’s time and feelings during the hiring process, it is just as vital during downsizing. How do you send people out the door? The same attention, care, and respect that you afford your employees or star candidates needs to be extended to those you let go. You don’t want the first thing a prospective employee sees during a Google search of your company to be a blog written by a disgruntled former employee called, “Company X treats people like &#%*!”

4. Grow your own
Most organizations have access to thousands of prospective future employees within their own walls and communities. They should be instituting programs to gain exposure within these groups. One way to do this is through Employee Referral Programs. Current employees are your most influential spokespeople for prospects. They offer a unique perspective about what it’s really like to work at the company. Through incentive programs, employees can recruit their friends and families to apply for jobs.

HR managers can also establish programs in the community. They can partner with local high schools and colleges to offer training, events, and internships. Volunteering and sponsorships are another great way to establish a commitment to the community. People are more apt to support (and seek employment at) organizations that are invested in their neighborhoods. These long-term recruitment techniques can offer major advantages at hiring time.

5. Embrace what’s new
If it isn’t broke, do fix it! By utilizing new technologies and recruitment methods, you are establishing your organization as a progressive company—and that’s where top talent wants to work. Right now, that technology is social media. It is not enough to have a few managers on LinkedIn. There needs to be a corporately-organized social media strategy encompassing the Internet, social media sites, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, Twitter, blogs, video, and the company’s own web site. You may want to consider having each business unit head up its own strategy. The biggest part of this approach should be showcasing the stories of current employees. They are the best advocates for the company and can give prospective employees a first-hand look at how the organization operates.

Your organization should always be in recruitment mode, even when you’re not hiring. If you take a long term approach to recruitment, you can begin to build your employer brand. And when you do need a hiring push, your organization will be ready to pick up speed.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career managment company. She can be reached at

There is a Cure for the “It’s Not Fair!” Blues

Posted by Elaine Varelas August 2, 2010 08:00 AM

By Elaine Varelas

Here we are in the middle of summer and we’re surrounded by the sounds of the season: waves crashing, fans whirring, the chiming of ice cream trucks, and the battle cries of children everywhere screaming, “It’s not fair!” You may hear this as the kids ardently plead with their parents for that sleepover, a few more minutes in the pool, or the last cupcake.

While you may think that this statement is restricted to childhood, human resource professionals are hearing it more often in the office, as well. As HR managers adjust to the changing demographics of the workplace, it is becoming increasingly challenging to manage and motivate (and please) everyone. For the first time in history, we have four generations of people in the workforce. It stands to reason then that a “one size fits all” approach to motivating employees will most likely fall flat. Yet, HR managers may not be able to accommodate the perhaps hundreds of requests or suggestions from employees. It may seem overwhelming to HR managers to develop a retention and benefits program that will satisfy everyone—while eliminating jealousy and rivalry (“Why do they get more vacation time than we do?”).

The good news is that while there may not be a cure for the summertime blues, HR managers can help to remedy the “It’s not fair!” blues. The first step is for HR managers to cast aside one of the biggest management fallacies: “In order to be fair, you must treat everyone the same.” This is simply not true—and most employees would agree. In fact, different generations of people are going to be motivated by very different things. While it may be one employee’s dream to get paid time-off from work to build houses for a favorite charity, it may seem like cruel and unusual punishment to another. To be fair, HR managers should treat everyone equitably—not the same.

Foster Teamwork
Employees will be better able to understand each other’s motivations by getting to know one another and working as a team. Employee development should be centered around leadership and teamwork to develop trust and respect between generations. This will also help eliminate same-generation cliques or camps. Cross-generational teams can foster a positive learning environment because each generation has so much to share. This can also work on a one-on-one basis through mentor programs. Teaming a younger person up with a veteran employee can be mutually beneficial. The seasoned employee can share expertise about how to work with clients, while the younger employee can give a tutorial on how to master a smart phone.

Inquire Within
Don’t assume that just because people are of a certain age, they will all be motivated by the same things. Of course, there are some similarities in what people want from their jobs when they are at certain stages of their lives. For instance, people in their 30s and 40s often request professional development and training programs, or a flexible schedule to accommodate their family lives. Baby boomers may want a sabbatical or time to travel. Young workers may want insurance for their pets. The best way to determine what employees want is to ask! You can conduct a formal survey or have managers talk to employees individually.

Tailor Your Program
While it may not be possible or financially viable to entertain every individual’s request, you may see trends within groups of people from the same generation. The next step is to examine the needs of the organization. What does the company need from employees? What is the trade-off in providing a benefit? You may realize that an employee request may match perfectly with the organization’s mission or business goals. For example, a boomer generation employee may want to become a “snow bird,” working nine months out of the year in New England and three months in Florida. For some businesses, such as retail, this arrangement may work well as they would have an extra employee to work during the busy season down south without having to hire additional staff.

Shout it out
Once you’ve developed your program, let people know all of the details. Clarity and transparency are key. How does it work? How can people choose benefits? What are the options? If HR managers do a good job of communicating about the policies there will be less chance of envy or hard feelings.

Build Support
By working hard to develop a sense of team, camaraderie, and respect across generational lines, HR managers can help employees empathize with one another and care about each other. Jealousy and rivalry can be replaced with a happiness that the organization is listening to its employees, and is working to support people in ways that are meaningful to them. Hopefully, employees can look around at their co-workers and say, “What is important to them is important to me.” HR managers can then hear employees exclaim, “Hey, this IS fair!”

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career managment company. She can be reached at

Employees Pop The Question: Will You Engage Me?

Posted by Elaine Varelas July 6, 2010 08:00 AM

Wedding season is in full swing. Whether you are elbow-deep in puffy dresses, flowers, and invitations, or leisurely browsing the online registry at Crate and Barrel—most us are involved in someone’s nuptials this summer. While weddings launch the beginning of a couple’s married life, they also mark the end of another special point: the engagement.

Whether long or short, the engagement is an exciting time for a couple. Most couples are completely focused on their relationships and their lives together. They are closely connected to each other, and talk often about their plans for the future. They make a big deal out of introducing each other to family and friends. Most of them try not to miss an opportunity to extol the virtues of the other to anyone—college roommates, golf buddies, even strangers on the T.

It is this “honeymoon” experience, this deep connection within a relationship that HR professionals are trying to emulate through employee engagement initiatives. Even though there is an absence of romantic love, they want their employees to feel supported by and invested in the company for which they work, and to be excited about their jobs and work environment (without the PDA, please!). Ideally, they are hoping employees will become champions for the organization. They want their employees to advocate for the organization internally with co-workers, vendors, and clients. They also want employees to promote the organization outside of company walls to family, friends, and yes, even strangers.

It is proven that engaged employees are more satisfied and productive in their jobs, which can bolster morale, increase retention, and impact the bottom line. Yet, leaders within individual organizations are often left wondering if their own employee engagement programs are effective. Are employees happy? Are they as productive as possible? Do they feel a connection to their colleagues and the organization? Are we doing all we can to maximize engagement?

To find the answers to these questions, many HR professionals are turning to pricey engagement surveys and research. Many of these surveys are lengthy and involved and leave leadership teams with boatloads of data—and often more questions than answers (What do we do with all of this information?).

