HR Evolved: How Attorneys can Partner with HR Professionals in a Constantly Changing World

SS Episode 22 Hall Guy
Shoveling Smoke
Shoveling Smoke
HR Evolved: How Attorneys can Partner with HR Professionals in a Constantly Changing World

Human Resources is an ever-changing field and the Pandemic only seemed to demonstrate this further. From updating guidelines, to updating technology, the evolution of HR in the last few years alone is enough to put even the most ardent of HR professionals through the wringer. Now more than ever, HR professionals are relying on their attorneys, both in-house and outside counsel, to partner with them to navigate difficult issues. To help better make sense of it all, Chief People and Human Resources Officer for Equity Trust, Amy Hall, joins the podcast to discuss the change and development of HR functions in 2022 and beyond.

Host: Alanna C. Guy  Guest: Amy Hall


Alanna Guy: Welcome to the latest episode of Frantz Wards’ podcast series Shoveling Smoke. I’m Alanna Guy, an attorney at Frantz Ward, and I’m joined today by Amy Hall. Amy is the epitome of the modern day human resources professional, as we’ll chat about more shortly. Amy joins us today as the chief people in human resources officer for Equity Trust. She started her career in marketing before going back to school at night for her MBA. Soon after that, she started her career in HR, working her way up through a few major companies like Target, Staples, and AmTrust. Her career has taken her to Baltimore, Boston, London, Ireland, and Amsterdam.

Alanna Guy: In 2015, Amy finally came back to Cleveland and has been here since. I was introduced to Amy by one of my favorite in-house attorneys and a mentor of mine, Kelly Barnett. In addition to her daytime job as Litigation, Labor and Employment and Procurement Council for AmTrust. Kelly started the Cleveland chapter of FDCC Ladder Down. Which is a leadership, mentorship and business development program for women attorneys. I was fortunate enough to be a member of the 2021 class and currently serve on the executive committee, of which Kelly is the chair. Amy, I knew you were going to be a good one when Kelly suggested we meet. And before I dive in, I just wanted to mention that I saw Equity Trust was actually just named as a NorthCoast 99 winner for the ninth straight year.

Amy Hall: Yes. We’re really excited about that.

Alanna Guy: Yeah, you should be. That’s a huge accomplishment for your team and something you guys should be proud of. And for those who don’t know, NorthCoast 99 recognizes best workplaces for top talent in Northeast Ohio. So congrats again, and also welcome to our podcast. We’re so excited you’re joining us here today and I appreciate your time.

Amy Hall: Thank you so much for having me.

Alanna Guy: Okay, let’s start off by having you give us a brief overview of what the traditional HR function is in a company, because I know it’s rapidly changing, but we’ll discuss that more in a few minutes. But what was the traditional role for HR?

Amy Hall: So primarily it consists of your benefits, your compensation, employee relations, recruiting, very, very basic. Everybody just sort of puts HR in the corner type of thing and knows that they can go and ask a question, ‘Have I contributed enough to my 401(k)?’ ‘Do I have the right benefits?’ This person’s flicking a paperclip at me, can you get them to stop? Type of thing. So file maintenance, those types of issues are the considered the very traditional HR type of roles. And I had those types of roles when I first started out too. Very basic, very entry level type of things.

Alanna Guy: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, how does it work for companies of different sizes? Because I imagine that also plays a role, whether company has five or 10 employees or hundreds, thousands of employees. That would make a difference, I would think too.

Amy Hall: It does. So when you’re much, much larger, some of the companies that I worked for were. You have various different roles and they’re very siloed. So you have a dedicated ER team that does investigations, maybe they do a little bit of training, they help people with corrective action. You have a separate benefits team, you have a separate comp team, separate learning development. Smaller teams like the one that I have now at Equity, our ER and benefits are together. They also dabble in comp. So we are jack of all trades. We tend to do a little bit more just because we’re smaller. So the company as a whole is right around 400 people. And so therefore we tend to dabble in most of the different areas, so we’re responsible for more.

Alanna Guy: So we were talking about, when I introduced you, how you’ve worked at several different companies and a lot of those were definitely larger roles. Now we were just talking about the difference between a large and a small company. But within those larger companies, did you see a large difference between your role from company to company and then also to where you are now with Equity Trust?

