Managing Humans

A new ASTM committee will build consensus among stakeholders and provide guidance to practitioners of human resource management.
Jack Maxwell

As many standards developers know, it's difficult enough to reliably measure the mechanical performance of objects and to use the information to create standards for evaluating that performance.

But when it comes to creating consensus guidelines directed at the interaction of human beings and the activities of the organizations they work within, the process of developing applicable standards embraced by all relevant stakeholders can be even more complicated.

ASTM Committee E63 on Human Resource Management is poised to take on the challenge. The newly formed committee was officially created in January.

A Little History

The first steps toward developing standards for the human resources profession were taken in 2004, when - in response to feedback from people working in the field across a wide range of industries - members of the Society for Human Resource Management began exploring the topic.

Over the next few years, SHRM worked with the American National Standards Institute, the International Organization for Standardization and a variety of key industry stakeholders to move the conversation surrounding standards forward. They developed standards on subjects such as workplace violence prevention and intervention, cost per hire and performance management. In 2014, SHRM decided to focus on its strength as a subject matter expert and seek an experienced partner to administer the standards development process.

In response to a request for proposals, ASTM contacted SHRM in January 2015, conducted multiple meetings with the organization's staff, and circulated its statement of interest among the 400-plus members of SHRM task forces to gather additional information and feedback. Ultimately, SHRM selected ASTM to manage the process of creating voluntary standards that would provide HR practitioners and other stakeholders with useful guidelines for improving their effectiveness.

Standards for What, Exactly?

Human resources is, by definition, a people-focused field. And though it may not be "technical" in the way that material science and product engineering are, it's no less complicated. In fact, in some ways it may well be more complicated.

To better understand the breadth and complexity of the issues faced by HR professionals every day, look no further than the following list of potential standards topics:

  • Definitions (terminology),
  • Metrics and measures,
  • Compliance/regulation,
  • Compensation and benefits,
  • Employee and labor relations,
  • Staffing and workforce planning,
  • Organizational development and change management,
  • Mergers, acquisitions and outsourcing,
  • Performance management,
  • Diversity and inclusion,
  • Sustainability and workforce readiness, and
  • Training and employee development.

Some elements of HR practice - for example, staffing issues like cost-per-hire, employee turnover and time-to-fill (the number of days between posting a vacant position and when a candidate accepts a job offer) - can be measured, and would appear more likely to benefit from some type of standardized guidelines. Metrics that quantify the performance of different organizations in areas like cost-per-hire and time-to-fill exist, but there is currently no agreement across the human resources profession to use these voluntary standards.

Other elements of HR practices, such as compensation and benefits, diversity and inclusion, and employee and labor relations include legal or compliance requirements in addition to aspects of people's interaction. Experts in these areas might need to identify voluntary minimum standards that would benefit organizations and not conflict with normal compliance requirements.

"Standards are needed because the industry needs ways to measure how effective and efficient organizations are in terms of finding and retaining talent," says Denise Bailey-Clark, former HR director for SHRM and currently vice president, human resources and organizational development, for the American Nurses Association.

Bailey-Clark notes that issues such as workforce planning, training requirements and talent acquisition, while essential to any organization, are particularly important in the nursing field because the stakes - healthy outcomes for patients - are high. "One example of a useful standard could relate to knowing how to calculate the optimum number of nurses needed in an emergency room, and how many you'd need throughout the day," she says.

Association leaders in the human resources community are also engaged on where standards might - and might not - bring value. Michele Carlin is executive vice president of the Center on Executive Compensation and HR Policy Association, the leading public advocacy organization for chief human resources officers who work at the highest levels of major corporations around the world. She believes operational areas, such as how long it takes to fill jobs or process transactions, might be fertile ground for standards.

However, she said HRPA believes that standards are inappropriate in areas such as disclosing executive compensation in company proxy statements prior to shareholder meetings. "We've seen no groundswell of support for standards in this area among our members," she says. "We need to acknowledge that there are places where standards can be neither appropriate nor useful to the profession."

She added, "That being said, we support an open, unbiased process to explore the issue of standards, and we're pleased that ASTM's rigorous, transparent process will bring industry stakeholders to the table to discuss the issues."

Toward a More Diverse Workforce

Some areas of potential standards development generate impassioned debate. Captain Pat Williams is the chief diversity officer at the United States Naval Academy. In this role, she has grappled with a thorny issue facing human resources professionals: diversity and inclusion, or D&I. She believes consensus standards can help address the problems some organizations have in this area.

"The lack of standards creates myriad issues because there's no real way to validate certain processes within the workplace. Moreover, there is no real clarity to the stakeholders about general and/or specific HR and/or D&I efforts," Williams points out. "Organizations seeking to improve, and especially sustain superior performance with high performing teams, would reap significant benefits from a robust, consensus-accepted set of HR-focused standards." She further asserts that "given the importance of a diverse and inclusive workforce, a sanctioned set of D&I standards would go a long way in fostering inclusive excellence, where everyone is treated with dignity and respect."

Language and cultural differences are aspects of workforce diversity as well. Lorelei Carobolante, CEO of G2nd Systems, specializes in helping organizations deal with issues that spring from these differences, which are more common than ever in today's global economy.

"When you have native English speakers and non-native English speakers using the same language in different ways, there's potential for confusion," Carobolante says. She cites idiomatic business expressions integrated into overall messages and meanings, such as "drive the initiative," "table the project" and "on the same page," as examples of shortcuts native English speakers use that can be misinterpreted by someone who learned English in a different cultural context. This kind of situation highlights the importance of ensuring that any standardized terminology for the human resources profession be as culturally neutral as possible. "The terms and definitions we choose must be able to be accurately interpreted by the end user," says Carobolante.

A Promising Start

The HR experts interviewed for this article have different opinions on how and where standards can best be applied to their profession. But while some are more bullish on their value than others, all seem to agree on the value of a frank and open discussion of the issues among industry professionals. "A set of standardized practices that are universal across industries, and can be applied to small, medium, large, public and private sector companies and organizations, would advance both the HR and D&I professions," says Williams.

The experts also agree on the wisdom of enlisting the assistance of ASTM. According to Carobolante, "ASTM has committed to provide a framework and standards development process that fosters collaborative work among HR experts from different industry sectors, specializations and experience levels. When HR experts come together to establish consensus-based voluntary standards or technical specifications for the profession, those tools can help guide HR practitioners, foster opportunities and strengthen the value that HR and D&I contribute to organizations."


Jack Maxwell is a freelance writer based in Westmont, New Jersey.