When Coca-Cola Refreshments business leaders or employees have a question about an employee relations issue, they simply pick up the phone and dial the company's centralized call center, which is staffed by experienced HR and benefits consultants. The system wasn't built in a day, though, as Coca-Cola employee relations managers shared during a session at the annual Society for Human Resource Management conference, held recently in Atlanta, Ga.

"We have learned from trial and error," said Wendy Lawson, PHR, senior manager, field employee relations, Coca-Cola Refreshments.

From its launch in June 2009 to May 2012, over 100,000 cases have been resolved using the new shared-services system, which handles everything from simple attendance issues to more complex cases involving potential harassment and discrimination.

Implementation of the new system involved a large cultural shift, admitted Lawson.

"There was no longer the 'go down the hall to speak to your HR person' mentality," she explained, adding that repetitive and tireless communication was key to the system's implementation.


Skill level differentiation

When an employee calls, emails, or sends a Webmail request to the employee relations group, team coordinators assign cases to consultants based on skill level.

At first, cases were handled by the first responder, but this became impossible as case volume skyrocketed.

"We determined that we could change our structure by differentiating by skill levels of our team. We created a peer structure that included employee relations consultants, senior employee relations consultants and team leaders. This allowed us to assign cases based on content and issue type," said Wanda Ford Crumpler, PHR, senior manager, field employee relations, Coca-Cola Refreshments.

The first level of resource, employee relations consultants, handle simple conduct or attendance issues, as well as time-record violations and accommodations. They generally have one-to-seven years of HR experience.

Senior employee relations consultants have approximately 12 years of professional HR experience and handle issues related to harassment, discrimination, workplace violence and more complicated conduct situations.

The last tier, employee relations team leaders, is responsible for complex investigations and/or issues that involve senior-level leaders. These consultants also work on projects that improve the employee-relations processes within the team.

Experts in specialty areas - such as safety, transportation and accommodation - help the team leverage a wide array of subject matters.

"Having these multiple levels has afforded us the opportunity to build bench strength, to offer developmental opportunities, as well as to provide focus for similar case types and levels," said Lawson.

All consultants are responsible for compiling written reviews and recommending a final course of action. End actions can include performance coaching, performance improvement plans, corrective action or involuntary separation from the company.

If an agreement can't be reached between the consultant and business leader, higher-level leaders on both the HR and business side of the company get involved.

Employee relations managers and team leaders review all involuntary separations to ensure the decision is consistent with general practice, fair, and well-supported in the written report.


Standardization greatest benefit

The greatest benefit of the new system is standardization, according to the presenters. Due to various company acquisitions, the Coca-Cola HR team had to eliminate local policies and pare them into a single, shared policy for the entire company. For example, at one point the organization had well over 100 different attendance policies.

"For consistent policies, standardization is imperative. Our organization evolved over many years from numerous independently owned organizations," Lawson said.

Once it had achieved policy standardization, the company "implemented a one-stop-shop for our leaders," she added. Her team continues to track the policy's implementation to ensure that the customer experience is the same for each interaction. They also help strategize onboarding techniques, as well as recruitment, retention and recognition strategies.

While Crumpler stressed the need to look at each case independently, the consultants and business leaders use the database and a shared team site as resources to guide their decisions.

In addition to these tools, the employee relations program documents and identifies regional trends and business unit challenges. "Data can be used by field HR partners, as well as by our business managers, to identify trends and regional business unit challenges. It also provides information on crucial areas of deteriorating or conflicting employee relations," Crumpler said.

Compared to a decentralized system, which uses paper records on a local or regional scale, Coca-Cola documents everything electronically through its system. This ensures that similar case types are treated equally and maintains a full employment record for employees who move job locations.


Ongoing obstacles

Initially, there was resistance from trained HR consultants and business leaders on whether HR could have the same value outside of local environments and whether issues would be handled as well over the phone.

Most of the HR consultants came from field roles where they handled cases face to face, so there was trepidation about how they would make up for the lack of visual cues when dealing with cases.

But Lawson suggests that "we gained auditory enhancements. We brought a different perspective to the investigation." Also, the business leader may share their perspective based on body language observations, while consultants can pick up on tone and agitation in employees' voices.

Because they do all consulting work remotely via phone, "we rely on partnerships," Crumpler explained. "Partnerships with our business leaders, our field security managers and our field HR business partners, who are all equally dispersed. They can provide location presence during investigative meetings and general environmental knowledge that impact the outcome of an investigation."

Corporate counsel makes sure final recommendations are legally compliant and helps to advise managers. They also provide employment law updates and regular training to the team.

Further, with 27% of its employees covered by bargained union agreements, the HR consultants partner with labor relations consultants to make sure resolutions comply with collective bargaining language.

Since it's a difficult to manage employees from remote locations, Coca-Cola implemented a teleworking schedule to increase retention among employee relations consultants. It allowed staff to work from home several days a week and have built-in catch-up days to help them stay on top of documentation and tie up loose ends without falling behind.


Culture shift

While the consultants ideally wanted to control all employee relations issues, it was clear early on that high call volume would prevent them looking at each and every issue. By evaluating call trends, they identified the highest volume issues - attendance, time-keeping concerns and minor safety infractions - and gave managers the necessary tools to deal with these issues themselves.

Some managers complained that they were doing additional HR-type work. The HR team had to shift cultural perspectives in order to empower managers to be responsible for that leadership relationship.

"We spoon-fed our leaders," said Lawson. "It takes quite a bit of time for people to ensure that the appropriate approach is taken."

When launching any new program or system, Lawson suggested holding meetings within the HR department separately and then with business leaders. Allow for open Q&A sessions to understand everyone's needs.

"Identify your biggest skeptics and gear your communication toward them," she advised.

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