HR Magazine - February 2000: ...and Other Duties As Assigned

By Carla Joinson Feb 1, 2000
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HR Magazine, February 2000

Vol. 45, No. 2




At some compaines, HR sweeps the floors, orders office supplies, delivers the mail , fixes leaky faucets, assigns parking, cooks lunch, maintain computers...

If it seems like your list of responsibilities just gets longer—and if some of those responsibilities don't even seem to belong to HR—you've noticed something that affects a lot of people in the profession. Like it or not, HR departments often take on tasks as diverse as gift shop management, recycling and medical services.

The 1998-99 SHRM-BNA Survey of HR Activities, Budgets and Staffs shows that nearly 60 percent of HR offices manage one or more general administrative functions or companywide services, with security being the primary auxiliary duty. HR departments in manufacturing companies are most likely to perform some administrative services—about three-fourths of manufacturers compared with 55 percent of nonmanufacturing firms and half of nonbusiness organizations.

Size also affects the roles HR takes on, with smaller organizations more likely to turn to HR for some administrative duties, according to the survey, published by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Bureau of National Affairs. About 30 percent of HR offices serving fewer than 250 employees have security and property protection responsibilities, compared with 15 percent of HR departments in establishments with 2,500 or more workers. HR delivers the mail and handles the phones at 17 percent of the smallest organizations and 6 percent of the largest.

Whether it has assumed new duties during a corporate belt-tightening or simply retained some secondary functions assumed many years ago, an HR department's challenge is to execute nontraditional functions without dropping the ball on its core functions.

Why Does It Happen?

Although most businesses are pushing flexibility, cross-training and interdepartmental cooperation to the widest degree possible, HR often seems to be the company catch?all for functions that don't seem to squarely belong somewhere else.

Shelley Fischel, executive vice president of HR and administration with Home Box Office in New York, explains part of the reasoning behind her company's decision to put responsibilities where they are: "My department is in charge of the medical center, for instance. The medical center certifies leaves for FMLA [the Family and Medical Leave Act], and its wellness programs tie into the benefits area. We also have the fitness center, which again ties into wellness."

This broad view of HR responsibilities is probably why her department is also in charge of facilities and real estate. "These functions were always orphans, tacked onto people who didn't care and didn't pay much attention to them," says Fischel. "However, in HR the theory is that you're support staff, enabling people to do the work they need to do."

She basically agrees with this philosophy and has no problem accepting the additional responsibility. At the same time, Fischel recognizes that some functions are better done by others. "At one time, I also had voice communication, which seemed to fall more clearly with the IT group. What they had to teach me just so I could make decisions was ridiculous, and increasingly it made no sense for me to retain this particular area." Eventually, she passed the function over to IT, which "could do the job better than I could."

Lynn Perry, PHR, HR manager of Wall Data Inc. in Kirkland, Wash., believes responsibility for the company's switchboard operator/receptionist function probably came her way because "people originally just wondered where to put it."

But the situation is a win?win for her and the receptionists because she can use their extra capacity for administrative tasks. "We use them most to support the recruiting area, organizing resumes and working with applicant tracking," says Perry. "They get a more well-rounded opportunity, as well."

At Stanley Associates in Alexandria, Va., the resignation of an office manager landed those duties on the shoulders of HR Director Cookie Perlmutter. "Our vice president of administration wanted to see how much of this work was necessary," says Perlmutter, "and there didn't seem to be anywhere else to put it."

In May 1999, Perlmutter inherited the responsibility and the three remaining people—along with a few misgivings—to perform mail, copy room, kitchen support and other duties for 185 people in a five-story office building. "I didn't exactly want to take this on, but I didn't fight it, either," she says. "I wanted to establish what was needed to do the function well, and to see how much time it would take away from HR."

Perlmutter has since taken stock of these duties, adding "Now I've gone back to management, and they were fine with the things I felt needed to change."

Jack of All Trades

Some HR managers appreciate the variety offered by their additional duties.

John Foster, executive director of Hospice Brazos Valley in Bryan, Texas, hires, fires, disciplines, teaches, benchmarks, manages leases "and, yes, I've even fixed the toilet." Although his responsibilities include 44 employees and 376 trained volunteers, compliance, fund development, all contracts and five separate leases, he feels his domain is still similar to a "mom-and-pop" shop.

"In the small nonprofit world, a director is hired and wears six or seven hats," says Foster. "Only after you get big enough might you get a chance to specialize."

Primarily, he sees himself as an administrator—"not as an accountant when I do the budget or an HR person when I hire someone." However, the diversity of his job pushes him to do whatever it takes. "I think this speaks of a leadership style," says Foster. "I may ask people to go to the wall and they do—because I do."

He also pushes himself to maintain a level of awareness about each type of work. "I'll pick up a nursing journal, read an article and pass it on to my nurses," he says. "When they tell me about a clinical problem, I can understand about 65 percent of it." He laughs as he adds, "It keeps the nurses on their toes, too, because they're never exactly sure about how much I really know."

His "can-do" attitude is echoed by Linda DeCiccio, manager of HR at Interlynx Technology Corp. in Boston. When she joined the company in early 1998, the director of marketing was doing HR, marketing and office administration. "I walked in knowing I would be doing the office administration in addition to HR," says DeCiccio, "though I may see the office administration go as the company grows and duties become more specialized.

"Interlynx is only five years old," she continues, "and when you start out, everyone has a ton of responsibilities. We don't have the luxury of an entire department that does one thing. On the other hand," she adds, "your exposure and impact in a small company are much greater."

More Work, More Opportunity

Home Box Office's Fischel has a staff of more than 150 because her responsibilities include real estate, internal communications, travel, security and facilities—as well as the medical and fitness centers. This gives her a greater pool of managers to draw from than most HR departments.

