Sexual harassment, tax reform, elections, changes to health care law, travel bans and changes to visa rules for immigrants, medical marijuana, social media guidelines — they’re all topics constantly on the radar for human resources professionals. 

The past year has been hectic, to say the least, for HR specialists, but Cynthia Thompson, principal and founder of The Thompson HR Firm in Memphis and publisher and editor of HR Professionals Magazine, says that was widely expected.

“Every time we have an administration change in the White House, HR is turned upside down,” she says. “When the Democrats are in office, it’s employee-focused; when the Republicans are in office, it’s employer-focused. Everything is political, even though HR is apolitical. We have to keep in mind what’s happening on the political front.”

She says many of President Trump’s executive orders have had a significant impact on human resources departments at companies of all sizes and in industries across the board. To keep HR professionals up to speed on changes in policy, the Society for Human Resource Management hosts an annual employment law and legislation conference in Washington. This year’s conference will take place in March.

Closer to home, SHRM hosts state conferences and its Memphis chapter holds monthly meetings and quarterly executive roundtable meetings to keep members informed of changes in the local and state political landscape that will affect their organizations and employees in areas such as compensation, benefits, and employee relations.

Thompson says assistance with benefits is the most common concern employees bring to their companies’ HR departments.

“Employee benefits have become so complicated with the ACA, health care reform — it’s hard for anyone to understand and keep up and it’s overwhelming,” she says.

Most HR departments work with benefits consultants to come up with the best packages for their organization’s needs with the budget they have in place.  An insurance broker’s job is to be an extension of the HR team. Benefits consultants educate companies about changes in areas like health care and 401(k) regulations.

“They can rely on us to do their research for them, so we can provide them with all that information,” says Hal Stansbury, director of business development with The Barnett Group, a Memphis-based benefits consulting firm. “They need to have third party people — whether they be payroll companies or insurance brokers keeping them up to date. If they don’t have a good broker behind them they’re at a disadvantage for sure.”

When Thompson first entered the HR profession in 1977, most HR professionals were generalists, but increasingly complicated workplace scenarios and company liability have transformed the industry into one that today is largely comprised of specialists in areas such as compensation, benefits, employee relations, and data analytics. Certifications are available in many areas of specialization. However, HR professionals at small businesses with fewer than 100 employees often still need to be generalists.

Additionally, the education requirements for candidates have become more demanding.

“It used to be that you could come through the back door like I did, and they could teach you HR, but that part has changed now — the profession has progressed and it’s very educational-oriented now,” says Thompson, who in the 1970s was recruited internally by the HR department at the bank where she worked in the loan office.

SHRM-Memphis has a student chapter for college students to learn from and network with human resources professionals, offering them access to several events throughout the academic year with guest lectures, role-playing scenarios and more to prepare them for their careers.

“Human resources professionals are now also expected to be business professionals,” Thompson says. “You used to interview for an HR position and the interviewer wanted to be sure you knew human resources. Now they want to be sure you’re a business professional. It helps tremendously to have an HR-specific degree but they’re also looking for HR professionals who have MBAs. They want to know you have business acumen. Certification is also important.”

These young professionals are entering a field that’s taken the national spotlight recently, with predatory behavior in the workplace dominating the headlines, with the #metoo movement and entertainment industry heavy hitters such as Harvey Weinstein, Tavis Smiley, and Matt Lauer accused of sexual harassment. It’s shed light on the prevalence of workplace harassment and employees who are often suffering quietly for fear of retaliation.

“Everyone is telling their stories now,” Thompson says. “We’ll remember 2017 as the year we took notice that sexual harassment must be stopped.”

She says that training to protect employees from workplace predators was stunted by the Great Recession when many HR professionals were laid off, which decreased the numbers of HR workers and limited the format of training sessions.

“As a result, sexual harassment has been, for the most part, online training in many organizations, with people just answering multiple-choice and true-or-false questions, and you can take it over and over until you get it right,” Thompson says. “That’s no substitute for face-to-face training. It’s just too important to assign online training. We need to return to the face-to-face training model.”

She says HR departments must also contend with bullying, which often occurs electronically and is perpetrated by both employees and employers. Although workplace harassment is nothing new, today’s technology provides proof.

“An employee will come into their office with an email or a text message — a lot of harassment now is done by text,” she says. “And many newer managers don’t understand that you can’t text hourly employees after work hours. They’ll go into overtime. And they’re just getting the monkey off their back, passing along assignments after work hours, and the employee will respond that it’s a form of bullying. You can’t do that to people outside of work hours. It’s inappropriate, but you see more of it because we’re doing everything electronically and people are trying to manage that way.”

Stansbury says social media monitoring is another concern for HR departments.

“No matter who you work for, nowadays you’re not just representing yourself on social media — you’re representing the company you work for,” he says. “So, if I were to post something on Facebook that would be distasteful to some people, or bully somebody else, that’s grounds for termination because you’re a representative of who you work for. HR people having to monitor that can be quite a headache, I’m sure.”

Other recent issues center on drugs — namely the opioid epidemic and the legalization of medical marijuana. Employers must comply with drug-free workplace policies, and most drug test.

“When people are using marijuana medically, it poses a challenge for HR professionals and employers because employees can’t take it at work,” Thompson says. “There are ramifications, and it stays in your system. It’s causing a big issue in the HR world and we’re having to rely more on legal advice.”

Meanwhile, the national opioid epidemic spills into managing benefits because many plans will no longer pay for those drugs. Then, employees are given substitute drugs that aren’t as effective, which affects productivity because the employees are experiencing pain-management issues.

“HR is a very tedious job,” says Stansbury. “And no matter how much technology advances, a lot of old-school HR people are saying computers are starting to take care of the work we have to do. But that’s never going to be the case because there’s just so much that an HR person has to cope with on a daily basis.”