While engagement surveys can be effective tools for gauging employee engagement, many organizations make the mistake of jumping into them too quickly, without doing any prep work. They also try to measure too much or the wrong things. Some initiatives are too ambitious—they ask employees hundreds of questions which result in a book of data longer than any classic novel. Yet, the organization’s core issues and challenges are buried within the document. Other times, the surveys are too generic. They can’t pinpoint the issues facing a specific company because most surveys are designed to serve as umbrellas to cover any type of company in any industry. It is difficult to analyze data if you don’t know what you’re hoping to find. The first question HR managers should ask is, “What are we measuring?” The second question should be, “How do we measure for it?”

HR professionals may want to consider tailoring a survey to address the specific needs of the organization or altering an existing survey so the results more closely mirror the organization’s own needs.

For example, if there is high dissatisfaction and turnover under middle managers across all areas of the company, HR managers may want to focus on manager engagement. Unfortunately, manager engagement in surveys is most often measured by the manager’s own productivity, satisfaction, and investment in the company. While this information is good to know, it doesn’t get to the root of the issue of employee turnover and morale. HR managers can better determine this information by taking the focus off the individual managers and putting it on the groups. The alternative manager engagement survey should examine productivity, succession, and advancement within manager’s teams. It may also help to survey those who have left to ask them why, as well as candidates who were interviewing for jobs within departments, but went elsewhere.

By coming up with specific areas to measure and crafting the research to determine answers to these challenges, the engagement survey process becomes more manageable, and better able to determine results that can actually be addressed. The survey becomes a hands-on tool for improving engagement, instead of a lofty goal that will only exist in theory. This in itself can help engagement, as employees see that the organization is creating an action plan to improve work life for employees, not just proselytizing.

Engagement surveys are effective tools for determining employees’ connection to the organization. But before implementing them, HR professionals must first determine what they want to measure and then create a survey that will get results. By focusing on the core issues facing the organization, company leaders can make sure that their Mr. and Mrs. Rights stay perpetually engaged to the organization.

Office Conflict—What Every HR Manager Should Know

Posted by Elaine Varelas June 7, 2010 08:00 AM

By Elaine Varelas

If you were to mention the words “office conflict” in a room full of HR managers, you would surely get a wide variety of responses. For some people, conflict takes on a negative connotation. They imagine lawsuits, litigation, and office strife. Some people thrive on the thrill of conflict. Others still, try to avoid it at all costs.

What is your instinctual response when someone says “office conflict?” How do you handle conflict at your organization? No matter your reaction to the words, most HR managers are bound to encounter conflict in their roles. Here’s what every HR manager needs to know about conflict:

Conflict happens.
Whether you work at a Fortune 500 company, a family business, in a partnership (and even in some sole proprietorships)—conflict will occur. Within any relationship—professional or personal—there is bound to be disagreement. It doesn’t reflect badly on you as an HR manager if your workplace has conflict, and it doesn’t indicate that there is something inherently faulty about your office culture or policies. Conflict is natural.

Avoiding it does more harm than good
In some cases, HR managers make the mistake of handling conflict by avoiding it. They set up systems to try to reduce, mitigate, or eliminate conflict or situations where discord may occur. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work—conflict still happens. But in the process of squelching it, HR managers are also stifling ideas. Ideas in the workplace are not always generated through disagreement, but oftentimes, through the process of conflict (heated discussions or passionate pleas) big ideas are born. Managers must also be able to deal with conflict to move the idea process along. By taking away the space to have these conversations, you may be robbing the organization of its methods for thinking big.

Let the people speak!
Conflict is most effectively resolved by the parties experiencing the conflict. Channeling the issue through layers of HR red tape and soliciting outside opinions only serves to dilute and delay the outcome. Everyone should represent him- or herself in the resolution process. It may also help to have the manager in attendance so the team can strategize ways to resolve the disagreement. HR managers can help guide the process, offer support, and give employees and managers the tools they need work out a solution on their own, but should avoid trying to solve the problem or dictate a resolution.

And the winner is……unknown.
Not always, but many times in the conflict resolution process, clear winners and losers emerge. It is important that no one outside of the process (colleagues and peers) have an idea about which party was victorious. HR managers should protect the privacy of employees and the integrity of the process. Also, even though there is a “winner” and a “loser,” all people involved should feel like they have the tools, training, or systems in place to help them come out stronger on the other side of the issue.

Get over it!
Once the conflict is resolved, it should be in a permanent state of resolution. There is no grudge-holding, hard feelings, getting even, or revenge. It is the HR manager’s charge to make sure that both parties feel satisfied with the solution. They should also communicate the importance of accepting the outcome and moving forward.

Talk about it.
HR managers can help remove the stigma of office conflict by talking about it. Let employees know that it is okay to have disagreements. People will be heard, and the organization will support people in resolving their issues professionally. This is not a street fight or a bullying situation, but a specialized process for handling a business issue. Create a safe place for people to talk about resolving conflict.

Have a plan.
We’ve acknowledged that conflict will occur, so plan for it! Be prepared to have those difficult conversations with employees or managers. Develop set tools and processes for handling conflicts. Give people the training, coaching, tools, and support they need to work towards a solution.

Practice. Practice. Practice.
The more you do something—play the violin, throw a baseball, speak in front of a crowd—the better you get at it. The same is true for resolving conflicts. HR managers will become more skilled at facilitating conflict resolution the more often they practice. Employees and managers can also get more adept at it if HR managers can help them feel more confident and equipped to handle these issues when they arise.

The words “office conflict” can cause a number of different reactions in a space full of human resources professionals. Yet, if HR mangers can deal with conflict head-on and work with their employees to resolve it, they won’t have to fear conflict—and may even welcome it at their organizations.

Life Lessons for Leaders

Posted by Elaine Varelas May 1, 2010 06:00 AM

by Elaine Varelas

What makes a leader today? It may be too soon to extract all of the lessons from the wreckage of the recent economic free-fall. In fact, many businesses are still reeling from the impact, and most others are on the cusp of a slow and incremental climb-out. There is no doubt that we have a completely altered economic landscape from just a few years ago. What kind of leaders will organizations need to pull out of this slump?

Today’s leaders may not all look like those who inhabited the c-suite a few decades ago (older, white, males). There’s more diversity in executive offices—women, people of color, and young professionals are working their ways into positions of power. Some of the traditional leadership styles have changed as well. Ruling with an iron fist or only hiring leaders with years of longevity with a company have proven to be ineffective ways to lead and choose leaders. It just doesn’t work in a digital, global economy. How can HR managers guide their organization’s leadership going forward? As we move into this next decade, what skills are obsolete? And more importantly, what are the leadership characteristics that will help organizations rebuild and flourish?

In fact, the qualities that make great leaders actually stem from those life lessons that were instilled in all of us as children. While it is too trite to say “Everything I Learned About Being A Leader, I Learned in Kindergarten,” there is a kernel of truth in that sentiment. Of course, leaders aren’t made in grade school (or even business school), but the survival skills we develop in the elementary grades can give leaders an edge. Here are some basic tenets of leadership excellence that can be gleaned from those grade school lessons.

Be Ready to Learn
Even in preschool, it’s not all about recess and show-and-tell. Kids are taught the ABCs and 123s. School is a place to learn, discover, and think critically. Effective leaders must be constantly seeking answers, asking questions, and gathering information. Yes, leaders can rely on intuition and hunches for ideas, but they must back it up with quantitative research. Proceeding without data to support business direction is akin to a high-school kid blindly filling out a multiple choice test based on the chords of a favorite song.