Amy Hall: It’s funny because you really, higher up you go, you don’t see that much of a difference. You have more people that you can delegate to, that’s for sure. But you still have, you really do have the same sort of trials and tribulations. Are your leaders that you support, do they buy into HR? Are they understanding what you can do for them, how you can make their life easier in your role? If they don’t, then you are in a very traditional old school type of HR role and it’s not that exciting unfortunately. If they do buy in, whether you’re large or small, then the work is really, really meaningful. You absolutely can help make their lives easier. And you tend to be a little bit more forward thinking because you get to know the business, you understand what their needs are, and you can really help the leaders achieve their strategic goals through HR. Which is great.

Alanna Guy: Yeah, I love that. That’s pretty similar, I think, to how law firms can operate too. Sometimes it doesn’t matter large or small, it’s kind of about the people around you and how they see your role and how they see your career progressing. So I like that.

Amy Hall: Exactly.

Alanna Guy: Same analogy. Well, good. So what about then when you were overseas, were there any obvious differences between HR when you were in Amsterdam and London than when you’re here in The US?

Amy Hall: So the biggest difference is, and I always laugh, is you have way more vacation time over there than you do here in The United States.

Alanna Guy: Okay. Not what we were looking for, although I like that you had that experience at that time.

Amy Hall: No it really… Overseas though, people really understand their rights. So it becomes very challenging because people absolutely know what they’re entitled to, especially around the area of leave management. They have years over there like in England, a maternity leave could be a year.

Alanna Guy: Wow.

Amy Hall: Where in the Netherland it could be up to two years.

Alanna Guy: Oh my gosh.

Amy Hall: So they really know this. And so having to deal with the business could be very particular and very challenging. So there was some different, very wide differences compared to The United States in regards to leaves of absence. But people were very sophisticated. They knew what their rights were, so they were savvy compared to the United States in terms of that. It’s often like if you think about dealing with California all the time, people are very well educated. But many things were really the same, which made it a little bit easier. Especially in England, a lot of your obviously harassment was still very much the same. Disabilities, even though it wasn’t the ADA, it was still very applicable.

Amy Hall: The biggest difference over there is that you’re dealing sometimes with buildings that are 900 years old and you’re not getting a wheelchair through those doors.

Alanna Guy: Right.

Amy Hall: So what do you have to do? Sometimes these buildings didn’t have an elevator, for example. And so instead of, you can’t get somebody to the top floor, so you to don’t just pick, people don’t volunteer to sit downstairs with somebody. You pick them, they don’t have a choice.

Alanna Guy: Got it.

Amy Hall: They’re going to work downstairs. So things like that were a little bit different, but people are still people. So you still have very much performance issues and problems that you have to get in and help solve.

Alanna Guy: That’s interesting. I wonder now if people in The US, employees will start to understand their rights a little bit more as we’re progressing and things. I visited a friend in London a couple years ago and she kind of said in passing, and I never thought about it again until you just said this, but she said it was illegal to work after 5:00 PM on a Friday or something about receiving an email. And I remember at the time thinking, I’m sure it’s not illegal, but now I’m thinking maybe there are some pretty strict rules in place.

Amy Hall: I don’t remember it being illegal. I don’t know if it fit in well with their pub culture, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t illegal.

Alanna Guy: Yes exactly. Then they’re at the pubs at that point, so love it. Good. Okay. So from your perspective, Amy, then we were talking about how people might be changing their viewpoints, maybe become more educated if their employees here. But how are you seeing the HR function specifically changing and developing within the companies? Because obviously technology is something that is constantly changing and evolving, and I imagine changes your function and your role a little bit. But beyond that, maybe how is technology impacting your role? But even beyond tech, how does your role change?

Amy Hall: So with tech, it can make things really fantastic from an HR perspective because we now have so much data that we can really help businesses drive results in their area. Why do you have so much turnover? Is it happening in the first 90 days? Is it happening in the middle of the year? Is it people who have been here, long time employees, short term employees? Why is it happening? Where is it happening? Those types of issues. Could you pinpoint it to certain manager? Is that a reason why people are going? Is it pay? People like to believe it’s not pay, but in this day and age, is it pay? So you have so much data that you can really use, you just have to harness it correctly. So that’s one of the benefits. And bigger companies have a little bit more money to spend usually and can harness that into systems that will help get that data and provide it into dashboards and things that are pretty slick for managers to use and self service and all those sort of bells and whistles, shall we say, that make it easier for them to use.

