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The Proper Care and Feeding of Humans: Human Resources Basics for Translation Companies


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Let’s begin by examining the first step in the life of an employee - recruitment. The three recruitment tools that have proven most effective in my environment (a 45-employee company in a large metropolitan area) are (1) filling a position from within, via an inhouse posting; (2) asking current employees about potential candidates they may know; and (3) advertising in the Sunday edition of the local newspaper (which includes a web posting for seven days). Other recruitment tools may be more effective in your environment, or depending on the position to be filled. An inhouse posting is best when the position you are filling requires someone who is already familiar with your company’s or department’s processes and workflow, and the position that may then become vacant may be easier to fill, or to fill from outside. Your current employees are also very good sources - because they know both the potential candidates and the company, they will know whether they are good matches. And a well-written ad will generate the maximum number of qualified responses.

Job Description

Speaking of that well-written ad, its basis is a well-written job description. A written job description accomplishes many purposes: clarifies what kind of person should be hired, communicates the job responsibilities and requirements to that person, and provides a tool against which performance can be evaluated. A good job description has five parts: (1) job summary, (2) essential duties, (3) qualifications, (4) education and experience requirements, and (5) general working conditions and physical requirements. The job summary should give the position’s primary responsibilities in one or two sentences. The essential duties should be in bullet format and identify in specific detail all the job duties entailed in meeting the primary responsibilities. Include a final bullet that says “performs other tasks and cross-trains with other positions as assigned,” so that there can be some flexibility within the position. Qualifications, also in bullet format, include such things as organizational ability, computer skills, written and oral communication skills, or the ability to multi-task, exercise judgment, or work with interruptions. Be thoughtful about identifying the education and experience requirements necessary for the position. Is a degree necessary? What kind? Will work experience substitute? What kinds of work experience? How many years? General working conditions and physical requirements should list, for example, ambulatory or lifting requirements, the hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and visual acuity required for computing, stress related to responsibility and authority, or the potential for extended or irregular hours. Finally, have a pay range in mind. Software packages are available to help you draft job descriptions, and another very good resource is the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM, www.shrm.org).

Newspaper Ad

Now that a good job description is written, preparing a newspaper ad is easy. Be sure to have an attention-getter opening line, one that will cause the reader to be interested in your business and the position. Then describe the primary duties and qualifications as succinctly as possible. List the hours, pay range, and benefits - if you don’t list the pay range, you will screen many more resumes than necessary from candidates whose expectations you cannot meet. Finish by telling candidates exactly how to apply (e.g., cover letter with salary requirement and résumé via email).

Hiring Process

Define your hiring process, based on the position. For instance, when we recently hired a proofreader, we used the following process: (1) HR screened 200 incoming resumes; (2) the Editing Manager reviewed approximately 60 résumés that passed HR screening; (3) the Editing Manager distributed a proofreading test to the 10 best candidates; (4) the Editing Manager interviewed the top five candidates based on the test responses and results; (5) HR called the references of the two candidates remaining after the interviews; (6) the Editing Manager made a decision and offer, which was accepted; and (7) HR sent thank-you letters to all the interviewees. The screening criteria for the initial 200 résumés were (1) appropriate education, skills, and experience given in the resume, (2) good English language skills (and no typos!) in the cover letter, (3) a pay expectation close to the range given in the newspaper ad, and (4) adherence to the instructions for applying. Although the person who dropped off a paper resume in person meant well, her inability to follow instructions and the inconvenience caused by providing paper instead of an electronic file, given the volume of resumes and the time involved in screening, caused her to be screened out rather than in.

Behavioral Interviewing

If you haven’t heard of behavioral interviewing or don’t know much about it, make the time to find out. No matter how experienced you become at interviewing, you’ll still make mistakes, but behavioral interviewing techniques will minimize them. Behavioral interviewing is based on the assumption that past performance is a good indicator of future performance.1 Instead of asking a candidate what their skills are or how they would handle a particular situation, ask for specific examples of how they have used their skills or how they have handled that situation. Behavioral questions begin with such phrases as: Tell me about a time when… Give me an example of… Describe for me… How did you handle a situation where… What did you do when…. The other key point with behavioral interviewing is to tolerate silence. When the candidate says they cannot think of an example, insist (in a friendly manner and tone) that you are sure they can think of one and that you don’t mind if they take a few minutes to think about it. Asking the best kind of question will only work if you wait for the best kind of answer!

What You May Not Ask

There are certain issues you cannot ask about in an interview, and the basic rule is if it’s not job related, you can’t ask it. Topics that you cannot ask about include race, color, religion, creed, national origin, citizenship (although you can ask if they are legal to work in the U.S.), sex, marital status, name, age, birthplace, disability or handicap (you can ask if they can meet the physical requirements in the job description), criminal history (you can ask if they have ever been convicted of a felony), or language (unless it is job related, which may certainly be the case for those of us in the translation industry).