There is a difference between what you think, what you know, and what you can prove. What your organization’s leadership believes about the organization is not necessarily accurate. Can it be validated? HR managers can help leadership step back and get a full perspective. Set up a 360º review system to test assumptions about the organization and its leadership.

Stop Talking and Listen
In school, if you don’t listen, you don’t learn. This statement also applies in the workplace. Leaders who believe communication comes from the top-down only are missing out on valuable insight. Information must flow both ways. If there are any leaders at your organization who live on a one-way street, tell them to move! Talking “down” to employees and selectively doling out information is an antiquated idea that will serve to alienate employees, and leaders will be left trying to assemble a puzzle without a key piece.

No Bullying allowed
With the recent tragedy surrounding bullying in schools, there will be an even further crack-down on aggressive behaviors in academia. The same intolerance needs to infiltrate the workplace. Bad behavior and workplace hostility should no longer be acceptable. Research shows that fear is not a good motivator. Bad behavior decreases productivity and puts employees at risk. Of course, it is easy to terminate a workplace bully who is not getting the job done. But sometimes managers and company leaders are willing to overlook bad behavior in top-performers. Are you willing to make those hard choices? Will leadership institute a “no tolerance” policy no matter the money-generating potential of the bully?

Diversity Matters
You get more out of an education when you encounter a wide variety of people. In most public schools, classes are comprised of kids from different backgrounds, religions, races, and economic status. Many work teams are also made up of people from disparate backgrounds, as well as different ages. Multigenerational teams are the new office norm. By building work groups of people of different ages and experience level, teams can benefit from multiple perspectives. Leadership and the company culture must support this diversity to get the most out of their teams by communicating the message “Respect your elders AND respect your youngsters.”

Trust is a Limited Resource
There’s an honor system in school that shouldn’t be breached. Teachers trust students not to cheat, and kids put their trust in teachers to help them learn. But when that trust is violated, it can cause serious damage. There is also an honor system within organizations, as well between the leadership team and employees. Unfortunately, trust in senior management at companies everywhere is at an all-time low. HR managers must take the lead in helping leadership maintain, or rebuild that trust. One way to do this is to help management lead in a more transparent way and share as much information as possible with employees so they can feel comfortable in their positions and stay focused on their work.

By taking a cue from those life lessons that we learned back in grade school, HR managers and company leaders can help lift their organizations from the rubble of the economic crisis and move towards a prosperous and solid future.

Identity Crisis: Defining Your Employer Brand to Regain Success

Posted by Elaine Varelas April 1, 2010 07:00 AM

by Elaine Varelas,

Employer brands are powerful tools for organizations looking to set themselves apart from the competition. Many companies have based their recruitment, retention, and marketing initiatives on their brand.  A clear employer brand helps to give a company it's personality, and gives employees and company leaders the vocabulary to describe who they are and what they do.

Yet the economic woes of the past few years have caused many organizations to experience full-fledged identity crises. Just like a traumatic personal experience, such as a divorce, job loss, or illness can make people lose sight of or question who they are in this world, the economy has led many companies to a similar fate.

Cutbacks, lay-offs, and mergers made it virtually impossible for many companies to do business as they once did. Organizations built themselves (and their reputations) on a certain set of tenets and qualitiestheir employer brand. Their brand was how employers defined who they werefor themselves, clients, employees, customers, and recruits. Many organizations have found themselves no longer able to hold onto their brand under the added stress of the global financial meltdown. Not only did their businesses suffer as the economy took a nosedive, but their identities did as well.

The economic downturn affected companies—aand their employer brandsacross every region and industry. The financial services company with the most aggressive recruitment effort had a hiring freeze. The local hospital that offered the most comprehensive benefits package dropped some well-loved perks and asked employees to kick in for health insurance. The global organization that touted itself as the fasted growing tech company started hemorrhaging money.

As the very foundation of how companies operated began to slip away, many organizations kicked into survival mode. Company leadership was less concerned with employer brand than making sure their employees (and they) kept their jobs.

Now that we are starting to see an end to the economic fallout, how can HR managers recapture a brand that was lost? If the employer brand is how organizations define themselves and show their face to the world, what happens when that face now has running mascara, smeared lipstick, or a 5 o'clock shadow?

Having a well-defined employer brand can help a company keep a clear focus when developing recruitment and retention strategies, tweaking a mission statement, starting new culture initiatives, and creating overall business goals. Of course, once an identity crisis hits, it isn't just a matter of HR managers picking up where they left off. The employer brand may be vastly different from what it once was. Will your organization be reinforcing an obsolete brand, maintaining a current brand, or creating a new one?

HR managers should consult with company leaders to find the answers to these vital questions:
-How do we want to be known?

-How are we known currently (and how were we known pre-downturn)?

To find out how you are known now, do some research. Start with an employee survey, as current employees are a wealth of information. Also talk to recruiters, look at employee exit interviews, research the webcheck out blogs and the competition's sites, and speak with prospective employees (especially those who went elsewhere).

If the employer brand is the same as it was before, how will you maintain it? It is important to realize that the strategies and tactics that got you there in the past might not keep you there. You must also understand that your brand may evolveby choice or by circumstance. Your organization may not be able to be where it once was. It is acceptable to change your brand, but you need to be who you say you are. There must be consistency and authenticity between how the brand is defined and how it is played out within the organization.

For example, a law firm that touts a family-friendly culture, must live up to its promise. The organization should provide good benefits and flex-time, and host family-friendly events such as picnics and community service days. Conversely, attorneys shouldn't have to work around the clock (even if they are on the partner track) and the firm can't only offer unpaid maternity leave. Of course, if the brand is different because of the economy or if the firm just can't compete, it is okay to change as long as those changes are communicated. It is more important to be the organization you claim to be; you can't afford to be disingenuous in how you present your organization to the world.

If your organization's brand is changing, the new brand should support the goals of the company. It should also give the organization an edge to set it apart from the competition and move the business forward. It is counterproductive to reinforce an employer brand that is holding the company back from future growth.

An employer brand is a helpful tool in developing hiring, recruitment, retention, and growth initiatives. This is a great time to examine your organization's brand. After a tumultuous few years, there are bound to be changes to your brand definition or strategies. By focusing and redefining the organization's identity, HR managers can help reinvigorate the organization after a stagnant time and prepare it for focused growth.

Elaine Varelas is a Managing Partner for Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career management company.

Plugging the Brain Drain

Posted by Elaine Varelas March 1, 2010 07:00 AM

by Elaine Varelas

Despite our best efforts as HR managers, the reality is that people leave organizations. While effective retention programs can reduce turnover and encourage longevity with a company, eventually people move on. Some may retire, get an offer from another organization, move out of state, or leave to raise families. In some cases, as in a reduction-in-force, or an M&A or restructuring, people may leave en masse.

HR managers are often charged with instituting strategies to retain employees. While this is the ideal option, it is not always possible to keep everyone onboard. While retention programs are cost-effective and worthwhile, HR managers must also prepare for employees’ ultimate departure.

