Worker, Rule Thyself
Sure, you sometimes ask your employees for input on human-resources-related issues. But would you turnthe entire department over to them? Believe it or not, some companies do, managing all or part of theirhuman-resources functions with employee teams. Some merely supplement a traditional HR departmentwith representative committees. But there are some companies that go all the way, eliminating thehuman-resources department entirely.
Bill Palmer of Commercial Casework, a $10-million woodworking and cabinetry shop in Fremont, Calif.,practices the partial approach. He put together an employee group to research and design the company'sbonus plan. The group comprised Palmer and a crew of seven volunteers. Palmer says that he not only gotgood information about how to motivate his employees, but he also got more informed employees. "Theylearned a whole lot more about what it means to give and get a bonus," says Palmer. "They saw howdifficult it was and wound up really taking ownership of the process."
Each year Palmer asks for a new group of volunteers. As he refines its membership and dynamics, the group"becomes another training tool," he says.
Martin McConnell, on the other hand, went all the way. McConnell is vice-president of finance for SpectrumSignal Processing Inc., a hardware and software designer with 180 employees in Burnaby, British Columbia.He says his company has no HR department at all. Instead, it uses rotating HR committees.
In a 1996 employee-satisfaction survey, Spectrum's managers discovered that its employees were not allthat satisfied with the way human-resource issues were dealt with in the company. So Spectrum created across-functional employee team to focus on those issues. McConnell initially thought the committee wouldbe only short-term; it would deal with the immediate problems and then disband. "But it gained so muchinterest and momentum, it became part of our culture," he says.
Now the committee regularly discusses and addresses most of the company's typical human-resourcesfunctions: performance appraisals and the employee handbook, as well as company training, recognition,mentoring, and orientation programs. (Payroll and benefits administration are handled by the accountingdepartment.)
The committee consists of 12 elected members from various job functions. Member-involvement dates arestaggered, so the committee is constantly getting new members and perspectives.
McConnell and CEO Barry Jinks also serve on the team, albeit in an advisory role. According to group chairCarol Schulz, the bosses' presence doesn't present a hindrance. "They have the same say as anybody else,"says Schulz. "Plus it gives employees the feeling that they really do care."
McConnell admits that at first he worried the committee might establish some overly expensive policies."But it's not us versus them," he says. "Whatever decision they made would be modified for what works forthe environment. Or maybe we'd implement it in stages."
Palmer has had a similar experience. He stresses that at his company, the employee group has limitedpower. "It's called an advisory committee," he says. "We made it clear that when they make decisions, theyneed to get buy-in from all the employees, that it has to be beneficial to the company, and mostly, that Ihave to buy it, too."
McConnell says one big problem is enlisting committee members without distracting them from their regularjobs. So in 1997, McConnell and his group took on a co-op student from a local university to do the legwork.That's worked so well that the group is currently assessing the appropriate timing of bringing on a full-timehuman-resources specialist.
"We'd definitely like to have somebody eventually," says group chair Schulz. "But whoever we get will workside by side with the committee. They'll bring strategic expertise committee members don't have."