John Allen

When running a business, it’s difficult not to compare your company practices to those of other successful businesses. Benefit plans, however, need not be identical. Effective benefit plans should be as unique as the companies that create them and the employees for whom they provide financial security, health assurances and lifestyle perks.

There are, however, some best practices that can transcend all plans.

Design a benefit plan that achieves the employee’s goals and yours

When creating or redesigning a benefit plan, consider what you hope to achieve for the company and for your employees. Do you want a plan that provides financial security or promotes wellness? If you aren’t certain, think about your existing employees as well as those you hope to attract.

What is important to them? Almost every employee wants health care insurance and a savings plan, but younger workers may also value education reimbursement while working moms may want childcare or flexible schedules. If you aren’t sure what is most important to your employees, ask them. A thorough benefits survey can help clarify your employees’ values and correct misconceptions.

Educate employees on benefit options

Benefit plans have little value if employees don’t participate in them. Take time to educate employees on the various benefit options your plan provides so they can make smart choices when enrolling in the plan.

When employees fully understand their benefits, they are more likely to use them to their fullest potential. Plus, employees will better appreciate the value of their benefits and how they contribute to their total compensation.

Use benefits as a recruiting tool

When you’re competing for top-notch talent, compensation alone may not give your company the edge it needs. Use your benefit plan to enhance your company’s appeal and target the type of employee you want to attract.

For example, if you want to attract hard-charging employees who are focused on the long-term success of the company, initiate a profit-sharing plan that rewards employees based on the company’s performance. Highlight those aspects of your plan when interviewing job candidates, screening out those that are more concerned with their immediate gain than in contributing to the business’ bottom line.

Initiate a wellness program to minimize health care costs

With recent changes to federal health care regulations, employers are under more pressure than ever to provide health insurance for their employees, so you can bet most employers are looking for ways to reduce those pricey premiums. Just as “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” a well-designed wellness program can be an effective remedy for high healthcare costs.

Promoting fitness and healthy lifestyle choices can help your employees prevent injuries and avoid serious illness down the road. A wellness program doesn’t have to include an onsite health club or expensive gym memberships. It can be as simple and inexpensive as supporting your employees in a walk for charity, hosting a health fair or sponsoring a companywide weight loss challenge.

Reward retention

The value in retaining critical employees is beyond measure. Not only can the cost of continued turnover do serious damage to your company’s bottom line, but maintaining your business’ institutional knowledge and a consistent point-of-contact for your customers is priceless.

With this in mind, design benefit features to encourage longevity and reward retention. Provide options for every stage of your employee’s lifecycle, from the time they are hired to the time they retire. Recognize and reward employees’ tenure with the company with benefit features that grow in value over time.

Maintain a constant commitment to benefits

When things get tough, as they often do, it is natural for employers to consider cutting employee benefits to reduce costs. Don’t automatically assume that this is the most effective cost-cutting measure, because the fallout can be hazardous. Providing a sound benefit plan for your workforce, especially when times are tough, provides employees a sense of security and reminds them that you are still committed to them. As a result, they are more likely to remain committed to you and the company long after an economic upturn.

Too often, benefit plans are a source of stress for employers. It doesn’t have to be that way. If employers adhere to a few tried-and-true best practices when designing their plans, they can offer a benefits package that provides employees long-term security, boosts morale and makes a powerful statement about the company’s commitment to its workforce.

John Allen is president and COO of G&A Partners, a Texas-based human resources and administrative services company that manages human resources, benefits, payroll, accounting and risk management for growing businesses. For more information about the company, visit www.gnapartners.com.

When times are lean, eliminating excess and making do with less is simple common sense. That’s true for households as well as companies. However, the recent economic ups and downs have prompted some companies to cut so much fat that they have become too lean ? they suffer from what some call “corporate anorexia.”

Most Americans are all too familiar with anorexia, a physical and mental health condition that results in otherwise healthy individuals starving themselves. Despite the disorder’s pervasiveness in our culture, we rarely think about anorexia in relation to companies. It is, however, an appropriate description of companies that, perhaps due to managers’ fears of economic unknowns, get overly lean by cutting jobs.

