Staying in the Loop

HR leaders won't become aware of "undiscussable" issues unless they stay in contact with their employees.

Friday, August 1, 2008
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The key to success in any organization is a continuous dialogue between management and employees. A key element of the HR mission is to "stay in the loop" and facilitate that dialogue. But how do you stay in the loop? And what do you need to know about your people so that both they and the organization are successful?

On one hand, HR needs to create multiple forums and vehicles where employees can openly and constructively raise issues before they become problems. 

On the other hand, HR needs to design and implement policies that reflect the desired culture of the enterprise and foster communication channels that allow management to reinforce that culture. 

Taking the temperature of the organization on a regular basis is a critical underpinning to the whole process. At KPMG, we've worked hard to do all three things.

Are We Hearing Each Other?

There's often a gap between what employees perceive is important for getting ahead in an organization, and what the company really values. Measuring current employee perceptions -- of management, of key messaging, and of the organization itself -- can clearly identify those gaps between what you are communicating and what employees are hearing.

We find that regularly scheduled firm-wide and targeted "pulse" surveys delivered via e-mail or telephone polling can provide a gold mine of data and gives us a baseline on what employees think. 

Focus groups give us texture to the survey results and allow us to test what's working and what's not working.

Studying the trends in the upward feedback of our leaders helps us identify issues in the work environment. At every training session, we have question and answer sessions with leadership to foster open dialogue and feedback the results to leadership.

And once a year, HR partners with Communications to hold town hall sessions in every one of our 80 offices that highlight the national strategies while making it relevant to the local office with local recognition, local results of the employee survey and open Q & A with leadership followed by a social gathering. They are the most well-attended events at KPMG and help to keep us all in the loop. 

Defining the Culture

With the insights gained from these forums, we communicate our expectations around the values and principles that we want employees to keep in mind as they make decisions, with emphasis on the 'gaps.'

We recently issued a new code of conduct that was sent to every employee with a one-hour interactive, online training associated with it. We drive toward 100 percent participation in that process. 

Maintaining a highly ethical business culture is a priority for every firm but it's especially important for a professional services firm that is basically selling the skill, reputation and integrity of its people.

The Door is Always Open

At KPMG, we provide many 'channels of communication' -- people and departments available for guidance and assistance on issues of policy, standards, expectations, behaviors or potential violations.

Local HR professionals are often the first line of defense for these types of questions and concerns. Other channels may include local managers, our Ethics and Compliance department and an anonymous reporting, the Ethics Hotline.

We foster an open-door policy and encourage people to "raise their hands." We communicate clearly that there will be no retaliation for speaking up. Our goal is to assure that HR and other channels will hear about questions and concerns early on, when there is still time and opportunity to address them adequately.

What We Expect From the Employee: Tracking Performance

At KPMG, we measure employee performance against a holistic set of criteria -- not just technical or professional goals, but also organizational values and mandatory requirements.

At a professional services firm such as KPMG, tracking both training and licensing is essential, not only in supporting personal compliance with mandatory requirements, but also ensuring that the firm complies with its professional and regulatory requirements, such as CPA licensing.

The importance of these requirements is heightened by the attention paid by HR, department leaders and supervisors who track the employees who have completed it, and who have not.

We also think it is important to track other aspects of personal performance, including conflicts between behaviors and core values, as well as violations of policies or rules.

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At KPMG, we have a centralized incident-management system, with data uploads by HR professionals in the field, centralized groups such as Ethics and Compliance, and anonymous reporting structures such as an ethics hotline.

By documenting concerns about behavior and potential violations of law or policy and how they were resolved in a centralized system, an organization can track an important aspect of individual performance and increase organizational memory to ensure that similar offenses are treated similarly. This institutionalizes an organization's code of conduct.

Most organizations already have a formal goal setting and review process. Assuring that it is consistent and documented is critical to the culture. It represents the current and historical performance of the employee -- both positive and negative. It is a lens through which his or her actions must be viewed. 

Is this a person who does what is expected of him or her and makes decisions in line with the firm's values most of the time? Or is this a person with ongoing compliance or behavioral issues that is putting the firm at risk?

And because all employees are viewed through the same lens, it helps to ensure a fair and consistent performance review or investigatory process when deciding year-end results or determining discipline after a concern is substantiated. HR and members of management avoid the 'if we had only known, we would have made a different decision' trap into which many organizations fall.

At KPMG, we send a strong message when an individual isn't promoted because of non-compliance with a firm requirement or a behavior that went against firm values. Because HR is in the loop and has the information they need to support management in making good decisions, both the employees and the firm's culture benefit.

By keeping your arms around organizational culture, through tools such as surveys and upward feedback, by clearly communicating expectations through communications and training, and by providing channels of communication through which employees can raise concerns, HR is a critical player in assuring individual and organizational success.

Bruce Pfau is vice chair of human resources for KPMG, the U.S. audit, tax and advisory firm.

He previously served as national practice director for organization effectiveness at Watson Wyatt Worldwide and was managing director with the Hay Group.

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