Chapters, Council Honored for Outstanding Programs

By Beth Mirza Nov 21, 2008

From economic diversity to business and community outreach, and from workforce readiness to professional development via webinar, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapters and state councils seek to help their members do their jobs better, their business peers to understand HR better, and their communities to thrive.

In recognition of the best of these programs, SHRM honored eight chapters and one state council with Pinnacle Awards on Nov. 21, 2008, at its annual SHRM Leadership Conference, held Nov. 20-22 in Arlington, Va. The $1,000 awards are sponsored by ADP.


SHRM Board and volunteer leaders honor Pinnacle Award winners.

SHRM Vermont State Council—Working Bridges Project

Since 2006, the SHRM Vermont State Council has educated HR professionals and SHRM chapters around the state on economic diversity—namely, ways to help the working poor stay employed while facing challenges most middle-class employees never consider.

“Individuals who come from poverty look at things very differently. They don’t have a long-term view like the middle class has,” said Anna White, workforce readiness director for the council and employee specialist recruiter for Rutland Regional Medical Center. “[HR can] help in terms of [adjusting] policies that might be a barrier” to advancement for employees in poverty, such as attendance policies. An employee with an unreliable vehicle or child care provider may not always be at work on time, but an employer with some empathy for his or her situation may be able to find alternative work times.

In conjunction with for-profit, nonprofit and government agencies, the council has delivered the Working Bridges training to more than 250 HR professionals and line managers on the workplace implications of economic diversity; implemented an emergency loan and savings program for employees; housed worksite resource coordinators in companies to help employees find help with housing, child care, transportation, economic assistance and other resources without having to leave work; and begun discussions of how to encourage the employees to use health and wellness strategies.

The emergency loan and savings program has been particularly successful, White said. Employers establish accounts at local credit unions where employees in good standing—typically those employed for a year or more—can borrow a limited amount of money to help them stay at work. Employees have used the money to repair and purchase vehicles, fix home heating systems and travel out of the country for a family emergency. Employees must attend money management training to receive the loan, and many have started to save money after they’ve paid off their loans, White said.

White said the state council wants to expand the training and resources to more employers in the state and start work on “addressing the gap that occurs when a person on state assistance begins to advance at work [and earns more money] and is then cut off from benefits. But that salary increase is not sufficient to make him independent. There’s a gap between assistance and independence.”

Kalamazoo (Mich.) Human Resource Management Association—Poverty Simulation Workshop

In the summer of 2008, Kalamazoo HR professionals spent a half-day role-playing to understand their low-income workers better: Following scripts and scenarios, they stood in line for food stamps, lived on Social Security, raised their grandchildren, were evicted from their homes and lost their jobs. At the end of the day, they returned to their workplaces and families, but for their employees who face these challenges every day, there’s no such respite.

Working with the Kalamazoo County Poverty Reduction Initiative—the city had the seventh highest rate of poverty in the nation in 2006—the SHRM chapter hosted the seminar free to help its members understand better how low-income families survive month-to-month using community resources and services. Each of the approximately 75 participants was assigned a family role—such as chapter president Wendy Ballast, who played a 9-year-old girl in a family of three, with a working mother and a brother who was a high school dropout. The family received a script to follow and then was left on its own to figure out how to survive the day. The family members struggled to get their mother to the grocery store and then to work on time, but they forgot to take Ballast to school, she said.

“You really don’t think about all of these different things, how much multitasking it takes and how much red tape is behind the simplest things,” said Ballast, who is HR director of the JM Wilson Corp. Some families spent the entire day standing in line for food stamps, only to have the office doors closed in their faces. “It’s really eye-opening.”

The most powerful experience, she added, was her family’s eviction. The family shouldn’t have been turned out of their home, she said, but the simulation “did things like that to show how the system doesn’t work.” The mother left the family to find out why the eviction occurred, and then the police picked up the children because they were out after curfew.

“The way we felt when we were in that situation—we were just hovering around because we didn’t know where to go,” Ballast said.

At the end of the seminar, Initiative leaders asked each participant to commit to one simple task to help the community. Ballast is volunteering one hour each month, she said. And the chapter has sponsored its first clothing and food drives.

“We really always viewed ourselves as a nonprofit and didn’t give back as we should have. We are thinking differently as a result of the simulation,” Ballast said.

SHRM-Morris (N.J.) County Chapter—‘Creation for the Youth Nation’

Building on other workforce development projects it has undertaken, the SHRM-Morris County Chapter embarked on a year-long program with the Abraham Clark High School in Roselle, N.J., to help students there learn about the world of work.

The goal was to teach the students in the School-Based Youth Services Program behavioral skills, said Sherrill Curtis, vice president of professional initiatives for the chapter and founder and principal of the Curtis Consulting Group LLC.

