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May 2008
Effective Outreach
By Vivian McMahon

Many important milestones were reached in 1958:

     The Treaty of Rome was implemented, creating the European Union, the first International House of Pancakes opened in California, Jack St. Clair Kilby invented the first integrated circuit or microchip, NASA started operations, and The Employers Association opened it doors in Charlotte.

     For some area businesses, the founding of The Employers Association (TEA) in May 1958 was perhaps the most important event of that year. The 501(c) (6) not-for-profit organization has helped businesses in North and South Carolina with thousands of their human resources and other business concerns, from resolving personnel problems to providing specialized training for the myriad of challenges today’s employers face, for 50 years now. The association has become a stalwart shoulder to lean on, with trusted experts who specialize in the nuances of laws and regulations as they affect a broad spectrum of businesses.

     The current membership consists of over 850 businesses and nonprofits in 19 counties in North and South Carolina, ranging from those with one or two employees to those employing thousands at various locations in the United States and abroad. Annual membership dues depend on the number of employees, beginning at $475 for the smallest organizations.

 

Helping Businesses Succeed

     The association began as the idea of Randy Babcock, then president of Pelton & Crane, a Charlotte-based dental supply company, and several area business leaders who saw the need to establish a business group to become more educated about labor laws and personnel issues and to network about personnel challenges unique to their companies. At the time, one of the issues that employers faced was unionization.

     “Each year we give out the Randy Babcock Award to the human resources person who has made the most significant contribution to their company and the community,” says Kenny Colbert, president of the association. The Employers Association is also the sole sponsor of the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County Employee of the Year awards.

     Today’s businesses are dealing with challenges which were non-existent 50 years ago. As a member of the national Employers Association Group, TEA networks with similar organizations around the country keeping abreast of the latest changes in employment laws. TEA itself has a large network of vendors and can help a company set up human resources programs such as group insurance plans and flexible spending accounts tailored to a company’s specific needs.

     Human resource personnel face new and constantly changing challenges dealing with people daily. If a male employee compliments a female co-worker on how wonderful she looks that day, is that bordering on sexual harassment? If a company wants to hire an employee from another country, how do they deal with visas and immigration laws and requirements? What are the legal ramifications of an employer reading an employee’s e-mail or searching their locker?

     Fifty years ago employer requirements were fairly straightforward. But with the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and many others to follow, figuring out the morass of laws and regulations—local, state and federal—which address personnel issues can be a nightmare. And, these laws and their enforcement are always in flux with court rulings and legislative actions.

     The Employers Association is usually the first place members turn to for answers and training for handling all sorts of crises. They have an extensive library of federal labor laws, state laws and manuals covering everything from OSHA to workers’ compensation to HIPAA, plus an alphabet soup of others.

     “We used to have people lining up to use our resource library, but these days many of our members do their research on our Web site. We added an online research tool called HRAnswersNow for members to use for research in response to this trend,” says Colbert.

     Stan Sewell, president of Barloworld Handling, one of the founding companies of TEA in 1958, says that in his 23 years with the   company, “Business changes are putting a greater emphasis on wanting and desiring to be the company of choice. Businesses want to attract and keep the best people. Companies today are competing for talent, management succession, and pleasing the customer base. TEA helps employers maintain that competitive edge.”

 

Hotline to Help

     Colbert wants employers to think of The Employers Association first when dealing with human resources issues. The human resources advice hotline is one of the association’s most valuable services. “Say a local member company terminates an employee at their site in California, they call us to see which laws they will be dealing with,” explains Colbert.

     The Employers Association receives about 40 to 50 calls per day on average for advice. “While the majority of calls deal with serious issues, we have gotten some pretty zany questions,” laughs TEA’s Laura Hampton, marketing, membership and training services director, “like what to do about an employee cooking a lunch with an unusual smell or a receptionist showing up one day with purple hair.”

     “I love to sing their praises,” says Cindy Tilley, vice president of human resources at Charlotte region’s Hospice and Palliative Care. “One of the most valuable benefits is being able to learn and implement best practices on our own. They are a strong sounding board, sort of an HR directors’ sanity check, to help us achieve that.”

     John Bauer, president and CEO of Tropical Nut and Fruit and a member of the 12-person board overseeing TEA, says for his company, which does business globally, “The hotline is a great tool and gets a lot of use in our company. Our people can call about any employment-related situation and get answers. Training is also very important, and we have had it done both ways, sending our people to the TEA site and having courses for our employees at our location.”

     The Employers Association has become the network hub for their members with the 24-hour Web site available which provides everything from upcoming training classes to answers for the most frequently-asked-questions. They offer classes at their 27,000-square-foot location on West Arrowood road or customized classes can be conducted on-site at the employers’ location.

     Besides providing human resources answers, TEA also focuses on education. Computer training has become an increasingly important component. Fifty years ago computers were practically nonexistent; today, computers are in every business in America. The Employers Association has classes available in their five computer labs covering many programs, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, and many others, to meet the demand for computer training.