When employees exit an organization, they don’t just leave behind an empty desk. They also take with them their knowledge of how they do their jobs, and more importantly, how they get things done. If HR managers don’t put systems in place to capture that knowledge, it can get sucked into a vast black hole, leaving the organization vulnerable. How can HR managers create a more seamless transition when there is job turnover and ensure that proprietary knowledge stays intact?

Document—It may seem logical to believe that a manager is the keeper of the proprietary knowledge within his or her group. In reality, though, managers may lead a team or department, but they don’t know everything about each individual job. Consider creating an “owner’s manual” for each position within a department that explains the job and the processes used to accomplish day-to-day and long-term tasks. This is important for executive-level positions, but also for entry-level posts. Imagine if your assistant left without an detailed explanation of files, programs, and contacts. You’d be lost (I know I would be)!

It is also imperative to document important correspondence, proposals, and plans. In the age of electronic media, it is easy to shoot off an email or text and then press “delete.” Important documents must be filed either in hard-copy or electronic format.

Make it a priority—One reason we don’t document our work is because we think it’s busywork. We have so much to do, we don’t want to waste our time documenting our work. But if Jim is the keeper of the spreadsheets for a department and Jim goes bye-bye, that will not only cost the organization time, but it may also cost dollars if deadlines or opportunities are missed. Employees can always find a more pressing matter that takes precedence over documenting work, so HR professionals need to educate managers about the value of the assignment so they can communicate it to their people—and give them the time they need to follow through.

Cross-train—Another way to make sure that critical knowledge isn’t lost when employees leave is to encourage “role hopping” within the company or departments. While employees shouldn’t be required to know everything about two or more jobs, multiple people should be trained to take on multiple tasks. This can also be helpful during extended absences for other reasons, such as illnesses or family leave.

Developing a mentor program is another way to promote a natural method for passing knowledge along. Mentor programs are also effective retention tools, for both the mentee and the mentor, which is an added bonus.

Create efficient processes—HR managers may also make the information that is available within the organization more accessible. How easy is it to retrieve a document in the company’s system? Is it possible to do a keyword search to find relevant information? Are like documents (proposals, spreadsheets) stored together in the same location? Are there templates for documents so there is consistency and uniformity within departments and throughout the organization? By making it easier to create or retrieve information, HR managers can help cut down on the practice of “reinventing the wheel,” ease frustration among employees (“Where is that plan we did last year?”), and improve efficiency.

Have a succession (or back-up) plan—As the Boy Scouts motto states, it is better to “be prepared.” If HR managers can anticipate losses and the fall-out from them, they can help put policies in place to minimize the effects of people leaving. Where is the organization at risk? Ask managers to look at their departments and identify the weak spots. Make sure that there are formalized procedures to follow so that managers can protect their people and their intellectual capital.

Flexibility is also important as some employees may request alternatives to the traditional workday. What can the organization do to keep people on? New parents may want a part-time schedule. Employees reaching retirement age may want to take a sabbatical or spend part of the year in a warmer climate. What is the organization willing and able to do to keep employees and their brain trust?

Be transparent—Some employees may be reluctant to share how they do their jobs for fear that the organization is trying to learn what they do in order to oust them in favor of someone less seasoned and less expensive. Make it clear to people that the process is about capturing knowledge and not about forcing people into an early retirement.

By putting systems in place to protect proprietary knowledge, HR managers can help organizations recover more quickly when employees leave. Losing employees is always difficult, but that loss shouldn’t be compounded by also losing the key knowledge needed to do the job.

Ten in Ten: Ten Things That Changed HR This Decade

Posted by Elaine Varelas February 1, 2010 05:21 PM

By Elaine Varelas

Is it just me, or did the decade whiz by? It can’t be ten years already since the Y2K scare, yet I can’t remember life before reality TV, crocs, and iPods. Over this last decade, there have been countless changes to the business world: advancements in technology and cultural shifts have transformed the way we work. Here are the top ten developments that changed how HR managers do their jobs:

Seat at the leadership table—In the year 2000, HR professionals were fighting for a spot at the leadership table, as they tried to prove that workforce issues are one of the most important components of any business’ success. The issue has finally been resolved, as research and financial evidence verified that the most competitive and innovative companies have an effective HR presence on the leadership team.

Google—Google and other search engines have made millions of gigabytes of information available to us with just the click of a mouse. HR managers can now gather information about a candidate, fact-check a resume, peruse the competition’s job listings, and keep informed about what is happening in any industry—all within minutes. This vast database of information also poses some challenges as people’s work and personal lives become increasingly digital—and accessible. HR managers may now be saddled with handling a damaging blog posted by a disgruntled former employee, an embarrassing lawsuit from years ago that surfaces in a Web search, or the fall-out from discovering compromising photos of that “star” candidate.

Multitasking—Multitasking seems to be dominating how we work, so much so that doing one thing at a time seems almost lazy! It isn’t uncommon for many of us to be emailing a client, speaking on the phone with our boss, reading a text message from our spouse, and eating lunch all at the same time. When we try to do so much at once, we have to be even more diligent about errors (Did I just send my grocery list to my client?)

Smart phones—Smart phones are one of the prime catalysts for our multitasking ways. We can now access email, texts, calendars, photos, video, and files all from our phones. This technology helps us stay connected 24/7, and allows immediate communication. Of course it is also starting to blur the line between work and private time—and creating some HR dilemmas: Are employees expected to be “on call” after business hours? How quickly do managers expect to get a response to a message? What are the policies about using company equipment for personal use, or conducting personal business on company time?

Social Networking Sites—Websites like LinkedIn and Facebook have made it more convenient to connect with friends and colleagues and build a network. These sites have created a new avenue for recruitment, and an additional way for teams and colleagues to stay connected. They have also led to the further mucking-up of the line between work and personal time, and can present some quandaries: Should employees “friend” their managers or clients on Facebook? Is creating a LinkedIn profile a personal or professional endeavor?

Security—It used to be that the word “security” only referred to job security. Since 9/11, that has changed. Organizations now need to ensure their employees’ safety; when they travel, in the office building, and by making sure their personal information is protected on the company’s servers.

Paperless recruitment—Green is no longer just a color, but a movement. As organizations look to reduce, reuse, and recycle, many offices are going paperless. Resumes are now emailed (no more paper cuts!) and interviews are set-up via email. The recruitment effort has also gone multimedia: want ads in newspapers and magazines are being replaced by online job boards, TV channels devoted to job seekers, and networking websites.

Meeting technology—Meeting software, such as GoToMeeting, and webinars allows for people in disparate locations to gather for meetings or seminars via computer. Companies can now have a global presence without constant travel.

Heath care benefits—As health insurance costs skyrocket, many organizations have cut back on what they can offer employees. In the past, most employees and their families received extensive health coverage at no cost or for a nominal fee. Today, many organizations offer fewer health benefits (and some offer none), don’t extend coverage to employees’ families, or have asked employees to kick in a larger portion of the cost.

Texting—Once the domain of teenagers, texting has become a viable way of communicating with candidates, especially those who are employed. HR managers can schedule interviews, request information, or confirm meetings during the workday by accessing a candidate’s personal phone.

Many of the developments of the last decade present enormous opportunity for pioneering new ways of doing business, staying connected to one another, and recruiting new employees. Some of the progress we’ve made also creates challenges, such as sticky situations that may arise as the line between work and private time blurs. It is more important than ever for HR professionals to work with company leaders and develop policies, set boundaries, educate managers, and communicate to employees. HR managers need to stay ahead of these developments. After all, who knows what exciting changes this new decade may bring?

