Just as you would expect the CEO of Ford to drive a Ford vehicle, you’d expect an HR tech provider to use its own system internally. And that’s how it is at Ultimate Software, where the company’s own HR experience has played a role in the development of its product. EBN recently spoke to Kathleen Pai, Ultimate’s HR leader, to explore this topic. Edited excerpts follow.

Employee Benefit News: Have any experiences that you have had inspired ideas for ways to improve Ultimate’s products?

Kathleen Pai
Kathleen Pai

Kathleen Pai: Absolutely. In general, all of UltiPro’s innovations have originated from our founding principle and culture of people first. But I’ll focus on our talent development process, and that ranges from identifying and assessing our talent to succession planning. We believe in having ongoing conversations with our employees throughout the year. It’s less about a one-time formal sit down, and more about the importance of the ongoing feedback between manager and employee. So we’ve built UltiPro to facilitate that process, and we leverage that.

EBN: How does it work?

Pai: Employees can set and enter their goals into UltiPro, then add notes on their progress, gather feedback from peers, multi-raters and their managers. The goals that they enter into the system align with company objectives. Managers can have an ongoing real-time view of their employees’ performance.

EBN: Can you explain how the system enables that alignment? How are employees’ goals linked to the company’s?

Pai: Ideally the goal-setting process starts at the beginning of the year. Employees and their managers would sit down and discuss and agree upon a set of goals. We have line-of-sight from our company goals to the goals that the managers set, then the employee ideally has line of sight into that, and there’s the cascade. So when they start that goal-setting process they’ve already had a chance to view our company goals and their own leader’s goals.

EBN: And employees’ goals are fairly specific, I would assume?

Pai: We try our best to encourage SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) goals. The conversations start at the beginning of the year and then, ideally, you come up with the goals and this get documented into UltiPro.

EBN: Once they’re in the system, is that it for the year?

Pai: No, it’s not all cast in concrete; it needs to be organic. Something that we said in January, perhaps by March or May, we may decide it looks like that project is moving in a different direction, so we need to adjust. Or maybe the project has been put on hold indefinitely, so that goal is replaced with something else. The system allows for flexibility, and it’s just facilitating these discussions, and then helping us to document and store the information somewhere.

EBN: Are there any parameters around the note-writing process as it relates to performance assessment?

Pai: The notes process, as we call it, is a two-way street. As an employee, it’s my responsibility to track and put notes into UltiPro on some of my successes and my contributions. And as a manager, if there is something that I want to recognize one of my employees for, if they just met a major milestone, I will also go into UltiPro and put that in as a quick note. This way, once we do have the more formal sit down, there are no surprises.

EBN: When there are performance issues, are those just handled in one-on-one conversations between the employee and supervisor, or are those funneled through the system?

Pai: Everything ultimately can be housed within UltiPro, but the way we manage our business, an initial conversation wouldn’t necessarily be documented in UltiPro. By the time it gets to that, the person is likely on a formal performance improvement plan. We really believe in transparency and timely feedback. In this case, the system is really just a means to make a record of conversations, so that the employee can say, “Yes, this is what we discussed and I agree,” or “I thought I heard something differently so can we have another conversation?”

EBN: Tell me about your “sentiment analysis” that helps you reduce turnover and determine who might be ready for another opportunity at Ultimate.

Pai: We have a survey tool called UltiPro Perception that can help us understand how engaged our employees are. And as part of that they can also pull information to understand potential retention risk. It’s part of Xander, our new AI platform. Once the data is in UltiPro and combined with other things like recruiting data and performance reviews, it can predict and prescribe the personalized actions to, for example, reduce the possibility that someone will leave.

EBN: What other applications are you envisioning for Xander beyond Perception?

Pai: Overall, it helps us and other employers understand people better. If you can survey anything about the work environment, you can use it for other things like a survey of leadership style. But it’s much more than a survey tool.

EBN: Has using Perception lead to any policy changes at Ultimate?

Pai: Yes. One of the suggestions that came through loud and clear was a desire for better work-life blending and more flexibility. So the next natural progression for us was to roll out an unlimited personal time off policy. Our culture is, and always will be, based on trust, and it was that next natural evolution of our culture to introduce a policy such as this. We did a pulse survey with the leaders and with a subset of our employees, and they thought it was fantastic. Some have asked us why not just add more time off days, why not just increase your vacation time? But for us, it was the next step in our whole evolution as this employer of choice and putting people first.

EBN: I’ve heard that with those programs sometimes employees are afraid to really take advantage of them…

Pai: We actually recommend that every employee take at least two weeks off a year. That’s part of our guideline that every employee must take at least two weeks off a year, and the managers are responsible for ensuring that happens, as well. Even if it ends up being a “staycation” and they don’t necessarily go anywhere exotic or travel the globe, we really feel it’s important that everyone needs some respite and some time off.

EBN: What other HR initiatives have you launched lately that leverages technology — even if it isn’t your own?

Pai: We are partnering with another company to enhance employee wellness. It’s a platform featuring an online base community with a social media aspect. It also features gaming. So it’s another really neat thing that we’ve introduced to our workforce that speaks to our culture.

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