Managing Vendor Relationships

I met with a colleague recently, and over coffee we chatted about the job. Somehow, we started swapping open enrollment stories, and I was struck by how much the success or failure of an open enrollment experience is dependent on the insurance broker we were working with at the time. For an HR department of one, or any small HR team, vendors can make or break the success of the operation.

A small HR department means that we represent smaller organizations. We’ll never be a big client or bring our vendors high sales numbers. There are some great boutique vendors that serve smaller companies, but they also tend to be smaller themselves and can be stretched thin. How can we ensure that our vendor relationships fully support our work? By managing expectations, both our own and our vendors.

When looking for a vendor, whether a health insurance broker, HRIS or payroll system, outside anti-harassment training, or any other of the many functions a small company may outsource, it’s important to know what is reasonable to expect. Read up on some of the ATS functions available, and you can be star struck by the options out there. However, some of the more advances technologies are really expensive. It might be cost effective when you have thousands or tens of thousands of employees, but when your employee count numbers in the hundreds or even smaller, those options might not be reasonable for you. Educate yourself and know what services and technologies make sense for a company of your size.

Once you know what you can and cannot expect, it’s time to manage your vendor’s expectation. Know what is important to you. Do you want a dedicated service representative that will know you and your company personally? Or is 24/7 call-in support more important? Do you need a company that offers to go over your needs and suggest additional services that you might not be aware of? Or do you dislike the upsell and want to control exactly what you are going to see? There are many right ways to work with a vendor and knowing what works for you is critical. Communicating those preferences to your vendor is critical.

Finally, be a good customer. Make sure you’ve read your vendor contracts thoroughly and you know exactly what they have promised to provide. Don’t ask for things outside the scope – or be prepared to pay for it if you do. Communicate your needs to your vendor; don’t just wait for your vendor to contact you. If the makeup of your workforce changes significantly, don’t wait until your broker brings you renewal rates for the year – reach out and talk through how your insurance needs might be changing.

Part of being a small HR department means partnering with vendors in order to provide our employees the full range of services they deserve. Knowing how to manage those vendor relationships can make our lives easier, and our departments a success.

Expanding my world

I’m so excited to be part of the SHRM18 blogging team as I count down the days to the 2018 SHRM conference in Chicago this June 17 – 20. The theme for this year’s conference is ‘Expand Your World’. That is the perfect theme for my journey to this conference.

Like so many, I came into HR through the back door, and for a long time I didn’t even realize I was doing HR. When I figured it out, it was time to get serious and get an education. For most of my career I’ve been a department of one (DOO), and that can be an isolating position, especially if you fell into the job and don’t have a built-in network. Being a full time HR DOO and going to school is not super conducive to networking – when is there time? – so while I was gaining important knowledge, I was still alone in my profession.

After graduating and obtaining my SHRM-SCP, I knew I needed to get out there and meet people, so I registered for the SHRM 17 conference in New Orleans. I didn’t know anyone! But once I registered, I started getting email about how to prepare for my conference experience. And then magic happened: I got an email from some woman I’d never heard of, Mary Kaylor, telling me that I could join the SHRM 17 bloggers on something called #nextchat. So, I dusted off my old, unused twitter account and joined in. Can I just say, #nextchat is a little scary for a twitter newbie.

But the #nextchatters and the #SHRM17 bloggers were so welcoming and gave me so much good info about what to expect in New Orleans, I felt confident as I packed my bags. SHRM 17 was amazing! I made friends, I learned SO much, I left feeling more confident and equipped as an HR pro. While at SHRM17, I attended the #nextchat reception to meet my virtual colleagues IRL. It was wonderful to put a face and a name to a twitter handle. At that reception, that same Mary Kaylor encouraged me to start blogging. I was hesitant, but the conference experience and the consistent conversation on #nextchat helped me find my voice.

I started the blog, and people read it. And now, as I prepare for SHRM18, I’m part of the blogging team. My HR world has expanded beyond my wildest dreams, and now I’m part of the team that gets to welcome others to learn and grow and find their HR voices as well – whether you start a blog or make new friends or learn new things, you’ll leave the conference more connected to an amazing HR community. You’ll be energized and excited about your profession, and you’ll be equipped to be a better HR pro. Come to Chicago and expand your world!

HR, we’re not that awesome.