Eliminating jobs, either through layoffs or attrition, is not in itself unhealthy. In a slow economy, it is often an unavoidable maneuver to reduce cost structures and operate more efficiently. However, when companies cut too deep or remain too lean for too long, they can experience languid performance and ultimately stagnate growth.

The damaging effects of corporate anorexia manifest themselves in a variety of ways:

Corporate anorexia can have an immediate and devastating effect on a company’s existing work force. When a company cuts back, remaining employees are often required to work additional hours or take on added tasks with little or no added pay. In a tight job market, employees are unlikely to complain, but over time, they are sure to feel increased stress and job dissatisfaction, and those overworked and underpaid employees will be quick to leave should an opportunity present itself. If you are suffering from corporate anorexia now, it will only get worse if those few key people decide to leave.

Even if an anorexic company manages to retain its best, most experienced people, how effective can they be? It is inevitable that when there is too much work, things fall through the cracks. Ultimately, product and service quality, along with customer responsiveness, can suffer. The potential for lost business is obvious.

When a business is “lean and mean,” it is thought to be quick, agile and responsive to market movements. But being too lean can have the opposite effect. When a company is too lean, it does not have the energy (in the form of “manpower”) needed to respond to opportunities quickly. As a result, the anorexic company misses opportunities for new business and potential growth.

Almost all of us binge now and then. We allow ourselves to eat a little more on vacation or over the holidays, knowing we can cut back later to lose the added weight. As individuals, it is relatively easy to change course, but it is not so easy for companies. Just as it takes time to cut back, it takes time to staff up again. Managers can’t decide to staff up for a project one day and have qualified people on site ready to work the following day. They have to recruit and hire the right people, and then those people need time to be trained and get up to speed. When companies become too lean, proactive recruiting efforts are a positive step in the right direction, but the benefits can be months or even years away.

With so much negativity surrounding the current economy, it is natural for managers to think about getting lean. It is smarter, however, for managers to plan wisely so their companies remain healthy in spite of the economy.

John Allen is president and COO of G&A Partners, a Texas-based HR and Administrative Services company that manages human resources, benefits, payroll, accounting and risk management for growing businesses. For more information about the company, visit www.gnapartners.com.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012 19:01

John Allen: Institutionalize creativity

I’m happy to report that human resources is no longer limited to managing the administrative processes that ensure employees are appropriately hired, fired or paid. Today, HR plays a more strategic role in corporations than ever. HR departments, and the professionals that manage them, are expected to contribute to strategic business initiatives — things like creating a company culture that engages committed employees and designing a merit-based performance management protocol that effectively rewards and motivates workers.

Another trendy HR initiative is innovation. Many corporations are enlisting their HR teams to help identify, inspire and even institutionalize innovation among the ranks. So how does HR contribute to a culture of innovation?  In more ways than you might think. Here are six that easily come to mind.

Recognize it — For the past decade, innovation has been an ideal business gurus have pontificated, business magazines have measured, and business owners have aspired to, so it’s no wonder some expect the next “innovation” to be accompanied by a little fanfare, or at least an impressive PowerPoint. In reality, of course, the greatest innovations don’t come wrapped in ribbons and bows. They arrive as memos inside plain vanilla folders or as e-mails in an inbox.  Good managers have to be able to recognize and implement good ideas, but HR can help by shining a spotlight on new ideas and the employees who generate them.

Hire it — To thoroughly ingrain innovation into your company’s culture, start by hiring it. Identify job applicants who have a propensity for creativity and thinking outside the box. Design interview questions to determine how applicants have demonstrated innovativeness in the past, or if possible, conduct tests to measure applicants’ creative bent.

Share it — Companies often develop silos. It’s not intentional, but by default teams tend to confine themselves within perceived physical or professional boundaries. As a group that touches all areas of the company, HR can be a conduit for creative people and ideas. If you know someone in accounting who has an idea for saving money on office supplies, introduce them to the right person in procurement.

Champion it — Innovation often comes when someone has the guts to break from the status quo or bend the corporate rules a bit. Cheer on the rule breaker and champion the revolutionary if it means getting a good idea heard. HR should encourage management to have the conviction to embrace good ideas wherever or however they come.