Other Interviewing Tips

Plan your questions in advance, in writing. Ask every candidate all of the questions; however, try to do this within the context of how the discussion unfolds naturally, rather than starting at the top and going down the list in order. Always allow the candidate ample time to ask questions, but only after you have finished asking yours (otherwise, the candidate may tailor his answers to what he believes you want to hear). A question I often end with is, “What are the last three books you’ve read?” because it brings the interview to a friendly, light-hearted moment that makes a good transition to the candidate’s questions. Do take notes during the interview, but be sure that everything you write is job related and professional. Most states require that all solicited resumes and application materials be kept for one year, but you should check your state’s requirements.

Calling References

Use only professional (not personal) references, preferably supervisors rather than HR staff, and contact at least three of them by telephone. You will learn a lot from their responsiveness (or lack thereof) and their tone and word choice. At the very least, confirm dates of employment, position held, ending wage or salary, and reason for leaving. If the reference is willing, also ask about the candidate’s quality of work, work habits, dependability, initiative, problem-solving and decision-making ability, interpersonal skills, and computer skills.

Orientation

Your great new employee is finally on board, so an orientation session on their first day is your next step. Some of the issues to be covered in this session are the W-4 and I-9 forms, your employee handbook and company policies, a confidentiality agreement, benefit information, and COBRA and HIPAA notices (more on these later).

Employee Handbook

In today’s litigious society, having an employee handbook is more important than ever. It will also save you time and trouble, in terms of answering questions, making decisions, and taking actions fairly and consistently. Typical employee handbook topics include policies (customer service, workplace harassment, computer and email use, problem resolution), employment (definition of full- and part-time, introductory period, performance evaluations), compensation (recordkeeping, pay periods and procedures, overtime), benefits (medical, dental, COBRA, HIPAA, 401(k), time off, holidays), conduct (attendance, smoking, termination, personal business), and rules (security and safety, substance abuse, workplace violence, concealed weapons). You may also wish to include a welcome letter, including your company’s mission statement if there is one, and company history. Your state workforce commission and SHRM are great resources for template handbooks, and you should have your handbook reviewed by an HR professional and an employment attorney. Give new employees 24 to 48 hours to review the employee handbook, and then obtain a signed acknowledgment that they have received, read, and understand and will abide by it. This acknowledgment statement is also a good place to reiterate that your handbook does not constitute a contract of employment; an employment attorney can help you with this language. Finally, try to review and update your employee handbook yearly.

Performance Evaluations

The next step in the employment process will be to evaluate the performance of your newly hired and oriented employee. This should be done at the conclusion of a 90-day introductory period, at six months, at one year, and then at least annually thereafter (although semiannually would be better!). Why? How else will they know how they’re doing, what’s going well, what needs improvement, what you expect, where they can grow, what opportunities are available, and how they can succeed? Every employee deserves at least once a year an investment of your time, effort, and personal attention in an honest and formal evaluation of their performance. Preparing the evaluation properly and well will take considerable time and energy to be specific, accurate, and complete. These evaluations should be in writing, and should include a self-evaluation by the employee. If the employee being evaluated is a manager, consider soliciting anonymous feedback from his or her reports (I use a software/web package called AllPoints Feedback for this (www.allpointsfeedback.com), and others are available). This process works best if the written evaluation and self-evaluation are exchanged the day before a scheduled meeting, so that both parties have time to reflect on the feedback and to prepare to discuss it. Set aside plenty of time for this meeting, and do not allow it to be interrupted.

Following are some key points to keep in mind regarding performance evaluations:

  • When documenting a behavior, whether positive or negative, give at least three specific examples of that behavior. When the behavior is negative, the point is not to humiliate the employee with a litany of mistakes, but to make the point that her performance has been tracked and that you have a basis for the statements you’re making about her performance. Then place more emphasis on the future than the past.
  • Avoid “always” and “never.” Don’t say “Employee X is always late for his shift” unless that is absolutely true. It’s probably more accurate and better to say, “Employee X was late for his shift at least two times per week during the last three months.”
  • Nothing should be a surprise. If something in the evaluation, particularly constructive feedback, is being heard by the employee for the first time, you’ve not done your job during the year.
  • Be timely. Not being timely sends a message to the employee that the evaluation isn’t important and you don’t care about them.
  • Try to list as many accomplishments as possible - it’s a strong moment when you can come up with more of these than the employee can.
  • Ask outright for what you want to be different.
  • Ask what you can do differently, better, or more of.
  • Be as polite, respectful, and positive as possible; be very aware of your body language and tone, in addition to your words.

I keep a file folder (not their official personnel file) for each employee, and every time there’s a problem, question, comment, accomplishment, or communication regarding that employee I put a copy of it or note about it in the file. Then at the end of the year I don’t have to rely on my memory and have a lot of good information to refer to in preparing the evaluation. If you do this, however, consider that everything in this file, as well as the employee’s official personnel file, including their written evaluations, may appear in court one day. This will help keep you absolutely honest, accurate, objective, and professional.

