This week, the Southern California Employment Law Blog interviewed Todd Martin, a Senior Human Resources Generalist for Amazon, who also has experience working for small businesses as a human resource (“HR”) specialist. He is an expert in his field and a SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP). Mr. Martin was willing to provide insights on his strategies for managing the human element of business.
Why did you to decide to pursue a career in human resources?
I fell into HR. I graduated college with a business degree in 2008, at the height of the recession. I couldn’t get a job and took a temp position as a recruiter for a sales company. From there I started learning more about the HR role and, after 5 years of recruiting and onboarding, decided I wanted to do more with HR. I love the feeling of helping people and finding solutions to problems, which is a lot of what HR is and does. There is a joy in being a support for both the company I work for and its employees.
You have experience working for small businesses and large corporations. What are some of the differences in human resource operations?
The big difference between HR for a small company and large company is allocation of resources. Larger companies have more resources to dedicate to HR and HR functions. You will find that HR functions are more siloed in bigger companies. The advantage of that is people working in those siloes are going to be knowledgeable in the particular subject matter, and be able to assist the employee well in that area. The downside is they may not know much about other areas of HR or the company, as their primary focus is limited to the one area they are assigned.
Smaller companies will have little resources to dedicate to HR, or have to be creative in how they allocate those resources. Those that have room to spare, will hire someone to be able to perform most, if not all of the HR function. The advantage to this is it gives employees a one-stop shop to their HR needs. This will be a person that will have some knowledge in a lot of different areas and wear multiple hats. Downside is, they will not have the answer or the ability to do everything and will need to rely on research and/or networking with others outside of the company to obtain answers/solutions.
How do you handle conflicts between employees?
Slap them upside the head and tell them to get over it! 😛
I find that most employee conflict is due to miscommunication. The best way I found to help resolve the conflict is to sit them each down together with a mediator in the room to help guide and control the conversation. Allow only one person to speak at a time. If the other tries to butt in or talk over, stop them and let them know they will have an opportunity to speak next. It is best to guide the conversation so that they come up with a resolution themselves instead of the mediator coming up with one. Before the conversation ends, make sure both parties are clear on the resolution and what each expects moving forward. Follow up to ensure the matter is truly resolved and both parties are maintaining the expectations established in the meeting.
What is your best advice for conducting workplace investigations?
When it comes to investigations, the faster one can start, the better. The longer you let it go or draw it out, the more a story can change, memories get fuzzy, and you are not going to get a clear picture of what happened. You also do not want to drag it out. There will come a point when you have all the information you need to make an informed decision and trying to get more, or interview a 3rd or 4th time will just make you second guess yourself.
It is also extremely important to take well written notes. Dig deep into the questions you ask. Make the person being interviewed give as much detail as they can remember. If something doesn’t feel right or seems off, lean into that until it does. Investigations can be tricky, and you can only rely on what the person being interviewed is willing to tell, but asking the right questions will give you more than if you just ask a simple yes or no and leave it at that.
I have also found it helpful when asking questions to not ask accusatory type questions. For example; did you know it was wrong to do…, why would you…, what went wrong that night… etc. It is better to start by explaining you are there to get a better understanding of an event or situation and would like them to walk through their version of events. When it comes to policy violation, have them explain the policy to you, then probe into the event, that way you know their understanding of the policy before you ask the first question about the violation.
What is the value in having an employee handbook?
A clearly written employee handbook will establish direct expectations an employer has for its employees. The handbook should define the companies’ policies on attendance, misconduct, dress and grooming standards, benefits, pay and more. Not only is it important to have an employee handbook, but just as equal, to enforce the policies defined within. The more a company allows to make exceptions, the harder it is to terminate an employee for violating a policy. It is hard to justify, as an employer, why person B was terminated for violating the dress and grooming policy, when person A violated the same policy but was excused or there was an “exception”. Define the policy, ensure it is equitable for all employees, and stick to it.
On the same note of termination, it will be difficult to make a case to terminate an employee if there is not a written policy that was given to and accepted by the employee. For example, Kelly has missed “a lot” of time from work and the owner of the company wants to fire her for it. Kelly’s idea of missing too much work and the owners’ idea of missing too much work are going to be different amounts of time. The employee handbook does not have any mention of how much time missed from work is acceptable and what the consequences are for missing work. Having a document to refer to will allow the owner and Kelly to sit down together and look the data and compare it with the policy to clearly define what is too much time missed and what the next steps should be.
How valuable is accurate record keeping?
I cannot stress enough the importance of proper and accurate record keeping. If the system you are keeping records do not have a time stamp, I would also recommend you putting one on your records and notes. I learned early on the importance of be able to not only pull up notes of why I did something, but when I did it as well. Why and when an employee received a raise or a promotion, why was a time punch on an employee’s time card changed, when the last time a policy was updated and why.
Contending unemployment claims will also be determined by the records you keep. The unemployment office will not accept the word of an employer without proper documentation. Keep email communication between you and the employee. If you have a verbal conversation where a decision or an agreement was made, send a recap in an email so it will be documented and time stamped. Now, both the employer and the employee have a record.
How do you monitor changes in the law?
It can be extremely difficult to keep up with the ever-changing world of employment laws. There are federal, state and local laws that all need to be kept up with and enforced. They are there to help protect both the employer and employee. A helpful method of keeping up with these laws is to be part of one or more professional organizations/groups that have frequent meetings, news boards and/or social media platforms open for discussions or open dialogs. Find groups that are industry specific to your business. Some of the larger organizations, like SHRM, will have local chapters with monthly lunch meetings where all kinds of HR topics are covered.
There are also tons of information online and news feeds you can subscribe to that will send you updates on when laws change and what impact they will have on your company. It is a matter of research and finding the right fit for your company and industry as some laws will only apply to certain size companies or industries. For example, FMLA law will apply differently for a small company with 30 employees than it does for a company with 150 employees. So, it is important to not only know what the law is, but how it will affect your business.
What would be your advice for a small business that feels it is too small to have a human resources representative?
Keep a well written and vetted employee handbook, and keep it updated. Have an employment attorney help write or review it before distributing it to employees. Once in place, live by it, the fewer exceptions to policy an employer makes for its employees, the better. Review it on a regular basis to ensure it is relevant.
Documentation is also key. Make sure everything you do with your employees is documented and time stamped.
Find a HR consultant or employment attorney you can call upon for advice and council when you are uncertain about situations, especially about terminating employment.
Daniel Thompson is an employment lawyer with Davis & Wojcik APLC, a Southern California based law firm with offices located in Temecula and Hemet. He is also the author of Land of Liability: A Guide for California Employers. He can be reached at (951) 652-9000.