"I'm able to move areas around, depending on which executive or manager needs to be developed," she says. "Travel can report to facilities or HR; fitness can report either way, also. One of our HR executives just left—I moved some of what he had to facilities."

Being in charge of both HR and facilities gives her a certain degree of synergy, as well. "Managerial titles have ramifications in the real estate world," says Fischel. "Our headquarters building was built in 1984, with office sizes for various levels of management. People get promoted, but when and where do you reconstruct? Can the new VP just get new furniture, or can you move the walls to make the office bigger? My people can work those problems."

She adds that one real plus to the construction piece of her job is "you get to see a finite result. In HR you succeed, but there's no noise—you're succeeding when things purr along quietly."

Pulled in Many Directions

Whether you resist or welcome additional non-HR responsibilities, you should review the benefits and drawbacks with your boss, advises Jan Cavanaugh, SPHR, vice president of administration and personnel at Arco Industries in Pensacola, Fla.

"What's the payback for taking on these responsibilities? Is it a project or full time? If it's full time," she says, "you should be a strategic partner."

In addition to her HR responsibilities, Cavanaugh has office administration duties including oversight of accounts payable and receivable, and travel arrangements for senior management.

But she's also involved in long?range planning for products, which helps her understand what skill sets she needs to look for in new employees. "I'm a partner with the CEO," she says. "I get involved in the bottom line."

Cavanaugh believes this broad spectrum of duties prepares her for more responsibility down the road. "Senior HR people in larger companies are involved in strategic planning, but how do you get the experience? I'm already involved in strategic planning—I'm getting it here."

She also advises managers with new duties to set priorities and seek input there as well. "Sometimes I have to go to my boss and ask what to do first, because I can't do everything 'first thing,'" says Cavanaugh.

Maintaining focus can be a problem when you have mixed duties, notes Perry. "Some of facilities management entails very immediate needs," she says. "When the copier is down, you have to arrange to get it fixed, rather than work on your quarterly compensation report."

Fischel usually finds the 80/20 rule in effect—HR is the smaller part of her budget, but the greater part of her job. "Questions and issues are much more complicated and require much more buy-in from others on the HR side," she says, "and HR issues expose the company in more significant ways. For facilities, the way you make mistakes is by spending money, and so long as those decisions are coming to me, I can keep that under control."

Perlmutter found that her new office administration responsibilities initially detracted from her time for HR issues. "It's important to employees to have a facility that runs well, that has their safety and well-being in mind," she says. "But when those issues start taking up 40 to 60 percent of your time, employees do begin to suffer in important ways, because the HR work you do on their behalf is important."

Although the reorganization is over and she expects to continue devoting 10 percent to 15 percent of her time to office administration, Perlmutter does feel concern for other HR departments that might find themselves asked to take on additional duties. "As HR professionals, we need to work very conscientiously toward keeping HR as a discipline in itself and not as a dumping ground for everything else," she says. "There's always more work than people, and you may have to fight to keep this from happening."

Making It Work

Sometimes the fresh perspective that an HR person brings to a non?HR situation can be very beneficial. Since Perlmutter took on her office administration duties, she has reorganized the department and worked on putting in place a stronger staff.

"As a personal plus, I like having my hand in a hundred different pots," says Perlmutter. "I can see where I've effected some really positive changes: we have a full safety program, we've consolidated space and keep a better eye on inventory, and administration is working closer with HR and purchasing."

On the downside, she had to replace two of the three people she inherited. Still, having both areas under her control helps her use people more efficiently: she plans to hire a recruiting assistant on the HR side, "who will share administration responsibilities, particularly with receptionist back?up."

Some HR managers may have to fight new duties simply because they don't have the specialized knowledge they need to do the job right. "Negotiating leases is hard," says Fischel, who is a lawyer, "and a department that includes real estate is going to be more business? and finance-oriented than most HR departments."

Cavanaugh found that her banking background helped her work wonders with some of the financial issues she inherited from the former office manager/bookkeeper, but it's a background not all HR managers possess. Conversely, on the HR side, she finds that "you don't know all of the laws immediately when someone asks you a question about the latest on FMLA—you've got other things in your memory bank."

Her answer is to call her local SHRM chapter or other resources for help. Likewise, Foster, the hospice director, stresses that a good network of resources is essential for anyone with disparate job duties. "It's really your most valuable tool," he says. "You can certainly read, but that will only show you the flags and crisis things. Get expert advice when you're faced with something out of your realm or depth."

Often, asking others for help is the only way you can get the job done. "Interlynx is growing fast, and we're expanding our office space," says DeCiccio. "We also need to hire the best people—both issues have to be done now."

She divvied up her office move into areas of specialty, and asks people with the appropriate knowledge for input and assistance. "I'm involved with office layouts and furniture, but I can't do everything," DeCiccio says. "Know your limitations and delegate out when you need to. If you have your management's support, people will realize what responsibilities you have and support you."

Taking It in Stride

Although policies vary considerably, neither company size nor industry seems to protect HR departments from some degree of experimentation or reshuffling of duties. Many in HR find the new work both challenging and rewarding, provided they have the support of their senior management.

"I look on it as a mark of confidence that the CEO has faith in the HR person's business judgment," says HBO's Fischel, "and that sends a message to the rest of the company. How could you want to refuse?

"We all talk about wanting to be partners with the business, but you can't be a partner if you refuse to conduct business. Anybody's who's good in HR can manage anything," Fischel continues. "You might need help with the financial aspect or other specialized areas, but otherwise, it's using the same good judgment required by HR."

Carla Joinson, a San Antonio-based business writer and a contributing editor for HR Magazine, once managed numerous dining facilities at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.

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