Reward it — Create a performance-evaluation process and compensation system that recognizes and rewards ingenuity. Ideas that contribute to sales growth, market penetration, operating efficiencies or cost savings can have a tremendous impact on a company’s success. Recognize those that generate the ideas as well as those that help to implement them and don’t punish employees for failed ideas. Some of the best ideas just need time to come into season.

Promote it — HR can be instrumental in promoting a culture where innovation is pervasive. It can involve creating a physical environment that supports brainstorming and open communication or conducting contests that encourage out-of-the-box thinking. Whatever methods are employed, good ideas are the natural byproduct of companies that can successfully institutionalize creativity and innovation.

Innovation need not be defined by life-altering inventions or ground-breaking discoveries. Sometimes the most impactful innovations are as simple as a money-saving process improvement or a tried-and-true formula applied to a new product or market. Whatever it is or wherever it comes from, HR can help companies embrace it wholeheartedly.

John Allen is president and COO of G&A Partners, a Texas-based HR and administrative services company that manages human resources, benefits, payroll, accounting and risk management for growing businesses. For more information about the company, visit www.gnapartners.com.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011 19:01

Preparedness means peace of mind; John Allen

George Washington once said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” The same could be said about a business being prepared for disaster; it is certainly the most effective way to preserve peace of mind.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, financial institutions located at or near Ground Zero discovered they had not designed their data security systems to withstand the degree of devastation caused by the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. Since then, a flurry of fierce hurricanes hitting the Gulf Coast states has tested the data security systems of businesses from Texas to Florida.

In the event of disaster or even a simple hardware failure, would your company’s critical information be secure? Answer these questions to find out.

  • Does your business have processes in place to systematically replicate and secure data that is critical to its ongoing operations?
  • Does your business house its backup data in a location that is geographically remote from its primary location?
  • Do multiple employees know how to access the backup data to maintain business operations?

If you answered no to any one of the questions, your company may not be able to recover the data necessary to effectively maintain operations following a disaster. You’re not alone. Many small or midsize companies do not have a fail-safe disaster recovery plan in place, but failing to develop a plan can be costly for you and your business.

While it is relatively easy to measure the costs to replace lost equipment, it is far more difficult to assess the less tangible costs that result from business downtime. Businesses have to consider the costs of lost sales, lost customer goodwill, lost productivity, missed contractual obligations, as well as the increased costs incurred when attempting to make up these losses. Needless to say, having a recovery plan established that helps a company quickly recover data and restore normal business operations can minimize these potential costs.

In its “Summary of ‘Lessons Learned’ from Events of Sept. 11 and Implications for Business Continuity,” the SEC recommended that businesses operate with two or more widely separated active sites for critical operations so that one provides inherent backup for the other. The strategy addresses a number of key vulnerabilities by eliminating dependency on availability and relocation of staff, reducing the likelihood of telecommunications single points of failure, supporting maximum geographic separation, and assuring business continuity through actual use rather than infrequent and less-than-complete testing.

Obviously, creating and maintaining redundancies is costly and impractical for many small to midsize businesses. However, partnerships with professional service firms can help to serve the same purpose. For example, professional employer organizations manage integral administrative functions, such as human resources, benefits, and payroll processing for their clients. Subsequently, a PEO can protect certain critical data by housing and maintaining redundant systems and administrative files for clients at a separate geographical location.

While most professional service firms, like PEOs, legal firms or accounting agencies, would never consider themselves in the data storage or recovery industry, following Sept. 11 and subsequent disasters like Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike, such firms recognize this as an added benefit they provide their clients.

John Allen is president and COO of G&A Partners, a Texas-based HR and administrative services company that manages human resources, benefits, payroll, accounting and risk management for growing businesses. For more information about the company, visit www.gnapartners.com.

Friday, 30 September 2011 20:01

John Allen; No need to go it alone

Kings and presidents alike have depended on experienced advisers to help them make difficult political decisions for centuries, and CEOs of the world’s leading public companies trust their boards of directors to help them run their businesses. So why do CEOs and owners of smaller, private companies often go it alone?