Pay It Forward: Resolutions to Improve Your Organization

Posted by Elaine Varelas January 4, 2010 06:00 AM

By Elaine Varelas

Last month we talked about becoming a better and more effective HR manager: concrete steps you can take to enhance your skills, improve your career, and increase your value to your organization. This month, the focus is on the organization. What resolutions can you make to improve the HR function at your company? After all, isn’t the essence an HR manager’s role to create an office life that is more efficient, productive, cohesive, and enjoyable for everyone?

Here are some office resolutions HR managers may be able to address in their organizations:

Identify and diffuse the biggest aggravators—What is it at your organization that drives everyone crazy? Is the wireless server always down? Is the printer in a constant state of jam? Does the elevator have a chronic case of “Out of Order?” Oftentimes, the things at work that get us frustrated and snappy with others are relatively minor—and easy to remedy. In fact, learning that your bonus will only be 3% instead of 5% can actually be less irritating than knowing you need to fill out a form in triplicate each time you want to take a personal day. It is the breakdown in technology, processes, and systems that can get us steamed and cause a ripple-effect of anger or unease throughout the organization. Identify those aggravators within your organization and work to rectify them.

Solve problems through partnership—As Americans we have a long, proud history of conflict (the Revolution, Civil War, divorce court) and competition (sports, politics, preschools). We are so used to looking at the world in terms of right and wrong and winner and loser, that we sometimes lose sight of solving our problems. At the start of a new year, many of us are filled with hope in the promise of what’s to come. It’s an excellent time to harness that positive energy to resolve to address conflicts in a more effective and peaceful way. Before you whip out the incense and start piping New Age music through the corporate sound system, look at partnering to solve problems from a business perspective. What will take less time and fewer resources? What will leave employees, clients, and customers feeling like they were dealt with fairly? What is the end goal: to determine who is right or to resolve the issue? Every interaction should have a focus on partnership. Make sure managers have the training to follow through.

Encourage employees to strive for their “personal best”When runners cross the starting line at the Boston Marathon in a few months, most won’t be trying to win the race. Instead, they’ll be attempting to beat their own personal record. What is each person’s highest potential? Ask employees to think about what they want out of their jobs and the organization. You may have a few people who want to win the race (break into the C suite), finish strong (become a star manager) or walk a 5K (satisfied to keep producing in their current jobs). Push people to find their own personal best and work towards those goals.

Have managers define their style—Many managers are so busy doing their jobs, they don’t realize how they do their jobs—or they think they are a certain kind of manager, but their direct reports would disagree. Ask managers to define their management style. Are they collegial? Controlling? Delegating? Micromanaging? How do they want to manage, and what changes, if any, do they need to make to be the managers they want to be?

Instill curiosity—Just as “Question Authority” was a popular bumper sticker in the 1970s, adopt “Instill Curiosity” as your HR mantra for 2010. One way to get people excited about their jobs is by encouraging them to learn about how it all works, and how their role impacts the entire organization. Do people at your company see themselves as just another cog in the wheel or is their contribution to the whole apparent? What can you do as an HR manager to help employees see how they fit into the larger workings of the company? Are the systems and processes easy for everyone to understand? Is communication frequent and honest? How else can you instill curiosity?

Encourage transparent leadership—It is almost impossible for employees to follow their curiosity within an organization if the leadership team is inaccessible and taciturn. Meet with leadership to determine how they want to be known. They may express a desire for an open leadership style, but their actions must match up. Closed-door meetings and off-limits financial sheets may lead employees to believe their company leaders have something to hide. A leadership team striving for transparency must share information with employees and ask for feedback. Work with your leaders to help them reach their desired leadership style.

As 2010 begins, resolve to make work a better place for employees. With these changes, you can make a happy New Year for all employees.


New Year, New and Improved You: How to be a Better HR Manager

Posted by Elaine Varelas December 1, 2009 08:56 AM

By Elaine Varelas

December is here and 2009 is coming to a close (hold your applause, please!). While many of us are eagerly awaiting the end of this tumultuous year, there is no guarantee that a flip of the calendar will miraculously change the state of the economy. In fact, the New Year can stir up some additional anxieties. Many of us are asking, “What will next year hold? Will my company still be here in 2011? Will my job survive the year? While we don’t have influence over the global marketplace and can’t control all the issues that plague our organizations, there are some things we do have power over. We can control our professional development. We can become better at our jobs, stronger in our industries, and even more indispensible to our organizations. For the New Year, resolve to be a better HR manager. Here are six strategies for starting your New Year off right:


I’m Thankful (I Think): Promoting Positivity in the Workplace During Shaky Times

Posted by Elaine Varelas November 1, 2009 10:00 AM

By Elaine Varelas

Thanksgiving is only a few weeks away, yet many of us are struggling to find reasons to be thankful. The economy has us feeling stressed and worn out. Yes, we’re all thankful to have jobs, but the worries brought on by the economy can be overwhelming. With the holidays quickly approaching, many people are getting anxious about the expenses of the season (gifts, parties, travel, oh my!) And we haven’t even mentioned the looming flu season, which is predicted to be one of the most aggressive yet. It’s no wonder employees are feeling a little down at work.

While there isn’t a way to seal off the building to make sure negative thoughts or feelings don’t sneak in, HR managers can curb negativity so that it doesn’t take over the workplace and undermine productivity. It is possible to keep people positive without piping endorphins through the ventilation system


Trick or Treat? Discerning Fact from Fiction on Resumes

Posted by Elaine Varelas October 1, 2009 04:00 AM

By Elaine Varelas, October 1, 2009

We’ve all been there. We have that one last position to hire for, and despite sifting through what seems like a MILLION resumes, not one candidate’s qualifications seem to be a good fit. Then, all of a sudden, there it is among the papers destined for the recycle bin, almost as if it is being surrounded by a halo of light (cue the heavenly music here). There is that one perfect resume; the right match of education, skills, and experience, and YES, a salary requirement way below what you were expecting to pay. But before you rush through that phone interview and set up face-to-face meetings with the CEO and all five vice presidents, wait! Like our mothers always said, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

In a down economy HR managers may only be trying to fill a handful of positions, but they are still getting bombarded with resumes—as many as thousands for each position. With jobless rates approaching 10% nationwide, if people aren’t qualified for a post or don’t have suitable experience, they may send along a resume anyway. HR managers are left to weed through countless inappropriate resumes to get to the one or two that may be worth a second look. At the same time, HR managers are under increasing pressure to make every hire count.

Some candidates, in their desperation to land a job, may also be stretching the truth a bit on their resumes. HR managers must be able to peruse resumes and determine what’s fact and what’s fiction. Look out for these common exaggerations to avoid wasting time chasing after that “imaginary star employee.”

Time warp—This resume shows a candidate jumping from freshman year in college to CEO in a 6-year span. Watch out for unusual leaps in education or work experience. Also pay attention to a high number of jobs in a short period of time or big gaps in work history.

Show me the money—Be wary if the salary requirements don’t match up with the purported level of experience. Some people hope to get an HR manager’s attention by inflating their experience and keeping their salary request true to their current level, or giving themselves a significant cut in pay to get in the door.

