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Human Resources

Program Diagnostics

Four approaches to evaluating employee programs and benefits
University Business, Jan 2010

Most higher ed institutions offer a wide variety of employee programs and benefits: health fairs, faculty and staff recognitions, tuition waivers, and more.

But are the programs at your institution reflective of current employee needs? And how can human resources professionals maximize the impact of these programs? Are there routine diagnostics to perform? Or does HR simply make a tweak here, a twist there, keeping the program objectives intact?

Keeping tabs on every employee offering can be quite time-consuming and costly. HR may rely on employee responses to annual surveys and participation rates as indicators of success. But attendance isn't always an accurate predictor. While a topic may appeal to many employees, the delivery of information may be poor or the information itself may be too generic, turning workers off. To know what turns them on, some institutions have adopted approaches used in other industries or have expanded upon traditional approaches in nonconventional ways.

Keeping tabs on every employee offering is time-consuming and costly.

Here are four approaches that either measure or maximize the effectiveness of employee programs and benefits:

In 2009, the engineering department at Purdue University (Ind.) began using a new technique based on the book, Blue Ocean Strategy (Harvard Business Press, 2005), by W. Chan Kim and Rene Mauborgne. It was designed to help organizations align their workforce so they can accomplish their strategic plan.

"It's a method for strategic planning that employs three core tools," explains Adedayo Adeniyi, assistant director of HR for training and development and employee relations at Purdue. "It examines HR's effectiveness in meeting employees' needs and examines whether or not HR is situated to meet [the institution's] strategic planning needs."

The department created two committees composed solely of engineering staff. One mainly focused on performance management, the other on employee training and compensation. Early on, the committees worked together to compile a list of roughly 15 engineering schools at other peer institutions with similar reputations, then compared its own HR programs or plans against the same HR programs at the other schools. Was Purdue's engineering department following the same HR practices? Was it doing anything differently for its 1,900 faculty and staff?

Then the committees started digging. They compared specific HR functions between their school and another that they felt excelled in that function. Take recruitment, for example. Which engineering school did a better job, Purdue's or MIT's? Then they ranked Purdue's performance on a 1-5 Likert psychometric scale.

That ranking system helped the committees identify needed improvements. But what was the best way to implement them? Adeniyi says the committees researched best practices not just at competing engineering schools, but also in the private sector, across different industries.

While outcomes can't yet be addressed, the process generated an outside-in type of HR examination, especially since no one from that department served on either committee (it was, however, "thoroughly tapped for advice," says Adeniyi).

"These are tangible deliverables and very strategic," he says. "HR oftentimes tries to get to the strategic level as opposed to the day-to-day operational piece. This allows us to play at that strategic level."

Northern Michigan University does an extensive evaluation of its training programs, based on Donald Kirkpatrick's four levels of evaluation, says Ann Sherman, director of HR, which supports approximately 1,100 faculty and staff.

"We look at [participants'] reaction—everything from 'did they like the class, room, and food' to the instructor," she says. "That can tell us logistically whether we need to make adjustments."

Next comes assessing the amount of learning that occurred. She says this is typically done with pre- and post-tests during the workshop or by participants offering a skill sample. For example, Sherman points to seminars for trainers. At the end of the course, trainers must demonstrate their newly developed skills in front of the class by facilitating a mini lesson.

While workshop evaluations and skills demonstrations are quite common, some HR departments fail to implement the next steps, which validate why training programs are needed in the first place.

From one week to three months after a training course, HR staff members follow up with participants about how they're applying their new knowledge in their jobs. Although it's a self-assessment, employees provide information about how the training program has impacted their job performance. Has it improved? Are they tackling projects that they once considered out of reach? Are they contributing in more creative ways than in the past?

The HR department also checks in with each participant's supervisor about measurable improvements that can be linked to the training program. Consider a workshop for recruiters. The recruiting manager may be asked if the employee is now recruiting higher-quality job applicants. This also helps HR determine the program's long-term effectiveness. Is it sticking? Are participants applying what they learned six months later, but returning to old habits within the year?

At Tulsa Community College (Okla.), employee committees address the changing needs of the school and its employees.

Other times, a program's low participation rates may have more to do with employee confusion than lack of interest. Sherman points to the informational session HR recently conducted to address changes in life insurance options. It turns out some employees didn't purchase policies because they believed they could receive the equivalent amount of life insurance for free through a bank or credit union. Others told HR loud and clear that they desired higher amounts of life insurance but wanted the physical exam requirement waived.

"Employees didn't understand what the advantage of group life insurance was or how it tied in with other benefit programs like long-term disability; [they] were looking for ways to increase their allowed coverage without having to go through a full-blown physical," Sherman explains. "We made modifications to all three as a result of the feedback we got."

Skill development programs are typically based on the needs of the college or university as a whole. But at least one institution is taking a targeted approach—maximizing training effectiveness by building programs aimed at employees identified as high achievers or potential leaders.

Tim Rush, director of HR at Northwestern College (Minn.), is working on a talent management plan with the college's leadership team, having them pinpoint emerging leaders or high potential leaders in each department. "As we identify them, we'll determine what their development needs are to further grow them and develop leadership programs around their development needs," he explains. By better preparing these potential leaders, they can serve as mentors and role-model desired behaviors. This way, he says, the benefits of these targeted courses can be multiplied throughout the workforce.

HR staff may also review their performance appraisals, looking for potential improvements in any aspect of their job performance, such as delegation or supervision. "That will tell us we're probably making an impact," Rush says.

Like nearly all institutions, Tulsa Community College (Okla.) leaders have faced ongoing concerns about the skyrocketing costs of health insurance, says Pat Fischer, associate VP of HR. Cost containment quickly became the buzzword. What didn't help: the college offered 10 different health plans to its 2,700 employees, paying anywhere from $300 to $700 a month per employee, depending on the plan. Employees approaching retirement could choose an upscale or higher-cost plan, which would increase their retirement benefits. In other words, she says, inequity was built into the benefits program.

This past summer, HR formed an insurance committee, cochaired by Fischer, that worked together with the college's President's Council to brainstorm creative ways the institution could contain health care costs while still providing employees with valuable health benefits.

"This group came together in the spirit of shared governance and put forward recommendations to the president of the college on what they felt would be a solution," Fischer explains. "We brought together a cross section of employees and said, 'Here's the issue, here's the data.' "

The group recommended the college pay the average insurance premium of the 10 plans. HR doesn't yet know how much money the college will save, but employees who choose high-end plans now pay the difference. Those who select less expensive plans than the average won't receive a rebate for the difference.

Fischer says her college has formed multiple councils that examine key HR benefits, programs, and procedures ranging from benefits enrollment to ERP implementation. With four campuses and several satellite locations, she says the committees not only address the changing needs of the school and its employees, but also ensure that consistent practices are being observed on each campus.

"There's great power in bringing together people from different parts of your organization to look at common problems," she says. "The more people you have who are engaged in developing solutions, the better your solutions are."

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.