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Long-Distance Employee Relations at Coca-Cola
 

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR  6/26/2012
 
 

ATLANTA--Three HR professionals from Coca-Cola said they drew inspiration from space exploration when they transitioned their employee relations (ER) function to a centralized, shared services model in which nearly every employee issue is managed over the phone.

During a session June 26 at the SHRM 2012 Annual Conference, Agnes Vivaldi Blumberg, SPHR, CCP, Wanda Ford Crumpler, PHR and Wendy Lawson, PHR—all senior managers of field employee relations for Coca-Cola Refreshments—set the stage to describe their “journey” by sharing references to the movie “Apollo 13,” video clips from the United States’ first moon landing and a spoof on the opening theme of the “Star Trek” television series:

“Employee relations. The final frontier. This is the story of centralizing ER at Coca-Cola. It has been our three-year mission to explore new ways of doing ER virtually, to add new client groups and new processes, and to boldly go where few companies have gone before.”

In 2009, with 62,000 employees, the company decided it was time to centralize the employee relations function of HR in hopes of increasing consistency and reducing costs, explained Blumberg.

Though centralization and “shared services” are not new concepts for HR professionals, Coca-Cola decided to manage all employee relations-related transactions over the phone by an HR person located someplace other than the employee or manager in need of assistance.

The team was used to handling employee conduct, attendance, interpersonal relationship and other employee issues face-to-face, Blumberg explained, so adapting to a phone-based model would take some time, particularly with the kind of volume they were used to.

However, the team found they were able to handle by phone all but four of the 19,318 employee relations requests they received in the first six months of the new system.

The transition was not as seamless as it sounds, however. Even with a phased approach, the team soon was overwhelmed by the number of requests. By August 2009, when all employees had been transitioned into the new model, about 200 cases were being logged each week.

Crumpler said the system involves a “mission control” approach: each request receives a case number and gets routed to coordinators who assign issues to ER consultants.

The tracking system provides the team with a centralized, paperless source of records as well as a wide range of data. For example, the team found that 80 percent of calls were coming not from employees, but from managers.

Over the course of the transition, the team adopted a motto, Lawson said: “Expect things to go wrong and be prepared to react, even with the best laid plans.”

The high volume required several tweaks to the case assignment process, for example. In the first phase of the roll-out, ER consultants took cases randomly. Eventually they transitioned to assigning cases to consultants by region. “Our journey will continue and we may change again,” Crumpler said.

Consultants have access to a knowledge database as well as a variety of training tools that help increase efficiency. However each case continues to be considered individually, Crumpler noted.

“Communication is a primary focus when executing cultural change of this magnitude,” Lawson said, particularly since leaders have been empowered to handle certain issues on their own, such as attendance issues and minor safety violations. If cases rise to the level of dismissal, however, the employee relations team is called in to help examine potential risks and confirm that procedures have been followed.

At first there was some push-back by leaders, who said they were doing HR work. But Lawson said HR made it clear that they were doing leader work that HR had been doing. Some leaders needed to be reminded to “honor the processes and own the relationship with associates.”

Now, they no longer have a “go down the hall to talk to HR mentality.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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