|ANITA DENNIS is a Journal contributing editor.|
Many organizations today seek multitalented employees who can offer a variety of skills that will benefit the company while keeping staff ranks lean. Susan Kline, the vice-president of finance and administration at the Indiana Credit Union League in Indianapolis, found that gaining expertise in employment law enabled her both to help her employer and to serve as a consultant to its constituency. Her efforts not only allowed the organization to add a new service to its offerings but they also expanded her own professional opportunities.
Employment law and human resources management are highly complex areas, with new regulations being added all the time. Because of the sensitivity of these areas, when seeking a human resources executive, "an employer looks for someone who is reliable and dependable and has high integrity. And those are the skills that CPAs are known for," Kline says. As a result, although human resources is not necessarily an area that CPAs often enter, once she took on both responsibilities Kline realized how well suited CPAs were for them.
Kline left public practice at Coopers & Lybrand in 1988 to take a position at the league that included supervision of the accounting staff as well as of her organizations human resources function, a responsibility that was being consolidated under one person after having been scattered throughout the organization. The league is a trade association that consults with its members on regulatory compliance and strategic planning; provides education through conferences and seminars; represents member interests before legislators; and does communications and public relations. The 270 league members range from a small church credit union with a volunteer staff to a credit union with over $500 million in assets. "There is a huge diversity," Kline says.
Kline immersed herself in employment law in order to keep up with new regulations. "When I took the job, I had to do research and learn about complicated issues, "she explains, citing federal legislation such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as well as sexual harassment cases that have come on the scene in the last decade. "The league has other specialists in-house, such as a lending and collections specialist, who consult to the member credit unions. Since we were gaining deeper human resources expertise in-house, we decided to try to make it available to the members, too." Thus, Kline took on the role of consultant to the leagues members.
This change was part of an evolution at the organization. "We used to have a very traditional pyramid structure, but we are working toward the idea that no job is pure management. Each job has a specialized skill that allows it to contribute directly in some way to service for our members." It was also a reflection of far-reaching changes in employment laws and attitudes. After hearings for the Clarence Thomas confirmation as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Kline conducted internal training sessions for the league on sexual harassment.
Klines new role also met an industry need. "At a lot of credit unions, people have to wear many hats," Kline says. "They may have one person handling human resources—in addition to investing and member services—who just doesnt have a lot of time to focus on HR issues." Because many of its member credit unions did not have staff with sufficient knowledge of the issue, the organization decided to offer chapter presentations and in-house training. "Thats where I first got exposure as someone who was doing work for the association but was also available to consult." Kline began offering member credit unions human resources needs assessments, in-house training on topics such as sexual harassment, interviewing and performance appraisal, discipline and discharge, and the ADA and the FMLA.
She also developed a quarterly human resources newsletter for credit unions as well as a bulletin board on the leagues Web page. A personnel policy manual for Indiana credit unions created by the league contains many policies that can be cut and pasted depending on their needs. For example, some credit unions are reserved for employees of one company while others serve many. Some federal and state employment laws apply only to companies of a certain size. "We have tried to educate them that as they grow, those laws can kick in and you may not even realize that they apply to you."
Name: Indiana Credit Union League.
A NEW SERVICE AREA
Like many similar institutions, the league has a services arm that performs non-tax-exempt activities. While these include some services that might be typical for credit union leagues, such as processing credit card transactions and providing employee health insurance programs, the Indiana league added two unusual items to its roster because of its expanded understanding of human resource issues: leasing employees to credit unions and forming and managing credit union shared branches. The league got into the business of employee leasing when one of its largest members, the Eli Lilly Federal Credit Union, approached it with a problem. The credit union was compelled to offer job openings to all company employees—rather than to outsiders—and as a result it was getting numerous applicants who did not have the required financial backgrounds. It asked the league if it could supply and administer contract employees for these jobs. Today Klines division supplies that credit union with over 70 people—or 80% of its staff—including three dedicated human resources employees, who handle payroll and benefits and any other employment issues, all while serving as full-time employees of the league. The league now leases 160 contract employees to member credit unions, as well as managing employees who work at 11 credit union branches that are shared by more than one credit union. For example, four branches in Indianapolis are owned by a cooperative of a group of state credit unions.
Oversight of this burgeoning service—and a total workforce of 250—is handled by Kline and one personnel assistant, who monitors time and attendance reports, health insurance billing and testing of prospective employees. Kline is able to devote the necessary time to her human resources responsibilities because of an increased use of automation and the strength of her four-person accounting staff, which enables her to perform mainly a review function in the finance area. In addition, the league shifted human resources control to managers, asking them to run the interview process using a manual Kline had created. "Our human resources department does quality control, not interviews," she says.
Kline has gained all of her human resources knowledge through research and on-the-job training. She has relied on employment law publications and periodicals and her local chamber of commerce as sources of information. Because the field is so broad and some laws are based on company size, she recommends that those interested in learning more about the field use a universitys business library as a starting point.
For others considering employee leasing, Kline warns that it has become a highly complicated field, particularly given greater Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of who actually controls the employees work. In addition, because the league works with so many different entities, if one leased group chooses to contribute more to a 401(k) plan than another leased group, this can be deemed discrimination under pension laws.
Human resources management also features a problem familiar to CPAs: standards overload. "You cant dabble in this field because you are giving advice on issues that are complex and fast changing," she says. "You have to make a commitment to keeping current, which is a big commitment."
Finally, while its possible for a finance person to learn about employment issues, its important to understand ones limitations, Kline warns. "Dont play attorney if youre not one," she says, explaining that she regularly consults with employment lawyers to ensure the leagues actions are acceptable and is now pursuing a law degree herself full-time.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR CPAs
Kline says that her new duties initially were a huge stretch from her financial background but a worthwhile complement to it. "In finance, you do technical and analytical work, while in human resources the job is people-oriented. You develop a lot of contacts across the organization in dealing with personnel issues. It helps you maintain an image as a people person, as well as the finance person."
While other credit union leagues provide employee leasing, few such programs are administered by CPAs. "There are not a lot of people who combine accounting oversight with human resources knowledge," she admits. "But CPAs have a dollars-and-cents perspective and an analytical ability to tell employers what a human resources development means to their businesses. They can sift through the rules and regulations and perform compliance reviews. They can explain why a law is important in terms of corporate risk and the need to control it."
The sensitivity of the human resources area is another reason CPAs are well equipped to manage it. "The employment field is becoming a lot riskier for employers," Kline says. "There is so much more exposure if a company is not in compliance with regulations." As a result, "in human resources, as in accounting, you need a high level of reliability. Things cant go wrong; they have to be well controlled. CPAs bring credibility and analytical intelligence to employment laws that are becoming more complex. It makes sense that the same person who makes sure your books and records are in order may also be a very good person to monitor your employment practices."