Business owners often have trusted management teams that they rely on to make important day-to-day decisions that keep operations running smoothly, but when it comes to making tough decisions about growth strategies, organizational changes or succession plans, those same managers may be inexperienced or less than objective. When the outcome of a decision may mean abandoning a favorite business line or impact their own positions within the company, the best, most-trusted managers can struggle with objectivity. But even if they can remain objective, some managers are too isolated from shifting market environments and changing customer preferences to provide truly valuable counsel.

That explains why so many business owners can feel lonely when faced with the most complicated, business-altering decisions, but it doesn’t have to be that way. More and more business owners are looking outside their companies for expert advice. Small companies and family-owned businesses are finding that advisory boards can be helpful in assisting owners, CEOs and executives as they work through complex issues.

Outside advisers can bring a variety of skills and experience that a small company may not be able to afford on a full-time basis to complement the knowledge and strengths of a company’s own management team. In addition to providing expertise that may not exist within the organization, outside advisers can also be counted on for objectivity. Because they have nothing to gain by paying compliments or delivering flattering but flawed reports, external advisers are likely to share honest feedback that can be especially valuable in making decisions.

When compiling an advisory board, companies should try to identify representatives from various stakeholder groups, such as customers, vendors, investors and strategic partners. It also makes sense to consider appointing professionals, such as accountants or lawyers, who can weigh the financial, legal or regulatory implications of business decisions. Another worthy appointee may include someone who can perhaps open doors in a new market or fortify existing relationships. There is no such thing as Match.com to help business owners identify the perfect advisers. Chances are that the best candidates are people who are already involved with the company in some way.

As for how and when to convene an advisory board, some groups meet quarterly for retreats while others meet monthly over lunch, e-mailing or texting regularly between face-to-face meetings. Regardless of the venue, it is generally agreed that advisory boards are most effective when they are focused on high-level strategic and tactical issues. In other words, make it meaningful. While it may be fascinating to sit around with industry experts pontificating business theory, your most valuable advisers are more likely to attend meetings where pertinent and timely business issues are being discussed and relevant decisions are being made. After all, most advisory positions are pro bono, so other than the occasional free lunch, their reward comes from seeing a business they are involved in grow and flourish.  At the end of the day, an effective advisory board can provide much-needed support for business owners and CEOs, so they no longer have to feel so lonely at the top.

John Allen is president and COO of G&A Partners, a Texas-based HR and administrative services company that manages human resources, benefits, payroll, accounting and risk management for growing businesses.  For more information about the company, visit www.gnapartners.com.

Sunday, 31 July 2011 20:01

John Allen on customer loyalty

Today, having customers simply satisfied isn’t enough. We want customers to feel an undying sense of loyalty to our company and its products, but like any relationship, building that level of devotion is hard work. It requires a service-oriented company culture with employees who are relentlessly committed to delivering exceptional care.

I am not a customer service expert, but as co-owner of a company that recently overhauled its customer service protocol, I now understand the difference between simply addressing clients’ needs and demonstrating genuine care during every client interaction.

Top-down culture and commitment

Leaders don’t always recognize the significant role they play, but they are implicitly responsible for fostering a caring culture that embraces service as a platform. Employees rally behind initiatives that executives endorse, because those will be perceived to be the most strategic endeavors. When an initiative is not outwardly supported by top leaders, it is perceived as less important.

Identify internal champions

Successfully effectuating cultural change requires top-level commitment, but implementing related process and procedural changes takes something more. When our company recently revamped its customer service protocols, we first researched and tested a new service system. More importantly though, we trained a team of qualified people who were not only knowledgeable about our business but also excited about the service role they would perform. To oversee a project of this magnitude, we identified an internal champion who was personally committed to customer service and also had the passion and conviction to motivate others.

Commit resources

If you are truly committed to improving your company’s level of customer care, you are going to have to give more than mere lip service. Delivering exceptional service requires teams of talented people who are equipped with progressive technology and top-notch tools, so be prepared to commit dollars and resources to the initiative.

Hire the right people

Whenever someone recounts a story about customer service, a large part of his or her experience relates to the person whom he or she had the pleasure, or displeasure, of dealing with — an especially engaging flight attendant, a sales associate who went out of his or her way to locate an item, an inattentive waiter. Because one person can make or break a customer encounter, it’s critical that the right people are working for your company. Identify service-oriented people during the hiring process. Whether you are hiring a sales rep or a receptionist, ask interview questions that gage an applicant’s level of customer care.