I was at an education conference recently where Dr. Howard Fuller was the keynote speaker. If you ever have a chance to hear Dr. Fuller speak, do it. He’s a tremendous presenter. In fact, he’s awesome. Speaking to educators, Dr. Fuller cautioned against the constant striving to be awesome. ‘It’s not about being awesome,’ he said, ‘it’s about being regular and getting awesome results.’ This is true in education, but it’s also true in HR.

HR friends, we are really not that awesome. Let’s be honest, being awesome takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and attention. And that time and attention has to be focused on ourselves to make ourselves awesome. That’s not the goal of good HR. Our goal should be to embrace our ordinariness, and channel it into awesome results. The work we do is what should be awesome.

What does being regular and getting awesome results look like? For a DOO like me, it looks like employees who have a seamless experience with their HRIS interface, no matter how much work I have to do on the back end. It looks like managers who are confident in doing annual reviews because they’ve been equipped know how to do it well. It’s an organizational culture where people talk about how their work explicitly ties to the organization’s mission on a regular basis. It’s low turnover because people have no reason to leave the company.

If you specialize in your area of HR, awesome results will look different. If you are a recruiter, making that perfect connection and seeing that both hiring managers and candidates have an amazing experience – even the candidates who aren’t selected – is an awesome result. Having clients reach back out with future needs and recommend you to others is an awesome result.

We don’t accomplish these things by being awesome. We do it by working hard. We make mistakes and pick ourselves back up and keep going. We give it our all, we keep learning, and we do the best we can.

Not only are we not awesome, our employees aren’t either. They are regular people doing their best and accomplishing amazing things. Your superstar employee? Probably isn’t innately more talented than her coworkers. She puts in more time, or she gives more focus, or in some other way just works better. Maybe she taps into the knowledge of others around her in a way that is unique. Maybe he reads up on work-related news on the weekends. Whatever it is, it’s something that is attainable to anyone else on the team.

As we engage our employees, as we think about what success looks like for them and for us, we need to remember that we don’t have to be awesome, and neither do they. We have to be invested in the outcome. We have to be willing to do the hard work that earns success. HR, we aren’t awesome. But we are delightfully regular people achieving some awe-inspiring results.

How solid is that career ladder?

I had dinner with my brother about a month ago, and he was sharing his frustration about career choices – in order to move up, he has to supervise people. But he doesn’t like managing people, and he doesn’t want to stop doing the highly technical work that he loves. This past weekend I had dinner with a friend who was telling me about her job. Her department is now fully staffed, and she has eight direct reports. I said it must be great to be fully staffed, and she acknowledged that it was, but also that managing so many people was taking her away from the content work that brought her to that organization in the first place. “I spend all my time thinking about other people’s professional development.” Managing people has become a distraction.

We all know that promoting subject matter experts to management is fraught with problems. The skills that make you good at your job are not the same skills that make you a good manager. I have a Master’s degree in management, but no one in my program was studying to become a manager. Managing people is seen as a side effect of career development, and we don’t give it enough time and attention. We don’t spend enough time training new managers about how to do it well. There’s been a lot written about how we can do that better, and why we must.

What we don’t talk about enough is how to create viable career paths for talented people who don’t want to manage. Why is managing people traditionally the only way ahead? Why should a talented individual contributor be pushed in a direction he doesn’t want to take, and if he turns down management opportunities why should he be viewed as lacking drive or not wanting to move forward? Why is management so often the only promotion opportunity?

Let’s be honest – there are not enough management jobs to reward everyone or move everyone up that ladder. And there are star employees who lack the natural skills and the desire to manage people. Yet these people bring great value to the organization. They have institutional knowledge and technical skills that keep our businesses moving. But when the company fails to reward their contribution, it becomes more and more challenging for them to stay with the company, and to stay at the top of their game. Do we still send our long term individual contributors for training to stay cutting edge in their skills? Or do we think that you can’t teach and old dog new tricks, and expect long-time employees to be coasting through their career? Even worse, do we try to push them out so we can get less experienced employees who can do the same work for less pay?

HR, we need to be more creative with our career paths. We need to value people who want to stay in individual contributor roles with tangible support. Highly skilled individual contributors can be mentors, trainers, take the lead on process documentation, and be integral in brainstorming how to improve the systems where they hold expertise. They can lead those improvement processes, and be change agents when they are part of the team. You don’t need to have a management role to be a leader – let’s find ways to let individual contributors lead.