HR conference speakers: Focus on keeping employees

With the economy bound to turn around, companies need to be assertive in implementing policies aimed at retaining and developing existing employees, speakers told members of the Cayman Islands Society of Human Resources Professionals at its ninth annual HR Conference.

Preparing for a better economy

Presenting the results of studies by his company, Aon Managing Director Dan MacLean said the human resources landscape has changed since the recession began in 2008, when “everything went to heck in a hand basket”, he said.

“Companies were letting people go. People were hanging on to what they had,” he told scores of people attending the conference at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman on Thursday.

That trend may have imbued companies with a “false sense of security” as to their human capital, Mr. MacLean said.

However, the ability to “attract and retain talent” has consistently been one of the top risks to business in recent years. “Yet right now what we’ve found is companies are less in a position to address that than they were a few years back,” he said.

When the metaphorical floodgates open and new opportunities rush into the marketplace, the reality is that the best employees are the ones who will be most tempted to look elsewhere, said University College of the Cayman Islands professor Bonnie Nelsen.

“Frankly, who’s going to be the first to leave? Your most marketable employees. Who are your most marketable employees? Your top performers,” she said. “They’re going to be the ones to go because they can. And that leaves you with … who?”

Mr. MacLean, Ms Nelsen and other speakers said employees are looking for more than just raw monetary compensation in order to feel satisfied in their jobs. Other benefits and strategies can be greater in importance, including health plans, flex-work, training and on-the-job challenges.

Companies, especially ones with limited development budgets, need to direct training programmes toward targeted employees – namely ones who add value to the product and differentiate the company from competitors, Ms Nelsen said. On the other end of the spectrum, employees who do not add value to the product and do not differentiate the company (for example, landscapers and janitors) are prime candidates for outsourcing to third-party specialists, she said.

HR industry future

Keynote speaker Sherry Johnson, a field services director in the US Southwest Central Region of the Society for Human Resource Management, said the unemployment rate in the US has been dropping slowly but steadily. She added as a caveat that the unemployment rate may be dropping more because people have stopped looking for jobs, rather than people actually finding jobs.

Even though human resources personnel were affected equally by layoffs during the recession, the industry has a bright future, she said.

“Many HR professionals were also impacted by those organisational layoffs. Unfortunately they were the ones that were giving out the layoff paperwork to the employees, and then they themselves were the last ones to leave the organisation as the door was locked behind them,” Ms Johnson said.

However, looking forward, human resources is a promising field, she said, noting that website CareerCast.com recently ranked “Human Resources Manager” as the third-best job, out of 200 overall. (Newspaper reporter was 196th.)

Ms Johnson said the importance of retaining and developing in-house talent boils down to dollars and cents, because replacing employees is much more expensive than keeping the ones the company already has. For example, she said, “Flex-work is not just a benefit. It’s a business strategy.”

Labour and pensions

New Cayman Islands Labour and Pensions Director Mario Ebanks addressed the audience wearing his public servant’s hat and also as a private sector HR consultant.

Mr. Ebanks said his new department will operate according to the advice set forth by former US President Theodore Roosevelt: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

He said the office will be available as a “one-stop shop” for businesses seeking advice or guidance on how to comply with the Labour Law and best industry practices.

“The department under its previous structure and operations did not have a particularly great reputation. That’s not a state secret. And we’re trying to change that,” he said.

However, companies that break the law can expect to have a less-pleasant experience.

He said, “I’m a law enforcement agent. I have a badge now.

“You never want to see one of those come into your workplace because if you get one of those it means that you’ve been naughty,” he said, laughing.

He added that in addition to inspections triggered by complaints, his office will conduct reviews on a scheduled and random basis.

In addition to the Labour Law, companies need to be aware of the Bill of Rights coming into effect in November, as well as the recently approved Gender Equality Law, he said.

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