Sure, sometimes you ask your employees for input on issues related to human resources. But would you turn your HR department over to them? Believe it or not, some companies do, and employee teams manage all or part of human resources functions. Some companies merely supplement a traditional HR department with representative committees. And some have gone all the way, eliminating the HR department entirely.

Bill Palmer, president and CEO of Commercial Casework, a Fremont, Calif., woodworking and cabinetry shop that had 1998 revenues of $10 million, practices the partial approach. He put together a group of seven volunteers and himself to research and design the company's bonus plan. Palmer says not only did he get good information about how to motivate his employees, but his employees gained an understanding of the bonus process. "They learned a whole lot more about what it means to give and get a bonus," says Palmer. "They saw how difficult 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.

Similarly, at Com-Corp Industries, a 125-employee metal stamping shop in Cleveland, 10 to 15 employees volunteer to serve for two years on the Wage and Salary Committee. The committee uses industry surveys to help determine the market rate for the types of jobs the company offers, according to Com-Corp president Tom Stanciu. And if an employee disagrees with a performance review, he or she can take the grievance to the Human Resources Assistance Committee, which, like the Wage and Salary Committee, is employee-run.

While Palmer and Stanciu have employee committees taking on some traditional HR functions, Martin McConnell went all the way. McConnell is vice president of finance for Spectrum Signal Processing, a hardware and software designer based in Burnaby, British Columbia, with 180 employees and 1998 revenues of US$26 million. 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 very happy with the way human resource issues were dealt with in the company. So, Spectrum created a cross-functional employee team to focus on those issues. McConnell initially thought the committee would be only short-term, that it would deal with the immediate problems and then disband. "But, it gained so much interest and momentum, it became part of our culture," he says.

The committee regularly addresses most typical human resources functions in the company: performance appraisals, the employee handbook, training, recognition, mentoring, and orientation programs. (Payroll and benefits administration are handled by the accounting department.)

The committee consists of 12 elected members from various job functions. Terms are staggered, so the committee is constantly getting new members and fresh perspectives.

McConnell and CEO Barry Jinks also serve on the committee in an advisory role. According to committee chairperson Carol Schulz, the bosses' presence is not a hindrance. "They have no more say than anybody else," says Schulz. And their presence "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 for the environment. Or, maybe we'd implement it in stages."

Palmer of Commercial Casework has had a similar experience. He stresses that at his company, the employee group has limited power. "It's called an advisory committee," he says. "We made it clear that when they make decisions, they need to get buy-in from all the employees, that it has to be beneficial to the company, and mostly, that I have to buy it, too."

McConnell says one big problem is enlisting committee members without distracting them from their regular jobs. So, in 1997 McConnell and his group took on a co-op student from a local university to do the committee's legwork. That has worked so well that the group is currently assessing the appropriate timing for bringing on a full-time human resources specialist.

"We'd definitely like to have somebody eventually," says chairperson Schulz. "But whoever we get will work side by side with the committee. The pro will bring strategic expertise committee members don't have."