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HR Magazine: Showing the Way

By Bill Leonard  12/4/2007
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HR Magazine, July 2001Vol. 46, No. 7

Two municipalities and a defense contractor receive this year's HR Magazine Innovative Practice Awards.

Municipal governments and defense contractors aren't the first places human resource managers might think to look for state-of-the-art HR techniques.

But this year's winners of the HR Magazine Innovative Practice Awards include HR departments for two city governments and a shipbuilder for the U.S. Navy. The three winning departments received their awards last month at the Society for Human Resource Management 53rd Annual Conference and Exposition in San Francisco.

"There were many excellent entries, and selecting three winners was a tough job," says James W. Gray, SPHR, one of three judges for the awards and vice president of human resources for Astenjohnson Inc. of Charleston, S.C. "The other two judges and I did find it a bit surprising that we selected two winners from the public sector and that the third was a government contractor, but we agreed that these three programs truly deserved special recognition."

The other two judges agree that this year's award winners show that creative thinking and innovative management are not limited to big corporations or organizations with a wealth of resources. "I think the winners of this year's awards say quite a bit about how far we've come in HR management practices and that the HR profession has a very bright future," says Donald M. Herrmann Jr., SPHR, director of human resource services for Lexis-Nexis in Dayton, Ohio.

Automatic Data Processing Inc. and the SHRM Foundation cosponsor the Innovative Practice Awards, which recognize creative and successful projects, activities, practices or programs of HR departments or related staff functions. This year's contest drew more than 30 entries, which are judged according to the primary criteria of creativity, effectiveness, applicability and ease of replication. Awards are made in three size categories based on the number of employees.

An HR Tool for the 21st Century

The Human Resources Department for the Village of Downers Grove, Ill., won in the category for organizations with fewer than 500 employees?

For years, Gregory Zimmerman, human resource director for the Village of Downers Grove, was disappointed with the limited data in the annual salary survey published by the municipal government association for the Chicago area. Zimmerman thought that there had to be a better and more up-to-date way to get the salary and human resource data he needed.

In 1993, just as the Internet was beginning to catch on, Zimmerman attended a conference for HR directors who worked for local governments in suburban Chicago. Someone suggested that the Internet might provide an excellent way for smaller communities to share information on salary data and HR practices.

Zimmerman was intrigued with the idea and asked for help from the Downer's Grove information technology director, who quickly got a World Wide Web page up and running. But Zimmerman knew that some seed money was needed to get the project off the ground, so he sent a letter to the 16 local governments in DuPage County proposing that each community contribute $1,000 to fund the web site and begin sharing data. Seven communities responded and MetroNet was born.

MetroNet is a subscription service in which communities place salary data on 71 benchmarked jobs as well as information on benefits plans, collective bargaining agreements and HR policies. Sixty communities throughout the Chicago area now subscribe to the service, which Zimmerman has dubbed "The HR Tool for the 21st Century." It "provides me with the best HR tool that I have ever had at my disposal. I probably use it every day in some fashion to do my job."

MetroNet has worked so well that "the Northwestern Illinois Municipal Association has stopped publishing its annual salary survey and now works with us to ensure the data is correct and up to date," Zimmerman says. And the annual subscription fee of less than $300 beats the old printed survey's $800 to $900 cost.

MetroNet also saves time and effort to fill out pencil-and-paper surveys. "That was the major complaint that I heard from other HR directors. Everyone that I talked to was very tired of filling out those survey forms every year," he adds.

After its success at the local and regional level, Zimmerman believes the concept has much broader potential. "I believe it could easily go national. We have made presentations to other municipal groups, such as those in the Denver metropolitan area, and they were very interested in the program."

"All it would really take is for several community clusters, like the one we built in Chicago, to link up nationwide. I know that once other HR practitioners see how easy it is to use and the amount of information available, then they will wonder how they ever lived without it."

A GOAL to Succeed

The Human Resources Department for the City of Concord, Calif., won in the category for organizations with 501-2,500 employees.

Most organizations have a mission statement, but very few can honestly say their employees actively strive to make their mission statement become a reality. But you can count the City of Concord, Calif., as one employer that has instilled a real sense of purpose among its employees by focusing on fulfilling the promises of its mission statement.

Concord's city government began a complete transformation in 1994, when Edward James was hired as city manager. James developed the city's first mission statement and pledged that the city's workforce would do everything in its power to apply it.