     Although the trend in the training industry is toward the growth of online courses, interestingly, “Even if there are Internet resources available, we have found that people prefer a classroom atmosphere, where the instructor is right there to answer questions,” says Colbert. Many of their 25 employees are involved in management, leadership, human resources, and professional development training, both on- and off-site.

     Over 20,000 square-feet of their office space is dedicated to classroom and conference space. They offer 30 products and services related to human resources and provide over 250 classes in everything from leadership training to effective communication and creating employee handbooks. There are seminars with guest speakers to update employers on current and upcoming issues in management and human resources. Members receive a monthly newsletter, “The Management Report.”

     “Perhaps one of our biggest challenges is designing an education course adapted to a specific business,” says Colbert. “Each business thinks it may be unique, but it all boils down to basic management and human resources principles.”

     Daryl Bennett, vice president of human resources at Transamerica Reinsurance and the 2007 Babcock Award winner, says “TEA is the greatest value, worth much more than the membership dollars. It’s like having an additional staff member with the numerous resources they have. They recently helped us design a management development program tailored to our business. They have the ability to be flexible in practice and theory and adapt to customer needs, not just producing a canned product.”

 

Effective Outreach

     TEA has joined with Capital Associated Industries in Raleigh and Western Carolina Industries in Asheville to form the Employers Coalition of North Carolina (ECNC) to give North Carolina businesses a larger voice in the legislative process.

     “Contributions to ECNC are totally voluntary—some companies are very involved and others have said they are not interested. ECNC has a part-time lobbyist, Connie Wilson, a former North Carolina state representative, to handle lobbying on behalf of ECNC,” says Colbert. One of the current issues is the high cost to employers to provide worker’s compensation coverage in the state and how to make the state more inviting to businesses.

      The Employers Association partners with outside firms to offer additional services to bring value to its members. Colbert added that because of TEA’s membership and the thousands of employees for which these companies are responsible, the organization is “able to negotiate with vendors to get a better price for the vendor’s human resources products and services,” such as background checks, assessment tools, and required labor law posters.

     Hospice’s Tilley says that, “Sometimes TEA will seek me out and give me a heads-up on something happening in my industry. It is a pleasure working with this group; they are so customer-focused. These people are a force.”

     One of the most vital business management products produced by TEA are their surveys, foremost the annual report of wage and salary statistics covering approximately 300 job titles with over 300 area companies participating. With the survey sources remaining anonymous, an employer can gauge how competitive their pay practices are in the area and relative to similar businesses by industry and/or size.

     They also conduct custom wage and salary surveys. “We just completed a customized survey for 10 NASCAR teams covering approximately 70 job categories,” says Colbert. “Another one we have done is for the Association of Legal Administrators.”

     Another important survey TEA produces biennially is a look at benefits provided by various businesses. “We also take a look at pay adjustments, how they compare with previous years and what the companies predict for the future,” explains Colbert. “Even the Chamber of Commerce and local economic developers come to us for data-related to pay, benefits, and other important human resources benchmarks.”

     They also conduct employee opinion surveys, which can become valuable to employers to discover work-related issues and prioritize how to respond and improve their workplaces. TEA tracks a benchmark norm of all participants so that users can compare their results to other employers.

     TEA also conducts exit interviews for members’ departing employees, as they are more apt to open up to a third party. “Former employees are more willing to elaborate on their problems with a third party than with the company. After all, on your last day, all you want to do is get your paycheck, clean out your desk and leave,” acknowledges Colbert.

 

The Next 50

     According to Hampton, The Employers Association is working on a comprehensive history of the organization and the challenges throughout the years which will be included in a series of articles in their monthly newsletter starting with the annual meeting this month. “We will be having a special speaker and will recognize companies who have been involved with us for many years. We still have two members who have been with us for 50 years,” Hampton says.

     And TEA will be hosting an open house at their location this summer, complete with hors d’oeuvres and refreshments and a chance for member businesses and newcomers to network and find out how TEA is a valuable supplement to businesses of any sort.

     Tropical’s Bauer says, “There are so many policies to be knowledgeable about; particularly companies with no HR personnel need to use TEA to keep up-to-date.”

Sewell, also a member of TEA’s board, says the organization has benefited small companies with their “comprehensive business services.” While the original Barloworld was in the private domain, it is now publicly held. Sewell says, with TEA, “It is as if HR has been outsourced. We were able to grow to our advantage, because we have been able to leverage their expertise, helping us with affirmative action plans, and keeping up with regulations.”

     Keeping a finger on the changing business of today and into the future is one of the main goals of TEA. According to Colbert, when he began with the organization 14 years ago, “I would say 50 to 60 percent of the membership was manufacturing. Today, manufacturers average about 30 percent of membership.”

     Companies going through changes of any sort also come to TEA for help in explaining the changes to their employees, he added. As their mission statement reads: “The Employers Association is poised to remain a member-based organization serving as a knowledgeable and trusted resource to meet the comprehensive human resource needs of businesses, for the next 50 years and beyond.”

 

Vivian McMahon is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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