HR in Practice: Is It Time for a Human Resources Checkup?

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Business leaders know the importance of recruiting, developing, engaging and motivating their people through a robust human resources (HR) function.  The legal industry is no exception.  Setting the right HR policies and procedures, in line with the organization’s mission, vision, values and strategy (assuming these have been well defined), is the first step, but these policies and procedures should not be left on autopilot.

How do you know when some kind of review (or audit) of the policies and practices is appropriate and worth investing the resources?  Sometimes a significant incident will cause focus on a problem and the need for a review.  More often the signs are less obvious.

  • Is the overall performance of the organization meeting its goals?  If not, perhaps the activities and energy of lawyers and staff are not sufficiently aligned with the strategy.
  • Perhaps the organization is losing too many valuable people.  If so, what is the cause—rewards/compensation, poor management, lack of challenging work, or something else? 
  • Sometimes lack of turnover can be a problem.  There can be various causes, such as poor management of underperformers or a compensation system that is out of line with the market.

These are just a few examples—there can be other signs as well.  Once a problem is spotted, determining the underlying cause is next and often it may involve some HR deficiency.

  • Are all lawyers and staff properly trained to have the necessary knowledge and skills?
  • Does the organization’s performance suffer because of lack of employee engagement?    
  • Are the compensation and evaluation systems aligned with the organization’s strategy, visions and values?   Are those policies and procedures being followed?
  • Are people being properly managed, coached, and evaluated?
  • Most mid-sized to large organizations have an HR Information System (HRIS) which contains data on personnel, allowing tracking of trends (such as increasing or decreasing attrition/turnover rates, performance ratings related to compensation, etc.), as well as analysis through periodic and special reports.  Is the organization’s HRIS adequate to help measure, spot and analyze these and other issues?

Even where symptoms are not apparent to leadership, sometimes a HR Review can determine whether a serious problem exists.  Such a review is sometimes referred to as an ‘audit.’  I prefer not to use that term as it suggests more structure, formality, and bureaucracy than may really be appropriate.  A review may be comprehensive, looking at every aspect of the HR function.  Or it can be targeted to focus on apparent problems.  It can also be limited to a high level overview of just the most common and serious HR deficiencies.  While inertia can be a formidable obstacle, some form of HR review at least every five years is prudent.  

Inertia makes it tempting to do nothing unless and until a clear problem emerges to seize leadership’s attention.  However, good management requires periodic review of and reflection on the important aspects of an organization’s performance, including the human resources function.

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HR in Practice is a periodic column by David L. Williams.

David L. Williams is an adjunct consultant with Altman Weil, Inc. He combines broad experience as a general counsel and in-house specialist in labor and employment law with extensive knowledge of human resource policy and procedures garnered as a law firm HR executive.  

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