Empower employees

A few years ago, an employee contacted me about sending flowers to a client whose mother had passed away. At first I was frustrated that she felt it necessary to ask my permission to do something so appropriate, but I realized I had failed to properly empower her. Guidelines are useful and monetary limits are often warranted, but your employees deliver front-line customer service. Empower them to overwhelm your customers.

Make training a priority

Our company needs front-line customer service representatives who understand our business and are well-versed in all aspects of our service offering so they can address client concerns that are often complex or technical in nature. As a result, we’ve made training a priority to ensure that our customer service representatives are capable of dealing with the most complicated customer issues. It is equally important that we train our front line representatives to effectively deal with people under the most delicate of circumstances.

You don’t need to be an expert to know that keeping loyal customers by delivering exceptional service is smart business. Customer service, however, isn’t a box that can be checked off a “to do” list. New protocols and systems are not enough. Delivering remarkable service requires ongoing companywide commitment and continuous attention.

John Allen is president and COO of G&A Partners, a Texas-based human resources and administrative services company that manages human resources, benefits, payroll, accounting and risk management for growing businesses. To reach him, go to www.gnapartners.com.

Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:01

John Allen on HR goals

Any time is a good time to practice smart, strategic human resources habits. Below is a list of five things your company’s HR department should be doing or resolve to do better. There is no better time to start than right now.

Align HR with your company’s business strategy.

HR is responsible for acquiring and optimizing one of your company’s most vital assets — its employees — so shouldn’t the group understand and be aligned with the organization’s business goals and objectives? Include your HR department in your strategic planning process so it can proactively recruit for a growing business unit or redeploy the right talent to a new venture. If your HR organization isn’t capable of thinking or acting strategically, think about how the department may need to change to better serve the company.

Develop a sustainable process for evaluating and rewarding performance.

If aligning HR to the organization’s goals and objectives seems difficult at times, try to align individual employees to move the company in the direction management wants to take it. One way to ensure employees are working toward a common goal is to establish a performance evaluation process that measures performance based on a set of criteria tied to that goal. A consistent and objective evaluation process can also help to ensure that your organization is rewarding employees based on merit rather than favoritism.

Employ technology to track productivity and minimize costs.

Web-based time and labor management technology is making time cards and manual time entry systems obsolete. Advance time and labor systems provide business owners and managers practical tools to plan, direct and oversee their staffs. Imagine being able to tap into real-time labor data online anytime or anywhere to assess current staff coverage, identify immediate staffing needs and make changes accordingly. Even details such as potential cost overruns caused by excessive overtime can be red-flagged and calculated so managers can make quick, cost-saving decisions.

Alleviate common risk factors associated with the HR function.

People aren’t perfect, so it is critical that HR maintains practices to mitigate the risks associated with human imperfection. During the hiring process, faithfully conduct background checks and drug testing. Insist on professional references, not merely family or friends. To prevent litigation, conduct annual diversity training, harassment training and salary surveys, and ensure that policies and standards are applied equally to all employees. To protect employees’ safety, implement a workplace security policy with photo ID cards, a receptionist and a visitor sign-in sheet and always remember to lock up sensitive personnel information.

Create an employment brand that attracts exceptional talent and enhances employee engagement.

“Basic Branding 101” teaches that a strong brand helps attract buyers and build consumer loyalty. The same is true of a company’s “employment brand.” Human resources plays a pivotal role in helping a company establish a first-class employment brand. By promoting an attractive corporate culture and offering competitive compensation and flexible benefits, HR can help ensure that your company is perceived as an employer of choice in the markets where you operate.

These five goals won’t transform your company, but just one can begin to change how your HR department functions, and since HR touches every single employee in your organization, there is no better time or place to start.

John Allen is president and COO of G&A Partners, a Texas-based HR and administrative services company that manages human resources, benefits, payroll, accounting and risk management for growing businesses. For more information about the company, visit www.gnapartners.com.

Page 2 of 2