Amy Hall: But technology also comes with a little bit of a price that isn’t true dollar sign. So in a smaller company, the latest thing that a lot of people are trying to push through is well it’s like a chat bot, where you don’t get a person and you just ask a question in a chat. And I come from a family owned company and we want to keep that feel. And so a chat bot is never going to work for my organization and I don’t want it to work for my organization. I want that family feel. I want people to be able to come to the HR department. Am I going to be saving on an FTE by doing that? No, I’m not. But I want to be able to have people know who their HR partners are and know that they can come and ask us a question or they can shoot me a message through teams or call me and they’re going to get somebody live who will answer their question. Bigger companies need that, though. They do need that service. But smaller companies, something like a chat bot, the technology is a disservice to us.

Alanna Guy: Yeah, that’s great. And I mean, we’ll talk about this, I’m sure again, because it always comes up, but understanding how your company operates and what the goals are and the culture. And it sounds like for you and for Equity Trust, you guys know what that culture is and you want to hang onto that. And so through HR, that seems like a good way of doing so. Other than the chat bots, are there other developments, technology wise, that you’re not a big fan of? Or I mean even outside of tech, I mean just other updates that have been going, that you’ve been noticing for HR professionals? Are any of them maybe not quite your favorite?

Amy Hall: Some of the things that happen in HR that there’s so many training courses out there, there’s so many webinars and the pandemic provided that to us, correct? Everybody put a webinar out there, everybody put some sort of training course out there. And so everybody can pretend to be an expert in different areas. But what I think it does is take away from the partnership that I had at least, with several of my law firm friends, so to speak. So now at some companies, not all, I was fortunate to have a legal partner sitting right next to me, at AmTrust I was. Now at equity, we’re small and I’ve got a great legal team there that I can call on, but they also are general counsel, is busy doing her day job. And so there’s times where we have sticky issues that I need some true help with from a true lawyer that is an employment lawyer.

Alanna Guy: Right.

Amy Hall: So I need more help in a very specialized area. So I think people have relied on these webinars and things too much, and we need to come back around to that. That it’s okay to take a partner, it’s okay to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, I got a pretty sticky situation that I need little advice and guidance. Here’s what I’ve done, here’s where my head’s at, here’s what I’ve been thinking about. Am I running foul of anything? Am I going to end up getting our company sued?’ Like what’s going to happen here if I do this? And sometimes it’s great just to hear, ‘Nope, I think you’re on the right track. Sounds like you’ve covered it. Go ahead’. Or it’s like, ‘eh, have you thought about this?’ And that’s what’s been so great for me with some of the partners is I know here with Mike Cheney and Megan Bennett, it’s just they’ve been wonderful and really makes a difference because they aren’t just here to say, ‘Well, here’s how you do this, and that’s the answer’.

Amy Hall: It’s ‘Let me help educate you’. Or ‘yeah, you got this, you understand what you’re doing’. And they explain it and you feel much better about the decisions that you make. So, you can call it technology as part of the pandemic, but I think it’s taken away and it’s taken some people away from the fact that you do need to just pick up the phone sometimes and take a partner. And some of those issues that, the pandemic didn’t change that, it definitely didn’t change the fact that people still have accommodations, whether they’re at home or in the office. They still have FMLA, they still have issues, especially working from home is been quite challenging and we still need to work through those types of things.

Alanna Guy: Yeah, I mean, you just said a lot that I think everybody can relate to and that resonates with everyone because I mean, obviously I wasn’t going to let you out of here without asking you about the pandemic. It’s got to be a part of everything now, unfortunately. But I mean, you touched on something else that I wanted to ask you about, which is how you partner with lawyers, whether they’re internal, external. I mean, you mentioned Mike and Megan and I mean those are the best of the best. I mean biased or not coming from, they’re my colleagues here at Frantz Ward. But they are, I’ve seen them interact with clients and take that approach of partnering. But what makes outside counsel a good partner for you? I mean, you mentioned how they would educate you and just be there to bounce an idea off of you. But in general, whether it’s other employment lawyers out there listening for how they can partner with their HR clients, or whether it’s other HR professionals listening for how they can leverage those relationships with their attorneys. What are some of those good qualities that really for you, make a big difference?

