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What a Successful HR-Client Partnership Looks Like

A man in a suit standing in front of a tree.

Carla is an HR executive at a blood-banking company and is faced with a crisis in culture, leadership and retention: The company suffers from 53 percent annualized turnover in field operations, with almost half of that occurring in the first 90 days of employment. Employee opinion survey scores are disappointing, citing leadership apathy, unfairness, and lack of recognition and communication. Needless to say, the CEO and senior executive team want Carla to stop the hemorrhaging and reinvent field leadership from top to bottom. But where should she start and, more important, whose buy-in will she need to support her in this massive endeavor?

"One of the biggest mistakes that HR leaders make early on is failing to get the buy-in from front-line operational leaders," said Don Phin, attorney, executive coach and chairman at executive coaching firm Vistage Worldwide Inc. in San Diego. "HR tends to gain approval from the immediate boss—for example, the CEO, CFO or head of legal—and then marches forward without gaining buy-in from the leaders in the field who will be impacted by the changes."

Meet with Leaders

The better approach? Before proposing solutions, spend time with senior leaders in the field to learn firsthand about their assessments of the problem and their proposed solutions. "At that point," Phin said, "HR can serve as a catalyst to provide the structure and platform that the operational leadership team needs to drive change throughout the organization."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Engaging in Strategic Planning]

A case in point: At Carla's company, regional managers are incentivized to increase the amount of blood donated but aren't sure how to do that. Further, because of high turnover, employees appear to be burned out and frustrated; in certain centers, they even take bets on how long a new hire will last before throwing in the towel.

Carla holds meetings with key stakeholders in this order: 1) vice presidents, 2) general managers, 3) regional managers and 4) select donor center managers. The feedback is fairly consistent: The pressure to increase the amount of donated blood has led to a leadership strategy that appears disjointed and misaligned, with regions and donor centers acting independently of one another.

She quickly identifies what may be triggering such high levels of employee dissatisfaction: Leaders aren't hiring the right people, setting expectations appropriately or holding workers accountable. She also realizes that donor center managers are not familiar with key human capital metrics that may be impacting performance and blood-volume goals.

So Carla proposes three programs that donor center managers can lead with her HR team's support:

--First, rewrite job postings to "sell" the company and attract better applicants.

--Second, create a recruitment brochure featuring the company's history, career progression program, benefits and specifics of the hiring process. She ensures that the applicant tracking system automatically e-mails the brochure to candidates selected for an interview.

--Third, create a "What to Expect in Your First 90 Days" one-sheet that hiring managers can share with candidates during interviews. The document explains the challenges of the role, including cranky customers, standing all day and time spent in the freezer storing blood specimens. A donor center tour becomes the new standard, with applicants observing the donation process, the quality review process and the freezer visit.

Help for Better Hiring

Carla is off to a good start, but it's not enough. While the initial recruitment experience is now better, regional managers confirm that center managers don't know how to interview effectively or identify talent with confidence. Carla's HR team quickly designs an interview guide that suggests questions specific to each role—whether that be for a phlebotomist or a medical staffer. The recruitment team then checks references to ensure that candidates have the "softer" skills needed to excel at the company, including a strong penchant for customer service and teamwork. In addition, the donor center managers suggest an ambassador program where high-potential employees are assigned to mentor and coach new hires during their first 30 days, ensuring a smooth transition into the company and a healthy sense of competition among ambassadors looking to ensure their mentees' success.

Create a Scorecard for Success

So far, so good, Carla reasons. But regional managers still don't have a handle on how to increase blood draw volume in their donor centers. Worse, certain center managers use a harsh leadership style that focuses on "volume, volume, volume" without explaining to workers how to get there. Carla realizes that the donor center managers don't necessarily know how to get there themselves.

The solution? "What gets measured gets managed, and this organization would clearly benefit from a leadership scorecard that drives performance and production," said Ruben Galvan, vice president of human resources at Zodiac Pool Solutions N.A. in Vista, Calif., which sells pool maintenance products. The question, of course, is what to measure.

"Start first with basic employee demographics—what does the average employee look like?" Galvan said. Include average tenure, age, time in role and salary/wage to get an overall feel of your population at a particular location. After all, a team made up of individuals with an average tenure of less than one year may have different needs than more-mature workers who are further along in their careers.

Then delve deeper: "Voluntary versus involuntary turnover, corrective action trends, and average employee performance ratings at each donor center should be measured against customer service ratings, average blood volume and other [key performance indicators]," Galvan said.

Finally, get down to the key variables that make each donor center operate smoothly and efficiently: Employee cross-training, certification and step progression (for example, from Phlebotomist I to II to III) will not only make the center more flexible but also should help reduce turnover. After all, if employees are cross-trained and promoted, they'll feel they are achieving. Likewise, have donor center managers create a quarterly action plan for their regional managers' review that reflects key focus areas from the human capital scorecard.

Finally, "celebrate success," Galvan said. "Turning around group performance and spiking production is typically directly linked to human capital management and measurement, and teaching your front-line operational leaders to garner success through their people is an accomplishment that's worth celebrating, not only for its immediate impact on the business but as a portable skill that can be repeated at any time in the future."

And it all started with Carla's wisdom in knowing that the company's leadership team had all the answers from the very beginning. Carla and her HR team simply made it safe for operational leaders to volunteer ideas, then provided the structure and direction to put those ideas into action. That's what an aligned HR–operational client team looks like.

Paul Falcone ( is an HR trainer/speaker/executive coach and has held senior HR roles with Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon and Time Warner. His newest book, 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees (Amacom, 2016), focuses on aligning front-line leadership teams and on key employee retention. A longtime contributor to HR Magazine, he's also the author of a number of SHRM best-sellers, including 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.

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