New Employee Relations Center Frees Up HR: Cara Pawlisch of Nationwide

Cara Pawlisch

SSON: Cara, please outline your career to date and your current role at Nationwide to us.

I feel fortunate to have found my professional passion early in life, and have been in Human Resources in various organizations and industries (and parts of the country!) for more than 25 years. I have always gravitated to HR positions with large-scale change and build elements – so HR transformation was a natural fit for me. I first got involved with HR transformation in the mid-90s at Wyeth pharmaceuticals, and got started in the early days of ER Shared Services at The Hartford in 2005. I have led ER Shared Services functions in three Fortune 500 companies.

In October of 2013, I accepted the role to lead Nationwide’s Associate Relations function with the intent of moving it to the next generation of ER Shared Services, including enhancing manager and associate discretion and empowerment. In this role, I have enterprise responsibility for ER Shared Services, which includes providing direct consultation to managers and associates on all performance, conduct and workplace issues and accommodations, HR policy development and HR compliance.

SSON: How do you define "employee relations Shared Services"? Are some companies overlooking this?

ER Shared Services ("ERSS") is a centralized group of ER experts that work directly with managers and employees (not through HR generalists) to address workplace issues and concerns – which normally include performance and conduct issues (including disciplinary actions and terminations), job accommodations due to medical reasons, complex policy application, complaints (including formal investigations where appropriate), threats/crisis, and third party inquiries into employee matters.

I am hopeful that companies have not ‘overlooked’ the ERSS model, but have instead decided it is not right for them. An organization needs to have an appetite for somewhat standardized HR policies and practices, and a commitment from the top to have HR generalists out of ER work. From a culture standpoint, this model may not work for all companies.

SSON: Where do you see opportunities for your role, looking forward and what ideas do you have for closer alignment between Shared Services and HR? What impact can Employee Relations have as part of a Shared Services model?

I am very excited about the future of ERSS in HR Shared Services models. I believe HR generalists of the future are going to have their hands full with organizational design (structure alignment and business process initiatives), the war for leadership talent, and the impact of technology on the workforce. Ensuring HR generalists dedicate their time and energy to high value add activities that drive organizational performance (not normally ER matters) will be critical for real HR impact. In addition, when you combine the pace of change in business with the increasingly complex legal and regulatory environment, companies need a group of experts handling ER matters to ensure timely and effective resolution.

At Nationwide, we are getting into some exciting new areas in ERSS, including the governance of the contingent workforce, progressive flexible work options, and the use of big data to support ER analytics.

SSON: What trends are having a big impact on ER?

The most significant impacts on ER these days is the expanding scope of the federal agencies (the Department of Labor and National Labor Relations Board, primarily) and the increasing pace of employment legislation at the state and municipal level (making it even more complex when trying to address workplace matters). Over the next 12 months, I believe organizations will be forced to take a close look at how they are handling their contingent workers (contractors and temporaries) and addressing their concerns due to a presumption of co-employment by the agencies. ER is well positioned to assist in this space.

SSON: How can data identify ‘emerging issues’?

I am still working on "cracking the code" on the use of ER data to actually predict ER issues, but you can certainly spot emerging types and locations of increased activity through your case data. While enterprise and business unit case activity data is readily available, I think today’s ER case data is most useful in the context of ERSS operations and company culture – it helps ERSS leaders see what areas they should be focused on from an HR policy and practice development standpoint, and helps with ERSS consulting development, knowledge management and workflow planning.

We have a world class People Analytics (HR predictive analytics) team at Nationwide, and we have been partnering with that group to see if we can make some headway on predicting things like retention following ER activity, manager effectiveness, spotting potentially toxic employees early, and performance drivers.

SSON: what kind of technology solutions support ER?

Like many ERSS functions, we have access to all employee data on all HR systems (including disability management) and a case management system. Our case management system integrates key business, manager and associate demographic data at the set-up of the case to support initial assessment by the ER consultant and future analytics. The system also allows related cases to be linked together. But in the end, it is not about the case management system – it is about what I call the "ER case taxonomy". How you categorize your ER cases is the key to quality trending and analytics, efficient ERSS operations, and "telling your story".

SSON: How can ER Shared Services support transformation?

I believe that centralizing Employee Relations into a Shared Services function is the key to true HR transformation. If ER is not centralized, HR generalists spend roughly 30% of their time on ER-related matters. Not only do ER matters distract HR generalists from higher value add work, but ER is normally not their area of expertise and they are not in a position to ensure consistency across the enterprise. By getting HR generalists out of ER work, they can focus on organizational performance levers (org design, leadership development, team effectiveness, talent strategy, etc.) which drive HR’s value proposition and the ultimately the success of the business.

SSON: What has been your greatest success over the past year?

2015 was Nationwide’s first full year in a new ER consulting model and approach that focused on leader and associate discretion and empowerment in addressing performance, conduct and workplace issues. We ended 2015 with 26% of all known performance, conduct and workplace issues being addressed by leaders on their own without HR involvement – with little added risk to the company.

The reason this is important is because by having a centralized group of ER experts you can provide consistent training, establish common protocols and practices for case handling, and benchmark cases in a way that is very difficult when the ER function is decentralized with the HR generalists. In addition, when you do make HR policy and practice changes you can "go to market" (change your consulting with managers and employees) very quickly. HR/ER policy and practice changes can take months, if ever, with HR generalists as they handle certain types of ER matters so infrequently and their focus is elsewhere. ER Shared Services both relies upon and promotes consistency of HR policy and practice.

SSON: What is your favorite quote?

"Success always looks like failure in the middle."

SSON: If you could have dinner with anyone, who would that be?

I am a distant relative of Betsy Ross (she was actually married to a member of the first continental congress) – I think it would be fascinating to get her point of view on the players and early days of our country’s fight for independence.

SSON: Where do you live and what keeps you there?

My husband and I moved to Columbus, Ohio two years ago when I accepted my current role with Nationwide. Columbus is a very vibrant and growing area, and I have never been as successful with my perennial gardening as I am in the heartland! Nationwide is an outstanding company, with a palpable commitment to employee engagement and support – I am honored to be leading their Associate Relations function.


Speaker highlights: Shared Services & Outsourcing Week (North America) 2016

  • What do you think is the biggest jump forward in the shared services and outsourcing industry over the last 20 years?

For HR – it is learning that HR shared services is truly the key to HR transformation and higher HR impact on the business.

  • In your crystal ball, where do you see the SS&O industry heading in the coming years?

I believe we are moving into an era of "personalization" of interactions and services due to better technology, the emergence of big data, and changing consumer expectations. We may see the emergence of "conglomerates" of shared services across public sector entities and non-profits due to economies of scale and talent availablity issues. I see an enhanced reliance on the contingent workforce (hourly contractors/temporaries) and the need to develop effective contingent workforce models and management practices. Like all functions, due to talent shortages, we will need to focus on attracting and retaining shared services leadership talent.