Amy Hall: So you absolutely have to connect with the person. And in my line of work, I’ve had nobody, and we’ve had to try and wing it. And that scares me, especially in this day and age. And I’ve gone to where the head of our legal department likes to spread the wealth, and I got to meet several attorneys at several different firms, and it ended up being like, where was I comfortable and who was I comfortable with? Because in my experience too, not naming names to protect some people, but you could get a very canned response that takes the easy way out. And that’s not always the way it should be. And that’s frustrating as an HR person because I’ve got the business in one ear screaming like, ‘Hey, I need to replace this person and this is impacting my business and this is becoming dire straits, and I have to worry about headcount, and this is costing us money’.

Amy Hall: And you’re like, ‘Oh, hey, I get it. I get it’. And then I’ve got a lawyer saying, ‘Well, too bad’ shrugs her shoulders. So sometimes, is that the answer? Sure it is, but it can be better refined. And what I always liked about the lawyers here was, ‘Okay, let’s talk some options’. Like, ‘okay, you could do A, that’s maybe not the best choice, or here’s B and C, stay away from D, You’re definitely going to be in trouble for doing that stuff’. That’s a tad illegal. But you were given options. And then my team, we really both, and especially here at Equity Trust, they’re younger and they’re so bright and they’re absolutely just craving knowledge. And they’ve given us some training and they never made anybody feel like they didn’t know what they were doing or shame on them for not knowing this information.

Amy Hall: They assumed that they had the basics and they took them on a better journey and really educated them and brought them along for the ride and paused for questions and made them feel like, just empowered them with the information and it was great. And they walked away feeling just fantastic. Like they had just gotten A’s in this course and put their capes on and were ready to go and tackle any ADA and FMLA issues.

Alanna Guy: That’s amazing.

Amy Hall: That was the difference. And that’s what really, it’s because we’re comfortable with them. We know that we’re going to get not only a great answer, but we’re going to get options and we’re not going to be made to feel like, ‘Well, you guys aren’t lawyers and you don’t understand’, but we’re still professionals in our own field and we need help too. And so that’s the biggest thing. Be comfortable and don’t be afraid to ask questions even if you’re on the right path because your whole job is in HR, and this is the other thing I should have said when getting away from a traditional HR path, your whole job is to prevent your company from getting sued. That’s what you’re there for really, is to protect your company. And the best way to do it is to take a partner when you feel like you have a situation that could go south on you.

Alanna Guy: That’s great. And so those were the lawyers that when you were talking about the trainings, it was a law firm coming in and providing…

Amy Hall: Yes.

Alanna Guy: That’s fantastic. And I mean, you hit the nail on the head and that’s partnering. And when you were talking about the Canorous sponsors. It’s something I think a lot about in my own practice when I’m talking to a client, because there’s the way the legal world is set up right now and with billable hours, and you teeter this line of clients not really always wanting to call because they don’t want, as people say, the meter to start running.

Amy Hall: Right.

Alanna Guy: And so sometimes people are deterred from picking up the phone in those instances. And that’s one challenge that I think just in general law firms and clients are facing right now in general. But I mean understanding for us from the lawyer’s perspective, if we don’t understand the big picture or the goals or the motivation for the client and for the company, it’s hard to give those really specific responses.

Alanna Guy: And so I love to hear that your approach with the lawyer, whether it’s your in-house counsel, if it’s an outside attorney, whatever the case may be, that you’re kind of teaming up with them and you’re talking through the issues. Because yeah, the answer might be definitely don’t do option D, but if you do that option, here’s your risks. And okay, C is a little bit better than option D, but here are your risks with option C. Because if you don’t understand the risk there, I mean you’re probably less inclined to take that advice there.

Amy Hall: Yeah and the way that they educate us, we pass that back on to the teams in a way. Where yes, we’re giving them options, probably skinny downed options at that point. But when I was without, at some of my previous companies, we had cases that could take eight months before we were letting anybody go. And that is just time and money and stress and just nobody’s getting along at that point. And there’s other issues that are popping up, and it’s awful for everybody involved. And this way, by taking a partner early on, even if you have to spend a little bit of money. Overall you winning because you’re hitting it head on, you’re spending a little bit of money so the attorney knows what you’re up against, you’re getting the right advice, and in the end, you’re moving quickly, which is music to the business leaders’ ears.