One of James' goals for the HR department was to develop a new training program that made sure every city employee had the skills and knowledge to make the city's mission statement come alive. The city's HR group came up with the Gateway to Organizational Achievement and Learning (GOAL) program, which launched in July 1997. The GOAL program specifically links employee training to the city's mission, vision and values statement.

"The program has exceeded our original expectations and has proved a tremendous tool for cross-functional training throughout the entire organization," says Elia Bamberger, PHR, senior human resource analyst for the City of Concord and one of the architects of the GOAL program.

During the four years since GOAL was launched, there have been 72 training workshops and 1,224 training slots, providing ample educational opportunities for the city's 550 employees. Employees have accepted the training programs eagerly, and Bamberger receives many suggestions for training topics. "Most have been excellent ideas, and we have developed some training workshops that originally came from employee suggestions."

The training has covered a wide range of topics such as process improvement, which largely focused on how the city develops its budget.

"It sounds pretty basic, but we focused on the process of how and why budgets are created," Bamberger says. "It really helped a lot of our employees learn how to use and contribute to the process, which has been a tremendous help."

Another workshop that really made an impression was on how to develop community relations. "We're a city government and therefore have to work with a lot of different community organizations. This workshop focused on how city employees can better facilitate the process and help our community and business organizations pool their resources and work together toward some common goals," Bamberger says.

The GOAL program was embraced quickly by city workers and has strengthened team spirit, she says. "We have seen a lot of skills transfer since the program was initiated, and the staff has a much more cooperative spirit. The citizens of Concord have definitely noticed."

On the city's annual survey of citizens' attitudes, the number of citizens who are satisfied with the service they receive from the city government has increased every year since the GOAL program was implemented. Last year, the majority of respondents ranked city services as good or excellent.

"And that's really what it's about. If we are providing the level of service that our citizens want and need, then we're doing our job and are helping to make Concord a place where people enjoy living," Bamberger says. "And that's a really good feeling."

A Moral Compass

The Human Resources Division of Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, won in the category for organizations with more than 2,500 employees.

Writing and adopting a companywide code of conduct for employees is fairly easy, but getting employees to believe in that code is the hard part, according to HR professionals with Bath Iron Works, a division of General Dynamics and a shipbuilder for the U.S. Navy. Two years ago, the shipbuilder's HR department decided to meet the daunting challenge of getting its workforce of 7,500 to understand and embrace General Dynamics' Standards of Business Ethics and Conduct by creating a communication and business ethics program called "The BIW Rudder."

Every month, the company produces an employee newsletter, called The BIW Rudder, which focuses on a specific topic selected from the company's code of conduct. Supervisors hand-deliver the newsletter to their staffs and lead discussions on the topic during monthly staff meetings. The newsletters cover a wide range of topics such as workplace violence, privacy in the workplace, proper uses of company resources and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"We wanted to create a strong communications tool that focused on the company's standards of conduct, and we looked at several best practices and came up with the BIW Rudder program," says Patrick Conley, manager of employee relations and ethics for Bath Iron Works. "The program, so far, has exceeded our expectations."

The HR department at Bath Iron Works launched the program nearly two years ago, and some of the HR managers on the staff admit that employees, supervisors included, were initially cool to the idea. Most of the workers thought that they received enough paper and reading material from the company and didn't want to add to the load, and supervisors were reluctant to add another agenda item to busy staff meetings.

"Frankly it was very hard to get 7,500 employees to immediately accept and embrace a program like this. We realized from the outset, though, that this was a process, and that we needed to give it a chance to work," says Bill Bryan, a senior employee relations specialist for Bath Iron Works.

Now that the program has been in effect for more than 18 months, Bryan and Conley say it has been a tremendous success. The HR department periodically conducts audits of the program, and feedback from supervisors and workers has been extremely positive. Supervisors report that employee participation and questions during monthly meetings have increased steadily since the launch of the program.

"We set out to create an effective communication plan and heighten awareness among our employees and help people broaden their understanding of ethical conduct within our workplace. We have definitely met and surpassed those goals," says Joanna Jones, director of human resources for Bath Iron Works.

After more than 18 months of newsletters, The BIW Rudder has covered most of the topics and issues addressed in the company's standards of conduct. The program is now entering a new phase by examining real scenarios, according to Bryan.

"Our first goal was to heighten awareness, and the next level is to address and change behaviors," Bryan says. "We know this program is an ongoing process and will continue to evolve. The program has to change and evolve, otherwise employees will begin to see this as the 'same old thing' every month and will lose interest."

Bill Leonard is senior writer for HR Magazine.

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