“You can always learn technical things; you also need to learn why someone would hire you over someone else, how you resolve problems,” Curtis said.

To learn the nuts and bolts of running a business, the students created their own company—Creation for the Youth Nation—to design for their school campus a multipurpose outdoor space for students to use during lunch, class, rehearsals or waiting to be picked up after school. Each student took on a role in the company: corporate counsel, public relations, marketing, copywriting, carpentry, project management, accounts payable/receivable, horticulturalism and the like.

When students “do things experientially, they are so much better prepared to take on a business role when they go out to the work world. The education system doesn’t give them that point of reference,” Curtis said.

To learn how to be a good employee, the students presented ideas and progress from each functional area to the group. They learned not to call each other’s ideas “stupid,” Curtis said, as well as to dress appropriately. The entire group presented its goals to the Board of Education.

“Before, these students wouldn’t look people in the eyes. Now they are presenting why they want to do this [to the school board],” Curtis said. “They gained so much confidence in themselves.”

The group did its own fundraising and is working during this school year to get construction under way, she added.

Aberdeen (S.D.) Area Human Resource Association—Employers Resource Network

South Dakota’s low unemployment rate (2.6 percent in April 2008, according to the state’s department of labor) makes it difficult for employers to find qualified workers. The Aberdeen Area Human Resource Association reached out to an underutilized segment of the workforce—people with disabilities—and built partnerships among HR professionals and vocational rehabilitation providers to match these potential employees with businesses.

The chapter started off by inviting the vocational rehabilitation providers in the area to a chapter meeting and introducing them to the HR professionals. One provider now attends each monthly meeting and discusses the resume of a person with disabilities looking for work. That resume also was e-mailed out to each member. Eighteen job seekers in the vocational rehab program have obtained jobs from chapter members.

“It’s about getting people hired and fulfilling employers’ needs,” said Kathy Hassebrook, diversity chair for the chapter and office manager for Siegel, Barnet & Schutz in Aberdeen.

The rehab providers can contact HR professionals directly and HR can ask providers questions about needs and accommodations. To help other chapters bring their members together with the rehab providers, the Aberdeen chapter has created an online toolkit. The South Dakota SHRM State Council has adopted the project as a state diversity initiative and is marketing it to other SHRM chapters.

Hassebrook and other professionals from the chapter have conducted interviewing training for students with disabilities at four different events in the state.

Greater Baton Rouge (La.) SHRM—Focus on Abilities

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit southern Louisiana, workers left the area in droves, leaving employers scrambling to hire employees. SHRM’s alliance with the Office of Disability Employment Policy to educate employers about hiring people with disabilities inspired the chapter to reach out to a new pool of job candidates—the 75 percent of Louisiana’s 265,000 residents who have disabilities and are able to work.

“Within this issue are three silos,” said Robin Schooling, chapter president and HR director at the Louisiana Lottery. “Employers trying to fill positions and expand; job seekers, many of whom work with either the Louisiana Rehabilitation Services or community-based organizations; and service providers” such as Goodwill and job training coaches.

Working with the Louisiana Business Leadership Network, which aims to connect employers with people with disabilities, the chapter led a workshop in March 2008 to educate business leaders on hiring workers with disabilities, accommodations and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In October 2007, chapter members presented two workshops at a local job fair for people with disabilities to coach them on speaking to employers, discussing accommodations and how to be successful on the job. The chapter members planned to attend statewide job fairs in fall 2008. To educate the community on hiring people with disabilities, the chapter has disseminated information through its web site and newsletter and published a Resource Guide for Recruiting, Hiring and Retaining People with Different Abilities on its web site; it was to be distributed to employers participating in the statewide job fairs.

The chapter plans another workshop for employers in early 2009, Schooling said, and is looking forward to the hiring of a program coordinator at Louisiana Rehabilitation Services who will help connect employers and the community.

“That will stretch our ability to help with education and bridge the gap between government agencies and employers,” Schooling said.

SHRM-Atlanta—Mayor’s Youth Program

To support Atlanta Mayor Shirley Davis’s inner-city high school student summer internship program, SHRM-Atlanta developed and is teaching workshops to help students be successful in the office. Courses include budgeting, communications, dressing for success, ethics and time management. Since 2006, more than 150 SHRM-Atlanta volunteers have designed presentations, provided materials and taught classes for almost 1,000 students. They helped obtain internship positions for the students and the chapter donated a collared shirt to every student in the program to wear during the internship.

