3 lessons from a small business HR leader

Creativity and flexibility are key for this 15-person organization.
By: | April 28, 2020 • 3 min read
(Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

While I consider this magazine to be a great resource, I am certainly not the target audience.  My name is David Oliva and I am the general manager of Organomation, a small manufacturing business located in Massachusetts. As the top manager of a 15-person company, I have CHRO responsibilities without the title.

I have learned a great deal by reading articles and case studies about how larger companies are handling the challenges faced by today’s executives. Today, I wanted to share some of the successes I have experienced while managing human resources at a small company, lessons that I think would translate to larger businesses as well.

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Creativity in Benefit Implementation

One of the challenges small businesses face is that my employees can usually receive higher compensation elsewhere. Out of necessity, I need to continually focus on cost-effectively bolstering our employee benefits package. While I will not be able to match a counteroffer received by an existing employee in most cases, I can listen to the staff to figure out what is important to them, stay up to date on trends through sources like HRE and work to find creative solutions.

In this sense, creativity isn’t always about offering a rare or unique benefit. Many times, it is determining how to offer a desired benefit within our constraints. For example, we were not first movers in offering paid parental leave but determining that this was meaningful through conversations with the staff, evaluating what we could extend and installing an attractive offering required flexibility and resourcefulness. These are elements all human resource executives can harness, regardless of organization size.

Searching for Untapped Potential

Regarding talent acquisition, one avenue where we are able to be more competitive is hiring entry-level employees.  These eager job applicants are looking for a place to start their careers and have incredible upside as potential long-term team members.  Admittedly, there are a number of situations where this approach is taken by necessity for budgetary reasons.

A common complaint from those entering the workforce for the first time is that so many of the job postings they review have such a daunting list of required qualifications that the job seeker becomes discouraged. However, under the growing view that soft skills are receiving the highest priority from executives, I would like to think that there will be more of an opportunity for individuals with the right soft skills to be taught the required technical proficiencies once hired.

While small businesses may have to take this approach to maintain their salary structures, larger companies might also develop terrific employees using a similar strategy.  While these new hires will still likely move on to other employers eventually, providing these individuals with their first big break and investing in their skill sets has helped create a loyal and productive team at my small company.

Fundamentals Before Technology

Stories about companies implementing bleeding-edge solutions such as AI-enabled chatbots to help employees manage their benefits are fascinating to me. Unfortunately, I expect those types of solutions to be out of my reach for a substantial amount of time. One of my personal challenges is to understand the pain points throughout the organization to develop improved processes.

Recently detailed in HRE was the unfortunately high level of dissatisfied buyers who spent big on tech solutions but were disappointed by the eventual outcomes. When addressing our investments in technology, our most successful initiatives have been based on utilizing simple tools to help automate existing processes. A good example of this has been reducing the manual steps taken to complete payroll.

Related: Dissecting the employer disconnect in HR tech

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While I do not have personal experience with latest and greatest HR tech, I can certainly see why an innovative technology that works to fulfill a brand-new process would have a much higher rate of failure. If organizations can break these improvements into a two-step process, creating proven manual procedures followed by the installation of automated workflows, the ultimate success rate could be much higher.

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David Oliva is general manager of Organomation.