Performance evaluation template forms are commonly available, but should be modified to be specific to your organization or even the particular position being evaluated. Our typical written annual performance evaluation includes the following sections: responsibilities; accomplishments; job knowledge, performance, and productivity; dependability, cooperation, and initiative; work environment and safety; overall performance; and action plan. If the employee being evaluated is a manager, we usually add these categories: managerial skills, communication skills, problem solving and conflict resolution, administrative skill, and time management.

Performance Problems

When your employee experiences a patterned performance problem or slump, assume there’s a reason and try to find out what it is. Employees don’t intend to perform poorly or have problems, and my experience is that it’s most often the result of a non-work issue. Our approach is to support the employee however we can (flexible hours, reduced hours, time off, referral to counseling, financial assistance) but at the same time focus on a return to the desired performance level within a reasonable timeframe.

Progressive Discipline

I have had quite a bit of success with simply inviting an employee with a performance problem to help me avoid the disciplinary process. But when that doesn’t work, you’ll need to implement progressive discipline. The typical progressive discipline process is (1) an oral warning for a first offense, (2) a written warning for a second offense or lack of improvement, (3) suspension for a third offense or lack of improvement, and (4) discharge for a fourth offense or lack of improvement. Clear documentation during this process is extremely important.

Personnel Files

An employee personnel file should contain (1) pay/status change forms, (2) time off forms, (3) performance evaluations and training documentation, (4) the W-4 form, and (5) application information, confidentiality agreement, and handbook acknowledgment. The following information should not be kept in personnel files, and should be kept separately from each other: (1) benefit information, (2) I-9 forms, and (3) payroll records. Although there are many good reasons for the segregation of this information, the primary reasons are to protect personal health information and other personal data, and to limit the information available to strictly what is required should you be subject to a compliance audit or investigation. These files should all be kept in a locked cabinet, and retained as required by federal, state, and local laws.

Termination (Voluntary)

Every employee will eventually resign, if their termination is not caused by some other event. You should always obtain a dated and signed resignation letter that includes the date of the last day of employment. If possible, hold an exit interview, conducted by someone in HR (even if you have to contract with a consultant) who did not directly work with or supervise the employee. During the exit interview, ask about general employment matters (hours, responsibilities, workload, advancement), training, pay, supervision, and reason(s) for leaving. You will also need to provide COBRA information and forms.

HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) contains a rule designed to ensure the privacy of protected health information (PHI). This Act primarily impacts health care providers and insurers, but also affects employers that sponsor group health plans. The deadline for compliance was April 14, 2003 (or 2004, depending on the size of the health plan), so if you have never heard of or don’t know much about HIPAA, contact your insurance broker or representative for information, forms, and assistance. At the very least, you may have to provide a Notice of Health Information Privacy Practices at new-employee orientation and include it in your employee handbook, sign HIPAA Privacy Business Associate Agreements with the various insurance or benefit entities you contract with, and have Individual Authorization for Use and/or Disclosure of PHI forms available if an employee requests your assistance with a matter that involves PHI. Depending on your particular situation, you may also be subject to other compliance requirements.

COBRA

The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA) provides for the continuance of group health coverage (at the employee’s election and expense) after certain “qualifying events” that would otherwise result in the loss of coverage, such as termination, reduction of hours, death, divorce, or Medicare eligibility. The continuance in the case of termination is usually up to 18 months, although there are varying lengths of continuance according to the different qualifying events and other circumstances. Your state may also have a program for continuing coverage beyond the federal requirement. Again, your insurance broker or representative may be able to help; or you can contract with a company that provides COBRA administration. Revised regulations regarding when and how you must give notice and the formats of model notice forms will take effect November 26, 2004, so be sure you are ready for these changes.

Conclusion

Don’t despair - it is possible to fulfill the HR function in your company even if you are small or growing. Independent consultants are available, who can be contracted with on a per-hour, per-project, or retainer-type basis, and you can find these consultants through the local chapter affiliate of SHRM. Look for a consultant with a PHR (Professional in Human Resources) or SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources) certification, which indicates that they have a certain amount of education, testing, and experience in the field. You can also obtain HR (and other) services through a Professional Employer Organization (PEO). Then, when you are ready, add a qualified part-time or full-time HR representative to your staff. Because handling the HR function well will protect your most important asset, and save you time, trouble, and money in the long term. This paper is intended to provide accurate and authoritative information regarding the subject matter covered. Neither McElroy Translation nor the author are engaged in rendering professional HR or legal services. If legal or expert HR assistance is required, the services of a competent, licensed professional should be sought.

Notes

1 Human Resource Essentials, by Lin Grensing-Pophal (Alexandria, VA: Society for Human Resources Management, 2002), pg. 42.
2 Ibid, pp. 44-45.

This article was published in the September 2004 issue of The ATA Chronicle, Volume XXXIII, Number 9.

Originally published in the ATA Chronicle









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