Alanna Guy: Oh yeah. And I mean, I like to encourage clients to ask the questions early on because it is harder to fix something after the fact. One, it’s probably more expensive for them.

Amy Hall: Oh yeah.

Alanna Guy: Especially if they’re winding up in litigation. So it’s more expensive, it’s more contentious, it’s a bigger headache. And even just from the corporate side, sometimes it just takes more money and more hours to fix and undo things. And people love the saying, ‘Why fix what ain’t broke?’ But I don’t know, I don’t like that saying because I just think that a lot of times you can avoid breaking something if you ask the question upfront and taking that proactive approach. But to your point, it’s important for the business folks and the HR professionals and the lawyers to all be on the same page and to have that similar outlook. And if you don’t have a similar outlook, you’re not going to get to that same end point.

Alanna Guy: So I mean, not to bring it back to the pandemic, but what is that looking like for you? Because from my perspective, it seems like during the pandemic, everybody in HR had their traditional HR function to handle, and then they had all the consequences of the pandemic to deal with and from, I don’t know, that sounds like a nightmare to me. The list is endless. I mean you had, ‘okay, somebody was exposed to Covid, now what are we requiring them to do?’ Do we just punt and say, ‘follow the CDC’. Or do we have our own guidelines? Vaccination mandates, somebody doesn’t want to get vaccinated, or someone doesn’t want to wear a mask and there’s a mask mandate. Someone wants to work from home now, and the company has the policy that we’re in person or we’re hybrid and somebody wants to be home all the time. How are you navigating all of these items and how are you answering all the, I imagine, endless questions that you’re receiving?

Amy Hall: Yeah. It was very interesting times when it first started.

Alanna Guy: Yeah.

Amy Hall: And we really had two jobs. We had the pandemic and then we had everything else we were supposed to do.

Alanna Guy: Right.

Amy Hall: And I particularly loved when, I personally got the vaccine, and I would love it when people come in my office and start screaming about the government and how you shouldn’t get the vaccine. I’m like, ‘Look, just stop, you save your breath. This ship is sailed. I’ve already had it. I’m good’. You know what I mean? You’re not changing my mind.

Alanna Guy: Right.

Amy Hall: So now, I mean, it’s still there. We have cases pop up, and luckily the CDC, the guidance has been relaxed and it’s easier to follow at this point.

Amy Hall: I’m fortunate now where I am, they’ve taken it really seriously. The team did an amazing job during the pandemic, and so they’ve got great protocols, they have really good communications. Everything was working really just hand in hand. And of course now we’ve got back to school, so we all have the general germs and everything that are coming back around. But it’s been really interesting to keep just the ever changing world of Covid-19.

Amy Hall: So HR has definitely been pretty tired. So I would say anybody, you may not be able to go hug them, but definitely tell your HR person how much you appreciate them because they deserve it. And I think a lot of people forgot, they didn’t want to get it either, and they had to put a lot of work in it.

Alanna Guy: Right.

Amy Hall: It was tough. But again, during that time, the partnership with legal was just so key. We were literally, I would say thick as thieves with our in-house and outside partners because we were wondering what to do too. Nobody was alive during the Spanish Flu. Nobody had any ideas what to do.

Alanna Guy: Right.

Amy Hall: It was new territory for everybody.

Alanna Guy: Yeah I know. Really the only solace I think that anybody had is that we were all in the same boat.

Amy Hall: Yes.

Alanna Guy: And it was new for everybody, and we were all figuring it out together. And I always think that any decisions that come from legal decisions during the pandemic are going to be very interesting. I mean, there was just a case with the Cleveland State student that filed a lawsuit that his privacy rights were being infringed upon from the way they scanned his dorm room for the final exam. And so I just think we’re going to have some really interesting opinions coming out of the pandemic.

Amy Hall: Yeah.

