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Every business owner can sympathize with the legendary adman Leo Burnett, who often lamented that "my assets go down the elevator every night." Fact is, no matter how nifty your products, how ingenious your business model or how solid your financial plan, you dare not forget one fundamental truth: Without employees, your doors won't open tomorrow morning.

So how do you take care of these valuable resources? How do you recruit them, pay them, nurture them, incent them, and keep them on your team? Large corporations marshal armies of human resources professionals to this task. Few small-to-midsize growing companies have that luxury. But they can use the next best thing: technology.

The right HR software can enable even a one-person personnel department to act more or less like a big-time operation. It can screen and sort resumes, keep track of work hours, schedule training, manage benefit plans, keep tabs on job skills, catalog workplace injuries, orchestrate salary reviews, and answer employee inquiries with aplomb. The unemployment rate may be up, but companies of all sizes still battle it out for the top-notch employees. Computers can help level the playing field.

Unfortunately, choosing HR software is a lot harder than shopping for word-processing or spreadsheet programs. Even a cursory Internet search turns up so many options that even a tech-savvy business owner can be a bit overwhelmed. That owes to the fact that the term "human resources" encompasses numerous specialized functions, from hiring to retirement plan management. Most software vendors focus on a few of these activities. The result is that many companies that set out in search of a single comprehensive HR solution end up with a smorgasbord of products and Web services that may or may not be on speaking terms with each other.

Take recruiting. Internet job-match services like Monster (www.monster.com) and CareerBuilder (www.careerbuilder.com) enable the smallest start-up to fill a hard drive with resumes. But once you've narrowed your search down to a few dozen applicants, how do you keep track of them? Hiring Software (www.hr-soft.com) makes a PC application called Recruiter (and a Web-based version called HireSpider) that helps you manage the screening and interviewing process by keeping track of interview schedules and putting each candidate's paperwork at your fingertips. But be prepared to key all that data in the beginning.

Once a new employee is board, you can create a digital personnel file using a called Staff Files from Atlas Business Solutions (www.abs-usa.com). It lets you store and instantly access original applications, photos, employment contract, benefits enrollment forms -- you name it -- for everyone in your company. You can also give other managers restricted password access to personnel files. For instance, you may let a manager see certain types information, say, past reviews and attendance records, while blocking access to more sensitive data.

As more software developers set their sights on the small-to-midsize company market, comprehensive employee-information management solutions are emerging. In many cases, these are outgrowths of existing business accounting programs. The QuickBooks Employee Organizer (www.quickbooks.com), an optional module for Intuit's QuickBooks accounting software, links payroll data with each employee's personal and employment data, emergency contacts, and lots of other information. Best Software (www.best-software.com), a unit of Peachtree Software, sells a combination payroll-human resources program called Abra Suite that does all that and automates employee benefits management chores, such as medical and retirement plan enrollment.

Microsoft has added a powerful Human Resource Management module in its versatile Microsoft Business Solutions-Great Plains suite of financial management tools, targeted to companies with up to 500 employees. (www.microsoft.com/BusinessSolutions). The HR component, which can integrate with the Great Plains Payroll module or third party payroll-processing services like ADP, handles a variety of tasks. Among them, it can track job candidates, manage employee performance reviews, administer employee benefits programs, and churn out a variety of government-mandated reports. An option, eEmployee, lets employees use the Web to update their own records, get answers to common questions, and resolve certain issues on their own. HROffice from Ascentis Software (www.ascentis.com) offers many of these functions in a stand-alone program.

The above solutions assume that your company has a human resources department, or at least a personnel specialist to run the software and navigate labor laws, COBRA rules, and the myriad landmines that litter the employment landscape. Many businesses either don't have such a department or would be only too happy to outsource these thankless tasks to outside vendors -- if they could afford the steep fees.

Advantius (www.advantius.com) a two-year-old Salt Lake City company, thinks it has the perfect answer. It partners with accountants, benefits administrators, and other small firms around the country to provide turnkey HR management utilizing industrial-strength software designed for large corporations. The local affiliates become their clients' HR departments, then offload record keeping, forms processing, and other labor-intensive functions to Advantius. Client companies and individual employees get 24-hour-a-day access to Advantius' computers, using standard Web browsers to input and access information. The local partners provide hands-on help with issues that require professional expertise. More than 100 clients have signed up so far.

No single approach will meet the HR needs of every small-to-midsize growing company. But when it comes to the critical task of attracting employees and keeping them happy, the right technology can keep them in the game.

Last updated: May 12, 2003




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