Master of none—People who say they are experts in all areas of business (finance, management, marketing, IT) probably haven’t mastered any.

Do as you say, not as you do—If a resume boasts that a person is an expert in technology, the resume should include an email address and a LinkedIn profile, not just a landline and fax number. Resumes that state that people have led teams and projects, but the job titles don’t say “management” should also raise red flags.

Beware of resumes bearing gifts—If the resume is attached to an expensive gift basket, or tickets to a hot event, the giver may be trying to distract you from the resume’s content (and hope that you’ll feel indebted enough to at least call for a phone interview).

These are some of the more apparent examples, but how can you protect yourself against less obvious deceptions? The resume may look good, but before you invest your time and effort at the interview stage, do a little fact-checking of your own. It’s possible to get a better idea of people’s backgrounds, experience, and level of advancement without even talking to them. Here’s how:

Six degrees of separation—How did this person get to you? Was the resume forwarded by a colleague or employee, or is it in response to an ad? Resumes that landed on your desk through a reference should hold more weight than those that arrived “cold.”

Be a cybersleuth—Go online and do a search for the person’s name. You can use a search engine like Google or a web-based research site such as Zoominfo. You can also see if the candidate has a LinkedIn profile or a presence on another social networking site.

Missing Link?—If candidates do have LinkedIn profiles, examine them closely. Do you know any of their contacts? Do their connections have job titles similar to what they are seeking at your organization? For example, if the candidate is applying for a CFO post, their contacts should be other executive-level people, not just assistants and junior professionals.

Match game—Once you’ve completed your online research, compare that information to what was provided by the candidate. Does it match up? If there are several discrepancies, that person may be bluffing.

Just ask—If the candidate was referred by a colleague or employee, contact that person to get additional information. You can also utilize your LinkedIn connections to see if any of your contacts overlaps.

It’s a competitive market, so people are using attention-getting maneuvers to get noticed (yes, even stretching the truth). Be sure to do your due diligence so that you can be confident that the person who eats up your time (and your team’s time) is the person represented on paper, and that the resume is not a deceptive, albeit attractive mask.

Shoot for the Stars: Implement a “Star” Strategy to Ensure Organizational Success

Posted by Elaine Varelas September 7, 2009 06:00 AM

By Elaine Varelas, 09/07/09

Gazing up at the sky on a clear night can give you an appreciation for stars. It almost looks as if they were strategically placed, and they shine even brighter because they are offset against the dark nighttime sky.

As an HR manager, you can think about the “stars” in your organization in a similar fashion. If you are deliberate in choosing and placing your top talent within the organization, those people will also shine and create a more brilliant overall organization.

When you look at developing strategies for recruiting and retaining stars, you will of course be looking at people, not celestial bodies. And when you do, you shouldn’t begin by asking, “Who do we need?’” you should first ask, “Where do we need our stars?”.

It isn’t realistic or economical to have a goal of filling every post in a company with a star. It wouldn’t even be a sound strategy if money were no object: those with star-potential would easily become bored in some entry-level positions, and would leave the organization in search of a more challenging role. Managing the resulting turnover would be a nightmare! And just as stars would be unfulfilled in certain positions, there are many working people who just don’t want to be stars! They are looking for stability, security, or even good health insurance and two-weeks of paid vacation. What they don’t want from work, is a high-stress job.

Instead of looking to crowd an organization with stars in every post, HR managers should direct leadership teams to consider where top talent is most needed. If you can’t have superstars everywhere, where does it make sense to have them? In what posts will high-potential people have the most impact? Of course, organizations want to have the best talent, but it is more important to have the best talent in the best spot.

The identified positions will be different for every organization, even those in similar industries. For example, a high-end hotel chain may focus on hiring friendly and knowledgeable concierges, while budget hotels may need speedy, efficient housekeepers. The needs of a company will also evolve over time. A role that is vital in a troubled organization may not be as important during more stable times. The positions where stars are required are also not always C-suite jobs. An organization may have a need in a mid-level post. There are also, most likely, positions within the company where it just won’t matter if you replace an average performer with a star, so these key positions must be identified with care.

Once the leadership team identifies the most crucial positions, HR managers can help the team define the role. Why is this position important? How does it align with the company’s vision and long and short-termed business goals? What skills and experience are needed to properly fill this post? What will this person “look like” on paper and in person? Defining the position will help organization pinpoint the right people for the job—and can alter the recruitment and retention strategies. An organization that is poised for a turnaround might need a CFO who has helped pull other companies from the brink of bankruptcy, but that experience might not be necessary in a company that is steadily growing by 5% each year.

Once you start looking for the people to fill the roles, beware of the “shooting star.” This person might look glorious on paper (“I’ve never seen such an impressive resume!”), but if the experience and skills don’t match what is required for a top position, that “star” may just fizzle out at your organization. This is especially important during lean fiscal times when every hire counts.

Some of an organization’s needs may be filled by looking at the people already employed at the company. Make sure managers within the organization know which positions you want to fill and what type of people you want to fill them, and help them to determine who, if anyone, on their teams may be a good fit. Managers should also be schooled on how to identify potentials and high-potentials so HR managers can work to develop this next generation of superstars.

There is a well-known business mantra that states that an organization needs, “the right people in the right place at the right time.” But by focusing first on positions and finding those people who will best meet the needs of the organization and have the greatest impact, HR managers can ensure that they have “exceptional people in the right positions at the right time.”

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm headquartered in Boston, and has over 20 years of career development and HR experience. She also serves on the board of directors for Career Partners International, the world's largest career management partnership. E-mail her at

Performance Management During Hard Times

Posted by Elaine Varelas July 6, 2009 08:40 AM

The term performance management has developed a bad reputation. When people hear the phrase, they picture iron-fisted leadership teams squeezing all they can from employees without giving them the tools, time, or guidance to meet their deadlines and goals. Many employees also dread performance review time. The process can feel like a game of “Gotcha!” where managers breeze over what is accomplished and focus on the long list of “didn’t dos” (all with a satisfied, perverse smile on their faces). But many managers would also rather avoid those contentious meetings, especially at a time when the economy doesn’t allow for much wiggle room to reward outstanding work, or to provide the training or development employees need to do their jobs well.

Yet, managing to performance becomes an even more prominent issue during lean times. When companies are flush with capital and growing at a steady pace, they can afford to keep all of their employees—even those who aren’t top-performers. Healthy organizations, subsisting in a vibrant economic landscape, can support under-performers and absorbs their costs. When the economy tanks and cash flow gets tighter, however, organizations must depend on each of their employees to deliver 100%.

Of course, performance management doesn’t have to mean selectively letting go of those people or workgroups who consistently don’t measure up. Performance management strategies can be utilized to help transform under-performers into wholly productive employees.

Performance management can be likened to taking care of your car. Your vehicle will only keep running at its best with regular maintenance. You don’t punish a car when it starts to act sluggish; instead you give it the parts and service it needs to reach peak performance: an oil change, transmission fluid, a tire rotation, or new brake pads.

Similarly, performance management programs also require maintenance. Managers need to look at their teams. How are they successful? Where are there performance issues? What obstacles are in the way of reaching top performance? Managers must meet regularly with members of their teams to set expectations, outline goals, develop a timetable for review, and create an opportunity for feedback. Ideally, the goals and timelines will be so clear that employees will be able to write their own reviews—thus eliminating surprises—or the dreaded game of “Gotcha!”

