KM Investigates: Human Resource's Role in a Turbulent Economy

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Katherine Mehr

"Our economy faces unprecedented challenges, so we are responding with unprecedented action." said President Bush in a September 19 address to our nation. Every day we hear on the news or read online or in the paper that something new is going down in our economy. Within the past three weeks alone we have watched our financial market tailspin. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, the U.S. government acquired AIG, Merrill Lynch sold itself to Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs transitioned from investment banking to commercial banking, JP Morgan Chase bought Washington Mutual and Citigroup acquired Wachovia. Wow! This is certainly a turbulent wave we must ride.

These "unprecedented challenges" have not only affected the financial industry. However, organizations need not approach their challenges with "unprecedented action." In a series of interviews, Katherine Mehr investigates how companies plan to address how the unstable environment affects human resource departments and overall strategic plans of organizations competing for survival in today’s economy.

The series begins with an interview with Glenda Dubsky, vice president of human resources for Roamware, the global leader in mobile roaming solutions and media-centric applications for mobile users.

What is your global human resources strategy? What is your mission statement?

The mission statement is to make Roamware one of the best places to work. I actually used to work for Ditech, also a technology company. Ditech was recognized as one of the best places to work for in America in 2005 and I rolled that out. This is my baby. So I want to bring that to Roamware.

We are already working on the programs. I think there are three basic things that this company needs:
  1. We need to make sure people are communicating upwards, downwards and sideward.
  2. We need to ensure managers have the tools to do their jobs, are trained to talk to their employees and are able to manage performance.
  3. We need to make sure that we are working as a team. We are so diverse. We are all over the world. We are making sure we are connected and ensuring people are working as a team.
Is Roamware affected by what’s going on in the economy?

Well everyone is affected. We are still OK. I think it is because of our focus on results. Everyone is 100 to 150 percent engaged. All the leaders and executives are totally engaged in every aspect of the business. This includes sales, engineering and operations. This is a very results-oriented culture. We are talking all the time, having meetings and communicating. It’s an open and passionate culture. This is why we are winning and better off than so many other people. People are really taking things to heart. I really think it’s a cultural aspect; and it starts with the leadership and the executive team. People can see that we are walking the walk. And that’s a best practice—we don’t take things for granted. We operate like it’s our last breath, even if it’s not. We are not complacent. We are always on our toes. This is within human resources, with the CEO and top management.

Recruiting is affected. It is expensive. I am renegotiating all the rates with all the recruiters. We are making sure that we are very prudent about the expenses.

We are looking at benefits programs that are free. You can get a lot of free benefits out there. We do this so employees still feel that we are making an effort, but at the same time we are not taking away any of the benefits.

Which of the best practices that you formed to gain competitive advantage will transfer to best practices for a turbulent economic environment?

Based on the economy, one of the best practices includes training. I am actually doing the training myself, so we are saving money. There is a lot of travel on my part right now, but it is saving the company a lot of money because I am doing the work myself.

The change I see is the [additional] hard work for the human resources people. We work harder because we do it ourselves rather than outsourcing right now.

We are balancing. I do the training, I run the programs—there is a lot of hands-on vs. getting outsourced parties to do the functions to save on costs.

You have to hire people that are hands-on, passionate, have high energy. I look at someone who is not high maintenance who can do the work and also plan the work. They have to do the strategic and the tactical part. As much as I empower people to make things happen, there’s also a lot that I am doing hands-on. If I have to hire someone for a specific area, I will hire someone from a low-cost area. If we are global anyway, I can do that.

Specifically for the telecom industry, what challenges do you face on a daily basis that affect human resources departments within your organization? How do you handle them?

For my industry, the challenges are specific in terms of hiring. We’re looking for people who have specific skills. We can’t just pick people off the street—it’s really targeted. In terms of recruiting, we’re facing challenges where people aren’t moving. They are not leaving those big companies like Motorola. We are a small company compared to Nokia and Motorola. There is difficulty in finding this type of person. The way we are working to attract them is innovation—the possibility is in the future. We do a lot of innovative things where big companies like Nokia take forever to get things done. And with us [being a small company], we are able to get things done quickly, we are able to get products out and we are able to make things happen. If they [potential candidates] want to be part of an innovative company, they want to be heard and they see the value of what they do, then they can join our company.

