Helping Them Toe the Line: Opportunities in Compliance

By Lin Grensing-Pophal Aug 20, 2012

It’s a risky world out there and businesses know it. For HR consultants this risk can mean opportunity. Compliance issues are on the rise and likely to only increase, and HR consultants are poised to help.

Linda Burwell is an attorney and the founding partner of Nemeth Burwell, P.C., a law firm in the Detroit area.

“I think the time is ripe for independent consultants, so long as they have the experience and expertise,” said Burwell, who focuses on employment and labor defense. There are a number of areas of opportunity for HR consultants, she said, from assisting with the hiring process to navigating new EEO laws.

“People who have been in the field can find niches and openings and can probably … really define the type of work they want to do,” said Burwell.

EEOC Rules

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), said Burwell, has been empowered in recent years with additional staffing and funding to pursue a variety of employment discrimination claims and has a growing “hot list” that employers should know about. The list represents issues and groups of people that are impacted by the poor economy or societal shifts. Unscrupulous employers might abuse these groups, said Burwell, or employers may unwittingly run afoul of EEOC rules about them. The list includes:

The unemployed.

Criminal background checks.

Credit checks.

Dishonorably discharged veterans.

Jobs requiring high school diplomas.

Workers with caregiver responsibilities.

Equal pay.

Leave of absence policies.

Temp Workers

Burwell also pointed to the growing use of temporary workers as an area of potential risk that HR consultants can help to manage. Employers may be challenged by differentiating between their responsibilities as an employer and that of an entity that has entered into a contract to purchase a service.

Benefits Admin

Benefit administration is another area of risk, noted Anita F. Baker, CPA, CEBS, managing partner, employee benefit plans with Clifton Larson Allen, LLP, in Mesa, Ariz. She deals with employers and audits of their qualifying retirement, and health and wellness plans, as well as compensation issues. “I think a huge thing that’s on their plates right now is the benefit piece,” she said. Two areas emerge most often, she said: health care reform and the financial impact on their business and the impacts on plan design—both areas of opportunity for HR consultants to provide advice and guidance.

Health Care Refrom

“Familiarize yourself with the Affordable Care Act; there’s a lot of information out there on it and webinars and classes you can attend,” she said. It’s an opportunity for self-education, she noted. “They really have to just take responsibility if they want to learn it and then figure out how they can help clients.”

Baker believes that organizations will be turning to outside resources to help in this area. “To have their own people spend time to get up to speed takes a lot of time,” she said. “It’s most cost effective for an employer to not spend their own resources on this.”

Kim Buckey agreed. Buckey is the principal for HighRoad Inc.’s compliance communications practice, based in the Detroit area. “[Health care reform is] a hot button that has attracted everybody’s attention right now,” she noted. “Employers are definitely looking for outside expertise in that area.” In fact, she added, these changes are coming at a time when internal HR departments have become increasingly lean, making it evenmore likely that employers will need to turn to the assistance HR consultants who are knowledgeable in this area can provide.

Retirement Benefits

Another area of opportunity for HR consultants in the retirement benefits arena, said Baker, is related to retirement plans and the fiduciary responsibility of plan sponsors, following new disclosure rules from the Department of Labor that were released in July. “The plan sponsor is going to be subject to penalty if they don’t attain this information and provide it to participants,” she said. “They’ve kind of switched the game a little bit to put more of the burden on the plan sponsor.” Again, burden and risk on the employer side creates opportunity for HR consultants.

When practicing in the benefits arena, the following certifications can lend credibility to HR consultants’ backgrounds said Baker:

CEBS—Certified Employee Benefit Specialist.

ERPA—Employee Retirement Plan Agent: Highly respected by the IRS as an Employee Plan Specialist.

QPA—Qualified Plan Administrator.

QKA—Qualified 401(k) Administrator.

CPC—Certified Pension Consultant.

Compliance Education

In addition to helping organizations manage their risk, HR consultants can play a role in education, said Michelle Gray, an human resources business partner with HR Synergy, LLC, in Manchester, N.H. Gray’s firm focuses on providing federal and state labor law compliance education for employers, working with them to help them understand the laws and regulations that impact their business and the steps they need to take to be in compliance (including recordkeeping, documentation and training).

Opportunities in this area arise not only due to the increasing regulations that organizations face, but also through economic times that have caused some organizations to rethink the size and function of their internal HR departments. And, of course, there are many smaller organizations that feel they simply can’t afford to keep a full-time HR professional on staff. Unfortunately, she said: “The value of HR compliance is not very well understood by upper management.” The approach, she said, is often unfortunately reactive rather than proactive.

While she acknowledged that it can be tough to get a foot in the door in this area, once in “you can tackle any industry because the rules are pretty consistent across the board.” Background knowledge and experience must include not only knowledge of federal compliance, but state regulations as well. She added: “I don’t see a lot of competition right now, so it’s a great time to get into the market and get yourself known.”

It may be somewhat of a warped perspective, unfortunately, but the reality is that areas of risk and compliance are never declining, but always increasing, which can mean big benefits for HR consultants. “It’s almost endless,” said Buckey. “There are so many aspects to compliance that you can almost pick and choose the area you want to get into.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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