Employee should be encouraged to be honest about what they need to reach their milestones, and what is standing in their way. In turn, managers must be willing and empowered to help remove those obstacles. They need to work with their teams to determine what is keeping employees from accomplishing their goals and finishing projects on time, and work to solve those issues. Some things may be easy to fix: a new sales person may be struggling because she is still waiting on business cards or another employee may need to trade in his desktop for a laptop so he can be more flexible about where and when he works. Other success-blockers may be more challenging, such as a mainframe that continually crashes during working hours, or a conflict between an employee and a superior. Regardless of the impediment to achieving their goals, employees need to feel that their managers are prepared to give them what they need to be successful.

By involving employees at the start of the performance review process and asking for their input, managers can ensure employee buy-in and accountability. This strategy can also take the stress and anxiety out of performance review meetings, since the outcomes are agreed upon ahead of time, and eliminate excuses (i.e. “I never got Excel installed on my laptop, so I couldn’t work on these spreadsheets at home!”). Employees can also feel confident that they have some control over the process. Instead of walking into a performance review meeting not knowing what to expect, employees can use the opportunity to garner constructive feedback, pinpoint development opportunities, and work on building their careers.

Performance management practices can also help identify those employees who continue to under-perform. If after meeting with their managers, discussing expectations, and being supported with the tools they need to do their jobs well, employees still come up short, the organization may need to act. Organizations can only invest so much in people who don’t return the investment, and it isn’t fair to the rest of the team to carry a person who isn’t a good fit.

Of course, a sound performance review strategy will assure that a majority of people will become top-performers. By taking a proactive approach to performance management, organizations can help employees feel more invested in their work and excited about their jobs so they will want to be more productive for themselves and their organizations.

Innovation or Repetition: The Cyclicality of HR Practices

Posted by Elaine Varelas June 1, 2009 08:24 AM

Innovation or Repetition: The Cyclicality of HR Practices
By Elaine Varelas, June 1, 2009

If you’ve found yourself avoiding the nightly news and averting your eyes from the daily headlines, you are not alone. Yes, the economic forecast is dire, and we are being bombarded with messages of doom and gloom. Unfortunately, we can’t beam ourselves into the future, post-recession, where everyone is happily employed and making money again. We have to live through the downturn until the economy picks up.

If you can’t take one more ounce of bad news about the economy, here is a glimmer of hope: desperation can breed ingenuity. Some of the best ideas have come at the most hopeless times. In fact, many of America’s most famous products were invented during the Great Depression. Scotch tape, baby food, Polaroid pictures, and chocolate chip cookies were all conceived during an era when there wasn’t money to pour into R&D, focus groups, or pilot programs. The good news is that despite the ominous economic predictions—or maybe because of them—we get creative.

What innovations will come out of this recession? What advances will happen at your company? Take a look at your organization’s HR strategies and practices. How are they determined? At many organizations, programs and services are cut or added depending on availability of funds. While this is sometimes unavoidable, basing business decisions solely on cash flow creates a more reactionary approach to planning. It doesn’t allow for vision, inspiration, or a long-term view. The uncertain economy may be forcing companies to make some tough decisions, but it is important that organizations not just have a knee-jerk reaction to economic forces. This is not the first time we’ve weathered a recession and it won’t be the last. The ebb and flow of the economic cycle is a natural part of business.

When it comes to planning and strategy, many of us get stuck in a rut. We do something one way because we’ve always done it that way. Or we flip back and forth between what we’re doing now, and what we did in the past (centralize then decentralize; outsource and then back in-house; report to HR, then report to the business unit). While there are important lessons to be learned from the past, recycling an old method to address a new challenge may not always be the best option.

If the current way isn’t working and the old way isn’t much better, there must be room for fresh ideas. How can organizations discover what that new way will be? If necessity is the mother of invention, we should be seeing some whoppers of inventions these days! Never before have we needed to be more efficient by finding ways to cut costs while providing exceptional service, and doing more with fewer resources. What widget will help us do what we do better?

If ingenuity and creative thinking are the ways to gain a competitive edge in a stilted economy, how does your organization fare? Is there room in the organization for innovation? Are ideas (even seemingly outlandish or impossible ones) rewarded or squashed? Are people encouraged to think differently? Or do people get stones thrown at them for suggesting a new way? It may be the unconventional or counterintuitive idea that will be the breakthrough strategy for an organization to get ahead. HR managers should look at their teams and systems for evidence of this kind of creativity, and continuous improvement. They also need to look to the leadership team. Does leadership foster an environment where new ideas are welcomed and rewarded?

Sometimes innovation happens by trial and error. Ruth Wakefield, the inventor of the chocolate chip cookie, ran out of bakers chocolate for her recipe and substituted a chopped-up semi sweet chocolate bar. It didn’t melt like it’s chocolate cousin, and one of America’s favorite sweet treats was born. Are your employees encouraged to take chances and try new ways of doing things?

It can be risky to encourage innovation, especially when resources are tight. It is important to step out of the current crisis and look ahead. What may be a short-term loss could prove profitable over time. By fostering an environment where innovation is encouraged, you organization’s HR function can help promote success today and in the future.

Most of us can’t imagine wrapping a gift without scotch tape or feeding an infant without jarred baby food. We take these inventions for granted. The advances of today will also become ingrained in our everyday lives. What will that invention be at your company? Is your organization ready for the next new big idea? When we make room for and encourage creative thinking, innovation happens.

What’s in a Name? Strategies for Reviving a Culture During Turbulent Times

Posted by Elaine Varelas May 4, 2009 10:06 AM

By Elaine Varelas

Manager of Customer Delight.
Chief People Officer.
Director of First Impressions.

These titles may seem like names for silly jobs you would only find in an offbeat company like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In fact, these jobs do exist in the real world. You just may recognize them by their more staid monikers—Customer Service Representative, SVP Human Resources, and Receptionist.

But these job titles are anything but silly. In fact, they reflect a sound strategy for inspiring employees and reinvigorating a tired corporate culture. For resource-strapped HR managers (or Chief People Officers) looking to build enthusiasm and cohesiveness among recession-stricken troops, redefining roles and titles can give organizations a much-needed shot of adrenaline to motivate employees in a stilted economy.

Could these unconventional titles work in your organization? Do job titles really matter? Do employees care what their job is called, as long as they know what they’re supposed to do? In fact, titles do matter. While there’s nothing wrong with light-hearted or whimsical titles, company leaders should not just make up outrageous or extraordinary titles just to placate anxious workers. This isn’t just a distraction technique—producing rainbows, teddy bears, and balloons in place of bonuses and promotions—to while away the time until the economy rebounds. This is a legitimate strategy to better define people’s roles and responsibilities in the organization and get them excited about the work they do.

As we all learned in grade school, language is powerful. It can frame the way people look at themselves their careers and the organization. It also sends a message to clients, customers, and leaders. This is who we are, what we stand for, and what we want to be. This is a way to help people take pride in their jobs and their organizations.

If titles are assigned creatively and purposely, people may have an even better understanding of their role in the company. By giving people impressive and directive job titles and descriptions, organizational leaders and HR managers can help improve the company’s culture in an economical way. It can also help boost productivity and morale at a time when the economy has placed many employees on edge.