Prior to creating the classes, employers had told the chapter and mayor’s office that the interns who had previously been hired needed additional training to be ready to work in a corporate environment. Chapter co-vice presidents of special events Suzanne LaVoy and Anne Dittman worked with the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency and the mayor’s office to set up the program. Four rounds of classes have been taught: spring 2006, fall 2007, spring 2008 and fall 2008. SHRM-Atlanta has been recognized nationally for this program and appeared in local TV and newspaper coverage.

The internship program is part of the mayor’s larger goal to help all students go to college.

“The word is spreading that the mayor is sincere in her efforts to find scholarships, have college application fees waived, find student loans and keep students in state for the first two years of college so they aren’t over their heads in debt,” LaVoy said. “This is working and we’ve had success stories where kids have gone on to do great things.”

Tri-State HR Management Association (New Jersey)—HR-101 for Non-Profits

When it comes to HR, non-profit associations are often lacking. They don’t have the means to hire an HR professional, so HR duties often fall to executive directors or office managers.

To fill in the gaps, the Tri-State HR Management Association began seven years ago to give free half-day workshops on HR needs for nonprofits. Chapter members develop and teach the sessions, and sponsors cover the costs. Topics include performance management, hiring and firing, and Myers Briggs type indicators, said Jerry Dropcho, chapter president and executive director of HR at Burlington County College. Non-profits now have a resource to consult for their HR questions.

As a result of the exposure to the non-profits in the area, chapter members are more involved in the non-profit community, Dropcho added. Four chapter members were recognized at the chapter’s meeting as being volunteers for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Other members serve on the boards of trustees for local non-profits. And the chapter benefits, as well: the local Big Brothers Big Sisters group has joined Tri-State.

“It’s a win, win and win for the chapter,” Dropcho said.

Human Resources Management Association of the New Orleans Area—HR Reviews

Small businesses were left fighting to retain their employees after Hurricane Katrina. And the ones that were ready to expand had no pool of job applicants to tap, said Ron Zornes, 2009 president of the Human Resources Management Association of the New Orleans Area and director of corporate operations for Canal Barge Co. Inc.

During a conversation with Tim Williamson, the head of Idea Village, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping entrepreneurs in New Orleans, Zornes and Williamson realized that the chapter could provide these small businesses with advice and tips to hire, manage and retain better, as well as help with compliance issues. They started with Idea Village, which was grown from a two-person startup. After the storms, the nonprofit started to receive grants and donations and needed to hire staff to keep up with demand.

“It was facing the exact issues as some of its clients,” Zornes said.

The review process developed from there. Four-person teams of chapter members have face-to-face meetings with the business leaders to assess their HR practices and needs. They use a standard form to keep track of the information. After several meetings with the businesses, the team produces a customized HR action plan. The team members include white papers from the SHRM web site and sample forms and policies for the companies to use.

When the chapter first rolled out the reviews to Idea Village clients, they met with some brief skepticism, said Danielle Lombard-Sims, SPHR, 2008 president of the chapter and manager of training and development at Entergy.

“They would say, ‘Oh, we don’t need HR. We just need help with people issues,” Lombard-Sims said.

However, with four satisfied businesses reaping the rewards of their reviews, other Idea Village clients are asking for the chapter’s services, Zornes said.

“If the business owner is skeptical, they quickly realize the value” of the review, Zornes said. “They have someone to talk to about people issues they’ve been struggling with. Every business [we’ve worked with], they’ve really accepted it. Now they’re asking for the service—it’s free and valuable.”

Southern Connecticut Chapter—Statewide Webinar Program for HR Professionals

When it comes to professional development, sometimes it’s better to let it come to you than to try to go to it. The Southern Connecticut Chapter of SHRM discovered that truism when it tried to offer seminars and legal updates on weekday mornings—in the midst of traffic jams and heavy workloads, said Stan Friedman, director of communications and webinars for the Connecticut SHRM State Council and vice president at large for the chapter. Only eight or 10 people would show up for the seminars.

“But through surveys, we knew they wanted to come,” Friedman said.

In 2006, Friedman offered to set up webinar presentations so that chapter members could follow along with the seminars from their office desks. The membership jumped at the opportunity.

At a state council meeting soon after the webinars started, council leaders asked for ideas to increase the council’s visibility to chapters. Friedman offered to transfer the webinars to the state council and run the program for them. Any SHRM member in the state can tap into the webinars for $20 (non-members pay $30), which helps the council recover costs associated with producing the webinars.

“It’s a real steal for legal advice,” Friedman said. “We focus on mid-market and small companies that are the most resource-constrained, most in need of HR information, that don’t have the money for professional development.”

The chapter and council have hosted webinars on legal issues and immigration and plans sessions in 2009 on wellness and career web sites.

“It’s a great value-added service we can provide in our state and neighboring states with little hassle,” Friedman said.

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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