SHRM Day 1 Recap

There's nothing quite like the combination of excessive dry heat, gambling, food, drink and more than 15,000 human resources professionals taking over a city. That's the reality of this year's Society for Human Resource Management 2015 annual conference and exposition, taking place this week through Wednesday in Las Vegas.

This being my fourth SHRM conference — the first of which I've attended in Las Vegas — I have to say this one seems to have the most punch. I'm sure the around-the-clock access to craps, slot machines, blackjack and, yes, alcohol has done its part, but there's something more happening here in Las Vegas. It seems to me that the human resources profession is at quite a crossroads on so many different levels. 

While I've only been here for a day and a half, my conversations with HR practitioners and vendors have raised a number of interesting nuggets that speak to just how much traditional notions of HR are changing. Here are some themes that have caught my eye thus far.

Financial Wellness

The first came yesterday as I sat down with Jeff Tulloch, vice president of MetLife's PlanSmart Business Advantage team at the financial services company. Jeff helps run PlanSmart, which is MetLife's financial literacy service that teaches employees both internally and externally on the importance of financial wellness. Financial wellness programs, while not as big as health wellness, is starting to catch on as a benefit for companies. As defined benefit retirement plans — pensions — continue to phase out, employees are expected to take more control over their retirement planning through the use of employee contribution, or 401(k), plans.

But in addition to financial literacy on retirement, Tulloch said many employees in corporate America still fail to maintain a personal budget along with some of the other financial wellness basics. The stress that results from such financial strains can have a big influence on employee engagement and productivity. Tulloch said more companies are starting to recognize this by offering as a benefit financial wellness courses and guidance. 

Along with helping employees navigate their retirement planning options, Tulloch said PlanSmart provides courses in the basics of investing, estate planning and "love and money," or managing money in relationships.

Are you offering financial wellness as a benefit at your company?

As Tulloch said, doing so is increasingly important, as personal financial strain on employees can trigger larger problems with performance. Plus, Tulloch stresses the social responsibility companies have to educate their workforces on something so culturally important in our society. "We need someone to help us act on it," he said, highlighting companies' important role in providing employees financial wellness. 

Culture and Unlimited Vacation

This morning I had the opportunity to have breakfast with some folks from Glassdoor.com, the website that allows employees to post company reviews and companies to monitor and promote their employer brand. 

As a company based in Mill Valley, California, not far from Silicon Valley, Glassdoor is right in the middle of the growth boom in the area. While the company's core service is to bring openness and transparency to recruitment, Glassdoor is also itself experiencing a good amount of growth as it positions itself more globally. With this growth comes an increase in hiring, and with the labor market tight — unemployment is hovering around 5.5 percent nationwide — Glassdoor is making strides to provide its favorable and fun company culture in an effort to attract top talent. 

It has also recently opened the floodgates on an HR policy change growing in popularity: unlimited vacation days. 

The trouble with unlimited vacation, HR folks have told me, is that it has some substantial side effects. While having as much time as you want to take off for whatever reason — vacation or otherwise — sounds awesome, employees in highly competitive environments may be reluctant to take time off in fear that it will look poorly on them to their peers.

Glassdoor doesn't seem to be having this problem. According to company representatives, its unlimited vacation policy is working quite well, thanks to the company's established culture of openness and shared accountability. So long as an employee is meeting their performance targets and deadlines — or has arranged a co-worker to help them out — they are to take off as much time off as they want.

Not every company, however, has this sort of culture, and in many cases having a defined vacation/PTO plan is the best course. What do you think?

Last but not least, the Glassdoor breakfast spurred a great conversation on culture. Glassdoor, like other tech firms, says it is proud of its office space of catered lunches, open office plans and lavish perks like unlimited vacation. its representatives say these are things that push many employees to stay with the company. But I thought it was also interesting that Glassdoor freely admitted that the free-lunch-perk culture of this ilk isn't for every company. Some employees may be turned off by such a high-engagement environment, where employees are not just committed to being at work but enthusiastic on the idea of a complete work-life blend. 

A big part of HR's job as the industry moves forward is to determine how to find a balance between a culture of high engagement and commitment, and a culture of relative autonomy and freedom from overwork. Unlimited vacation days and cushy office cultures and spaces for work is a start, but it's important for HR practitioners to seriously evaluate the nuances these benefits bring to the culture before putting them in place.

We've got a lot more to come at SHRM '15. Keep it here for more blogs from the second and third days from hot, dry and sunny Las Vegas.