Redefining people’s titles can also help them hone in on their job responsibilities, especially if the new titles are framed in terms of expectations and results. The titles should explain the roles’ main focus. For example, the title of Corporate Trainer could be changed to Director of Managerial Expertise. Instead of the title describing what the person does (I train people), it can mirror what the person is responsible for accomplishing (I help managers refine their skills). Creating this results-driven type of title can help give employees a renewed sense of purpose in their workdays.


Culture Club - Redefining and Communicating an Organization’s Culture After a Major Change

Posted by Jesse Nunes April 6, 2009 08:41 AM

By Elaine Varelas

These tumultuous economic times have caused severe upheaval in many organizations. Some companies are closing their doors, others are laying off huge numbers of people, and many are merging with others just to survive. This type of disruption can stun a company and its employees. An organization is forever altered after a major change, and employees may be left wondering: What happened? Who are we now? Is my job safe? Do I even want to work for this “new” organization?

It can be torturous to be one of the “walking wounded,” those who survived the firing squad—at least this time around. Yes, they are the lucky ones who still receive a paycheck, but their workload may be doubled (or tripled), many of their friends and colleagues are gone, and they could even have a new boss or department. Adding to their anxiety is that they may be working for a different leadership team and may no longer have a clear understanding of what the company does, stands for, or is trying to accomplish.

One way HR managers can help an organization and its employees to recover more quickly from a recession-induced set-back is to focus on the organization’s culture. Oftentimes, company leaders are swift to re-set the direction of the organization. This can even happen as a result of the major change, if a company sheds a department or tightens its service offerings. As the business focus shifts, however, it is imperative that these changes be communicated to employees, and that the culture of the organization also be re-set to reflect the new workplace reality.


Leadership Competencies That Will Ensure Organizational Resilience

Posted by Jesse Nunes March 2, 2009 12:57 PM

By Elaine Varelas

Sometimes it seems as if the economic forecast is so dire that we are willing to try anything-even calling upon our favorite childhood superheroes-to free us from this financial crisis. (Wonder twin powers activate: form of job creation and a surging stock market!) But, sadly, even superhero strength may not be able to pull us out of the current recession. The ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or fly faster than a speeding bullet aren't exactly the qualities we need to help us endure the challenges ahead. But what are the qualities? What skills and characteristics should today's leaders possess to help ensure organizational resiliency?

The current economic climate is unprecedented for this generation of leaders. Some are even likening this recession to the Great Depression. It is yet to be determined if this downturn will rival the economic disaster that began in 1929 and gripped our nation for close to a decade, but what if it does? How can this generation of executives lead us through this economic upheaval when most of us have only read about the depression in history books?

One thing we have learned from history is that challenging times require a different type of leadership. There are specific core competencies that are required to ensure organizational resiliency through any kind of major change. And this economy is forcing change upon many organizations as cuts backs, layoffs, and restructuring are monopolizing the "to do" lists of CEOs everywhere. HR managers must understand what leadership skills are needed during turbulent times and make sure their company's leaders have what it takes to navigate through these changes. Here are the five core competencies HR managers should look for and help develop in their company's leaders:


Making small-scale layoffs effective

Posted by Jesse Nunes February 2, 2009 10:23 AM

By Elaine Varelas

It seems that each day our steadfast network television anchors put on their somber faces to relay the news of yet another massive layoff. Some of the best-known companies in a variety of industries - manufacturing, finance, technology, and retail - are having to make substantial cuts to their workforces. What isn't reported is the small businesses that are also having to let people go, or the large companies that are hoping a smaller reduction in force (RIF) will be enough to help keep the organization in business. But just because these scaled-down layoffs don't make the nightly news, that doesn't mean that don't have an impact. If a "minor" layoff is in your organization's future, here are some things HR managers should consider to ensure it doesn't cause major problems at the company:

Don't underestimate the impact of a small-scale layoff - Many HR managers and company leaders assume (or at least hope) that, because a layoff is small, it will go unnoticed. They believe that by not making a big fuss about having to let "just a few people go" they can minimize the fall-out with those employees who remain. But don't be fooled, people are watching, even when leadership thinks the reduction is tiny. Not publically acknowledging the RIF can cause distrust and a loss of morale.


The motivating factor: Keeping employees engaged during an uncertain economy

Posted by Bianca Strzelczyk January 5, 2009 09:15 AM

By Elaine Varelas

We are at the cusp of a new year — a time typically filled with hope, promise, and renewal. But many of us are facing this year with trepidation and some anxiety. Will the economic woes that dogged us in 2008 — the plummeting financial markets, and the threat of home foreclosures and job loss — follow us into the new year?


When you wish upon a manager: Employees' holiday wish list

Posted by Bianca Strzelczyk December 1, 2008 09:10 AM

By Elaine Varelas

‘Tis the season of snowmen, sleigh rides, shopping, and of course, holiday wishes. Despite the wobbly economy, children everywhere are snuggled up in their beds with visions of iPods, cell phones, Hannah Montana gear, and Nintendo Wii gaming systems dancing in their heads.

This time of year, adults have wishes too (and it isn’t just to win the lottery so they have enough cash to pay for their kids’ desires). They also have wishes about their jobs. While children draft a wish list and send it off to a jolly elf in the North Pole, working folk can send their wishes to The Hire Authority right here in Boston.


Avoiding bench brawls at work

Posted by Bianca Strzelczyk November 3, 2008 09:24 AM

By Elaine Varelas

The sports world is teeming with famous rivalries: Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazer, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, Venus and Serena, and of course the Red Sox and the Yankees. In most cases, these opponents help bring out the best in each another. They train harder, play smarter, and excel whenever they face their rivals. There is a mutual respect for the others’ craft, and it is apparent to spectators. The competition gives athletes a renewed sense of motivation and a concrete goal to work towards.


The 'it' factor: Differentiating your organization

Posted by Bianca Strzelczyk October 6, 2008 10:07 AM

By Elaine Varelas

As the school year gets underway, I am reminded of the perpetual quest of eighth-graders everywhere: to just fit in. While the trends have changed, and today’s teens are sporting earbuds instead of legwarmers (or hip-huggers), the need to fit in is just as strong. While conformity may get you through middle school unscathed by ridicule, it can be a little boring. One thing we learn as we bump along the path to adulthood is that fitting in and following trends doesn’t allow you to make much of an impact — especially in the business world.

The same is true for organizations — the non-conformists often catapult to success while followers can fall flat. In fact, the most successful companies are often unconventional — those businesses that pioneer a new way of doing things or are the first to produce a must-have product. They have a competitive edge because they do something completely different than the rest. They strive to stick out from the crowd and reap the rewards because of it.


Building your legacy at work

Posted by Jesse Nunes September 2, 2008 09:59 AM

By Elaine Varelas

When we think about people leaving a legacy, we often conjure up images of the rich, famous, and powerful: presidents, popes, royalty, and celebrities. And we usually only start talking about a legacy after that person has died. In fact, we all leave a legacy, in life and at work — and we can influence that legacy especially if we have many years still ahead of us.

If you gave your notice today, how would you be remembered by your colleagues and company leadership? Would they still be talking about you next week, next year, in five years? Were you the deal-closer, the hot head, the star manager, or the person who instituted a major policy initiative?


About HR Columns

Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.