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Working Successfully with HR Consultants

In managing an assignment, choosing the consultant is just the beginning

A group of business people shaking hands at a meeting.

HR departments with limited in-house resources hire consultants for any number of projects—benefits management, compensation design, policy development and more. Unfortunately, not all of these projects end in success. Some don’t achieve their objectives, while others produce recommendations that may not be useful. Or the project may never get finished for any number of reasons.

To avoid these failed outcomes, HR managers can take steps to structure and manage these projects more effectively. Choosing the right consultant for each project based on expertise and experience in a given area is crucial. But that’s just the beginning of managing a consulting assignment. Success will also depend on taking the time to carefully lay the groundwork for the project, ensuring that it has clear objectives and that the consulting team will have the internal support necessary to complete the work.

Goals and Metrics

Benefits consultants can take on projects that include plan design development, competitive selection of an insurer, vendor service evaluations and new IT implementation, such as putting in place an open-enrollment self-service platform. Compensation consulting services include designing base pay systems, conducting market surveys to set and adjust pay, and developing variable pay programs. Communicating about pay and benefits offerings is its own consulting specialty.

But no matter what the assignment may be, the biggest derailers of any project’s success are lack of clarity around goals and objectives and not building metrics into the project plan from the beginning, said Jody Ordioni, president of New York City-based Brandemix, which works with HR and marketing professionals to develop organizational branding campaigns. “Involving too many stakeholders, lack of executive sponsorship and scope creep” can also be detrimental to a project’s success, she noted.

To avoid these problems, “the more time you can spend on executing a detailed proposal that clearly identifies the goals, deadlines, stakeholders and success metrics for each assignment, the greater the chance for success,” she said. But while establishing these benchmarks and shared understandings is vital, Ordioni also believes that consulting partnerships should be fluid enough to allow for shifting priorities and deliverables as a project proceeds and circumstances change—as long as both sides agree on altering the terms.

Scope and Communication

Next, ensure that HR and the consultant share the same understanding of the project’s deliverables to avoid headaches and confusion and to ensure that the end result is what the organization needs. “This can require multiple conversations and meetings over days or weeks,” said Robin Kane, associate professor at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. “An effective consultant will go beneath the surface of what the client says the issues are in order to understand at a deeper level what the client is seeking.”

This is also the time to create a timeline and work schedule for projects that have a longer-term focus. “By investing the time upfront, the project will have much clearer deliverables,” Kane said. “It often takes several iterations to write a clear project scope, timeline and estimated costs, and then to gain alignment from all parties.”

Once the project is underway, clear communication with the consulting team is essential. This can include:

  • Formal, scheduled calls and meetings for status updates and check-ins.
  • Informal conversations and communication over the course of the project.

“Frequent communication is especially important when there is a team of consultants working with different stakeholders,” Kane said. “For example, implementing a new talent management system in a global company will require the consultants to gather information and execute phases of the implementation with stakeholders in different departments, such as operations managers, IT, training and so on.”

In many situations, HR and the consulting team may need to revise milestones and deadlines to accommodate the realities on the ground. Businesses change. People leave and join the company. Priorities and schedules shift.

In these cases, the consulting team may need more time to complete various phases of the project or may need to modify its approach to completing the work. “If the project scope changes, the consultant will need to assess impact, if any, on project timelines, costs and ability to deliver on the new expectations,” Kane noted.​

Know What a Consultant Can and Can’t Do

The right consultant for a project will depend on its requirements and whether the consultant and project team mesh well with the internal people they will be working with, including senior HR executives.

However, it is also important to consider the practical necessities. For example, the consultant should have errors and omissions insurance in place. “No one ever anticipates giving bad advice,” said Karen A. Young, SHRM-SCP, president of HR Resolutions, a consultancy in Harrisburg, Pa. “However, mistakes do happen, so a consultant that considers their practice a business will carry the appropriate levels of insurance.”

She also emphasized the need to meet and evaluate any subcontractors the consultant may use when working on a project.

Finally, HR managers need to be realistic and open when discussing the end of a project. Consultants often have to deliver bad news or make recommendations that the organization may not want to hear.

“A professional consultant should provide guidance, listen to what the client wants and needs to accomplish, and help the client reach their goals,” Young said. “It’s your business, and if I’ve done my job properly, you are aware of any risks involved” in taking the recommended actions. After all, “that risk is yours to take, not mine.”


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