Another challenge is that in India and Asia, big companies like Cisco and Motorola are able to pay bigger salaries and have better benefits, and they can leverage who they are with benefits cost, etc. so certain parts of the country in India are more expensive than others. We are looking at areas where it’s not as expensive (salary-wise). We would hire people from inexpensive places and relocate them to other places where they can contribute to the group yet at the same time we don’t have to hire the people in that area because the people in that area are expensive.

The fact that we are more flexible than other companies gives us the ability to customize things for the telecom industry. Each telecom company has a different network—they are unique in their ways. We are a company that can customize the product towards what they want. The flexibility there is helping us. The people that service them and are in front of them are people who can do the job from the beginning to the end and are proactive, innovative and passionate about the company. So it’s a cultural aspect. It shows in our customer service.

Please share with me your organization's best practices in terms of human resources and the strategy that you have built.

For best practices, there is a lot of empowerment in the company. There are a lot of things we are doing related to culture. We know that family is important, and we know that we have to ensure that people are productive. From a culture aspect, we have awards—most valuable player awards— and we have reward programs that acknowledge heroes, but at the same time we supplement that with teams to ensure that people work well together so that it is not just an individualistic culture but a team-oriented culture.

Another best practice we instill is career pathing. I think career pathing is very important. We are balancing everything we are doing here in human resources because each person is motivated differently. Some people are motivated by money and others by the position and others by the career path, the innovation and/or the technology. There are all sorts of motivation. So what we are doing in human resources is targeting every aspect. We are putting in programs that target these different motivations so there is a balance and so that each person is able to feel they can contribute, that they have a future in the company and that the company also cares about them and is doing something about their careers. We created team building and socialization opportunities like birthdays, celebrations, little gifts and the induction program. These are the sorts of things that make sure the employees feel that we care about them.

On the side of training, we have a leadership development program for employees and managers. We have a comprehensive framework so that people understand how they can get to the next level in terms of their careers. We have different training programs that they can take advantage of. And if they are to do these things as we describe simply in the competency framework that we have, then they can get to the next level. So what we did is we worked with each director and asked them to describe their group, the skills they need and what is needed for each job level. We have created this program to make sure employees understand where they fit in the bigger picture and how they can enhance their career.

As a global company you have different kinds of workers. You have your skilled workers, hands-on workers and the back-end administration workers. On the global human resources level—whether it’s your local offices or the smaller offices in different countriesyou empoweryour local offices to make local-specific decisions. You may not be able to make the decisions directly for these offices, just based on the location and the needs of each of that office. So where does that line begin and end with the strategic decisions? Where do local decisions stop and where do the strategic global decisions begin?

We have some common practices world-wide. And then we have practices that are specific to the different regions. And of course you have to comply with all the statutory requirements, so each human resources individual whose responsibility empowers to make things happen will make it happen. When it comes to decisions, we already have set guidelines and policies, such as how much we give for specific regions and determining the per diem for set regions.

Strategic decisions depend on the situation and what the issue is. So the line is drawn and it’s a judgment call when it gets to a point where the human resources person believes that this is too huge for them. They know where the boundaries are. For hiring, we let them know what the headcount approval is, what is and isn’t approved and if they are within the salary ranges, then they can go ahead and do the hiring. To get things done, we set parameters. As long as you stay within the range and as long as there isn’t anything unusual, then go ahead and make it happen. That’s how we make things happen quickly.

During this time of uncertainty in the economy, it is critical to formulate a plan that will help organizations stay afloat and not sink like we have recently seen our financial sector do. Simple techniques and initiatives, such as those that Roamware instills, can make a difference. Create strategic plans that focus on people and results. As Glenda Dubsky said, "You really have to believe in the company and believe what you are doing" in order to succeed.

First published on Human Resources IQ.