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Putting the Human Into Human Resources

A ladder. A chain. A puzzle. A clock. There are many metaphorical images used to describe how businesses run. While these images conjure up ideas of upward mobility, structure a…

A ladder. A chain. A puzzle. A clock. There are many metaphorical images used to describe how businesses run. While these images conjure up ideas of upward mobility, structure and teamwork, what they lack are the passions, skills and beating hearts of the people who serve those businesses.

Instead of viewing employees as cogs in the machine, companies have been shifting toward hiring people not just for their skills, but how well their personalities and values mesh with their own. Hiring is all about the “right fit” and – once they’re hired – how employees thrive personally and professionally.

The focus on work-life balance and creating safe, rewarding work environments has sharpened in recent years, with much of the responsibility for implementing these key objectives falling on human resources departments. From hiring and onboarding to providing support throughout an employee’s tenure, HR is at the epicenter. With studies showing that happy employees are more productive, the philosophy of putting people first makes good business sense.

One Lansing-area organization that prides itself on its focus on people is Peckham. Founded in 1976, the nonprofit organization’s mission was to provide job training and employment opportunities to persons with disabilities. Today, Peckham has grown to be one of the largest vocational community rehabilitation programs in the state.

“One of our things is that it’s not about a policy, it’s about a culture,” said Justin Walworth, director of human resources. “We try to use that to frame the way that we interact with our workforce, whether that’s the people we serve or the staff serving them. How are the decisions we’re making impacting the culture?”

For Walworth, looking at things from a flexible perspective is more than just when employees come into work and when they leave; it’s more about flexible thinking. As director of HR, he and Scott Derthick, chief people and culture officer, address the needs of Peckham’s different employee populations.

“Staff are the people who are employed to provide the service. Team members are the folks in the community who we serve who would have barriers to employment, or disabilities,” Walworth explained.

Team members hired to work at Peckham have opportunities to work within several enterprises, from apparel manufacturing to supply chain solutions. The HR department at Peckham spends a considerable amount of time on the front end to ensure they hire staff members who share their core values
and mission.

“When we’re doing the interview process, we’re trying to make sure we’re hiring somebody who is in alignment with those values,” Walworth said. “We can teach the technical skills, but if you don’t get someone who likes people or doesn’t have an appreciation for diversity, then it’s really hard to train those softer skills. If we find that on the front end, we’re much better in the long term.”

Training for new staff members includes spending time to understand the history of Peckham, its culture and mission, as well as getting staff acclimated with disability etiquette and the respectful, person-first language used with the people they serve. Derthick said that along with the focus on Peckham’s core values, the HR department also embraces the concept of “intentional transparency.”

“The intentional transparency concept is more of a hope than a reality, currently,” Derthick said. “It’s that idea where if I know my people well enough, I can tell if someone is doing OK or if something is going on. And then having that curiosity of figuring that out, whether there is something I can do to help.”

As Walworth said, most HR departments work hard to retain employees. While that is also true for Peckham, there is an aspect to their work that sets them apart.

“There are upward mobility options depending on their goals,” he said. “For many, it’s to work out in the community, so our goal is to get them prepared to leave Peckham.”

Derthick said that can be a bittersweet part of the job for staff members.

“For people who are hired to be supervisors of team members, they realize that they’re getting somebody who needs their help to become a better worker,” Derthick said “The reward for putting all of that time and labor and passion into helping this person can lead to them getting another job. Then they have to start over with someone new. It takes a while for people to realize that’s a really cool thing.”

Another local leader in the area of work-life balance is Michigan State University. Along with its own human resources department, the MSU WorkLife office was founded in 2016 to address the needs of MSU employees on matters of workplace assistance, family care and career transitions.

“We’re proud to have been one of the founding organizations of the College and University Work-Life-Family Association,” said Dr. Barbara Roberts, director of the MSU WorkLife office. “MSU is participating on a national and international level for conferences related to this field.”

The university’s breastfeeding guidelines, which earned MSU a Breastfeeding-Friendly Workplace Award in 2017, are among the WorkLife office’s initiatives.

Similarly to Peckham, Roberts said that MSU and its WorkLife office value the focus on hiring the right people, providing them with extensive onboarding and assisting them throughout their careers.

“Onboarding is absolutely critical in a place as big as MSU,” she said. “In any large organization, there’s a lot to learn logistically and interpersonally, and culturally as well.”

Whether it is a professor coming to MSU from another country or a current employee moving to another unit within the university, the WorkLife office aims to make the adjustments as seamless and welcoming as possible. Resources also include assistance with flex-time proposals and career path planning.

“We’re a people business at the end of the day,” said Jaimie Hutchison, lifespan and family services coordinator in the WorkLife office. “We assist faculty and staff with outlining how their proposed schedule would make strong proposals to their supervisors. And as they consider retirement, we are helping them make plans instead of only addressing it at the end.”

The elusive work-life balance is a moving target. As the world of work continues to change, local entities like Peckham and MSU each embrace a vision that continues to evolve with the needs of their employees.

“The organization we have today is different from 10 years ago,” said Walworth, “and will be different in 10 years. We want to have a work experience that captures everyone in their work journey. We try to be proactive and engage with the employees and see the human element. At the end of the day, these are people. How do we make sure they are getting the best experience and feel valued when they’re here?”

Helping the HR professionals of Michigan

In businesses large and small, the human resources department is responsible for a variety of functions, from the collection and maintenance of personal data to educating employees about their responsibilities, opportunities and legal rights. This is both for the protection and well-being of staff and the companies themselves. But who provides the resources for HR departments to help their companies continue their improvement and compliance?

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce offers training to businesses across the state, from full-day seminars to webinars and online courses. For Tammy Smith, director of training and education solutions, the focus of HR trainings has moved beyond helping businesses keep complaint with the laws; they also focus on the “softer skills.”

“By softer skills, we mean how to build a good culture, having proper supervisor training, keeping employees and customers safe. We’re trying to keep the HR departments prepared for different situations,” Smith said.

Smith added HR has become a trendy topic.

“At the beginning of the year, everything was about sexual harassment because of the #MeToo movement,” said Smith. “Everyone started to look at their own programs and asked, ‘What are we doing?’ ”

Similarly, Smith said that whenever a workplace shooting happens around the country, she receives several requests for training on workplace safety.

Staying on top of what’s happening in our culture still means staying on top of current laws as well — even ones that could be on the horizon. The Marijuana Legalization Initiative is on the November ballot, but Smith said the Michigan Chamber of Commerce is already working to be prepared to help businesses if it passes.

“By being the lobbying organization that we are, we have so many great partners in the Legislature and outside to know what’s going on in terms of law. We’re right there on the front line developing and fighting for the laws,” Smith said.

Smith said companies are now understanding the legalities of how their HR department runs, from documentation to investigations. The resources provided by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce are in place to help those
companies succeed.

“We want to be there with solutions,” she said. “Do you need an audit? Are you documenting and handling those situations properly? We’d be happy to help.”


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