When Maggie Smith joined Traliant in April of 2021, the organization had no formal HR function whatsoever.
The company's controller sent out job offer letters and made sure new hires made it to the right place on their first day. And a contractor did a lot of the recruiting. Other than that, there was no real HR department at the 5-year-old company.
"There were so many things to tackle at the same time," Smith recalled as she reflected on her first week on the job. "Unfortunately, it felt like a lot of problems had been saved for when HR came on the scene."
By May, Smith had a plan for the rest of the year. Traliant needed to review compensation, an area that lacked a formal mechanism. It also needed an applicant tracking system, a human resources information system and an employee handbook — and the policies to fill it.
After creating a plan that tackled each of these elements, Smith shared it with the entire company and committed to achieving each stage. She posted it publicly so people could track her progress, and to give employees intent on certain issues "peace of mind."
"I did get everything on that list done. It felt like a marathon," Smith said. "When I finally hit a year, I was tired. There was so much on there."
While outfitting Traliant with the HR functionality it needed to continue on its path of growth, Smith said she learned a few key lessons on the way, collecting both tips for other HR pros and reminders for her own professional journey.
Benefits: A lesson in progress over perfection
A week into her new job, Smith noticed a trend in the conversations she was having with Traliant workers: Much of the feedback about their work experiences focused on benefits. At the time, Traliant offered medical, dental, vision and a 401(k). "But that was it," Smith said.
So Smith polled employees to gauge the pain points around benefits. An "overwhelming amount" of people took the survey Smith sent out, and the feedback helped Traliant select the voluntary benefits it offered later that year during open enrollment.
"It was a big priority coming in because everyone had pent up feelings around benefits, and I was the person who could fix it," Smith said. "You don't want to offer benefits that are no use to anyone, so you really want to tap into feedback to figure out what people want."
Traliant augmented its benefit offerings by adding voluntary life, critical illness and accident insurances, as well as coverage for identity theft and legal services. It also adopted an employee assistance plan and a new option for health benefits.
Despite making sure the offerings would address employee expectations, Smith came away with one regret: "I don't suggest going out with that many voluntary benefits at once because it's a lot of information at once for employees. But sometimes you have to balance pricing, if you can get more benefits for your buck."
Smith said the process of adding new options taught her to appreciate progress, rather than perfection. "I knew this was my first pass at this — it was better but it wasn't where I wanted to be," she said. "That's an important point to make. If you're a small HR department, you're not going to be able to go from zero to 100 right away. You're going to be making incremental differences."
Creating an employee handbook
Smith's next priority was to create an employee handbook.
"We were growing and we had no employee handbook. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's so important,'" she said with a laugh. Workers may think of an employee handbook as a rule book, but most need it as a resource, Smith pointed out. "There's no way they can remember every single thing you roll out."
Smith's work on the handbook spurred an effort to create policies the organization had gone without since its inception. The company had no policy regarding time off for jury duty or bereavement, for instance. Smith learned this when she found out that a worker took vacation time after a parent's death.
"It was really about developing all the policies and then working backward and shaping them into a handbook so it was a one-stop reference for employees," she said.
Lessons learned and the road ahead
As Smith looked back on her first year, she identified key lessons learned in building out an HR department.
First: Listen to employees. When considering new programs or upgrading existing ones, it's important to factor in the feedback of the people who use them. Smith wanted to upgrade Traliant's EAP, but the multitude of options overwhelmed her.
So she decided to ask employees what would be most helpful, and it changed the course of her search. Plus, the survey process offered her insight into her employee base: "Writing the survey questions, I wasn't just looking for the solution we wanted to implement, but I was getting the pulse on mental health in our organization."
Smith learned another lesson throughout her first year, though this one was more pertinent to her own professional journey than the organization's burgeoning HR department. She had tasked herself with adding a new ATS and HRIS, both of which required some due diligence. "But I overdid it," she admitted. Smith examined nine different options for an HRIS, each option involving calls and research. "That was my biggest mistake because I wasted time. I talked to too many people."
Overall, the year was a smooth one for Smith, who said she didn't find it to be very stressful. She felt motivated to work quickly, however, in part due to the uncertainty workers felt because of the pandemic.
"People were frustrated. Their mental health was spread a bit thin," Smith recalled. "When I came in, I felt more pressure to work more quickly. I felt like I was laying track down because the train was coming."
"I don't know if everyone forging an HR department feels that way, but I wanted to move quickly to secure some of the basics we didn't have without a formal department. But I also wanted to create opportunities for employees to engage and interact with each other."
Smith conceded that she felt tired by the time she came to her one-year anniversary with Traliant. She took a couple of days off at the year mark and got a massage. And she planned a big trip for later this summer, when a part-time hire will be trained up and ready to fill in the gaps.
In this next year, she plans to take on less. "You can't run a marathon year after year," she said. She plans to focus on a few key issues, like the company's 401(k) plan platform and its work arrangement models.
"Our plans going forward are centered around growth. We've grown in the past year, but how do we build a strong infrastructure that supports different infrastructures too?" she asked. "That's something I'm really continuing to look ahead to."