Alanna Guy: And to look back on and it’ll be interesting. But the other thing, Amy, I wanted to ask you about is something that we’ve been focusing on a lot here at Frantz Ward is our diversity and inclusion efforts. And I think it’s been, diversity and inclusion’s been a hot topic for a while. But from my perspective, it seems like a lot of, there’s a lot more action around it right now, or maybe a sense of urgency, and maybe that’s just my current environment that’s giving me that perception. But what are you seeing from the HR side?

Amy Hall: It’s like everything too. Like The MeToo movement happened. We saw a lot of urgency around sexual harassment and policies and things like that. And I’m never going to say that’s a bad thing. I mean, I always think it’s like, ‘well, where has everybody been?’.

Alanna Guy: Right.

Amy Hall: Type of right reaction. Same with the diversity and inclusion. So I always think that it’s a great thing to focus on. I think by celebrating our differences it’s what makes a company better. I do get a little concerned, I will say, with recruiting, because in recruiting now, there’s a lot of focus around scrubbing resumes and applications to erase any type of information that would lead you to national origin, race, age, gender, all of these things. And I worry that we’re going to end up with hiring all the same people that we normally do in order not to have any bias in the process.

Amy Hall: And again, back to what makes us different is something that should be celebrated. I think there’s a better way to control bias in the interviewing process than to just scrub a resume and application so clean that you don’t know who you’re talking to, essentially. And so that’s an interesting sort of conundrum, if you will, that we’re going to get ourselves into. And I’m not sure, I don’t have any of the answers of how to solve that, but I hope we kind of find a middle ground with not having bias in who we hire because that’s very important. But it’s also really important to make sure that we reflect the communities in which we serve, and that we’re hiring a wide variety of people with differences because it just makes the workplace more fun.

Alanna Guy: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I’m glad it’s on your horizon too, and on your radar, because I know that in law in general, there’s been a big push. And yeah, you said, where has everyone been or… And it’s true. And so I don’t know if there’s just more buy-in or what the shift has been, but I think it’s one that’s definitely for the best and is positive. So the last thing I wanted to ask you about is just in general, looking forward, what you kind of see as the biggest challenge on the horizon for HR?

Amy Hall: Yeah. Well, we’re not out of the woods yet with this great resignation.

Alanna Guy: Yeah.

Amy Hall: So it’s still a war for talent, and it’s a very real thing. So I think the companies that are going to put their employees first and have… What we’re trying to do at Equity, we’re really trying to make this culture one of a family based culture. We’re putting our employees first, and we’re trying to make this an environment where, you want to be there. And you want to not only work hard, but you want to have a good time at the place where you are spending the majority of your time. I think those are the companies that are really going to prevail. And I’m not saying we get it right all the time, but I will say I think Equity is doing a lot of things right. And it’s been a really, really good journey for me so far in my six months that I’ve been there. So I think from HR perspective, that’s where HR can really come into play and start getting their culture out there and making it a great place for people to work, and that’s going to attract and retain their talent.

Alanna Guy: That’s spot on. I mean, we preach it at our firm here, and Chris Keim, our managing partner, I remember back when I interviewed, he was like, ‘Our culture, we’re all about the culture and the feel of the firm’. And it’s a hard thing to understand or know until you’re there and you’re experiencing it. But I do think that you’re absolutely right that it’s company culture that will end up keeping people, because at the end of the day, people spend a lot of time at work, usually more time than they do at home, so.

Amy Hall: I know.

Alanna Guy: Well, great. Well, Amy, thank you. I mean, I appreciate you so much for taking the time to chat today. I don’t know if there’s any takeaways you want to end with, to sum up our discussion, but I’ll let you do that if you have some.

Amy Hall: This has been fantastic. Thank you so much for the time. And I think if any HRs are listening to this and what they could take away to make their companies a little bit more modern is it’s to make it easy on their businesses and look for ways to really partner with their business. Give solutions, don’t just plan their parties. Know their business and have fun while doing it.

Alanna Guy: That’s great. I really hope that that can reach a couple people in the community as they’re looking for ways to expand their role in their company and to partner with, whether it’s a C-suite or the business owners in a more closely held company so wonderful. Well, thank you again, and I definitely look forward to staying in touch now.

Amy Hall: You too. Thanks so much.

Alanna Guy: Thank you. Shoveling Smoke is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer and audio engineer is Sean Rule Hoffman. Thanks for listening.