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Welcome to your virtual HR Department. At the Maine Corner Store, we understand how important each employee is to a small company—and how difficult it is to keep up with all the latest HR issues, from managing Millenials to hiring online to keeping payroll taxes straight. Our HR bloggers have experience in companies of all sizes, so they can answer your questions today and as you grow.

HR in General

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Reward Strategy and Small Business

Posted by Pearl Ivey on 1/29/2015 6:20:00 PM

Rewards strategy may sound over the top for the average small business owner. However, no matter the size of your group it is worth considering alignment of your compensation and people strategies as the job market starts to pick up. In this market, it is more important than ever to attract and retain talent. Consider your business and product. Are you working hard to compete with low price strategy, providing excellent service, or are do you offer one of a kind product array? In other words, make sure your people strategy aligns with your product. If your service strategy is based on high end, unique products then you don’t want the employees representing your brand to think of you as an outlet.

Of importance to remember when looking at your business strategy is that compensation is only one part of total rewards strategy. Compensation and rewards should consider both short and long term organizational goals. For example, if your organization values performance, make sure that specific goal outcomes are linked to rewards. Not able to reward staff with big salaries? Another way to reward staff is offering perks such as recognition, flexible work schedules, or benefits such as an above market vacation schedule.  Your value proposition should match the company values. To illustrate, if your company has a culture of family values then providing additional time off supports employees who might share this value. Alternatively, high pressure work hours and excessive comp could attract a more autonomous worker if the corporate goals are more individualistic.

As a small employer, resources for considering your wage structure are available from local or segment surveys; typically for a small fee and participation in the survey. To check market data in broad sense for free, check out and search occupation codes that closest match the job description and select Maine under local salary information tab in order to review the compensation ranges in your industry.  For small employers, often workers wear multiple hats and therefore fair pay may depend on weighting the various job tasks.

It may be that your strategy is as simple as considering whether you want to be at market, below market, or above market.  One technique many employers are using to provide transparency and highlight the total reward strategy to employees is to communicate the total compensation package to employees at least annually. A comp package that appears at or below market in straight wages becomes very competitive once health benefits, PTO, retirement, and other perks are outlined.
Pearl Ivey, SPHR, MA
207-890-0989 or

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Monday, June 02, 2014

Hiring and Talent; Finding the Real Deal - Part 1

Posted by Pearl Ivey on 6/2/2014 1:17:00 PM

When you own a small business, staffing stress seems compounded when a member leaves or a new person is required. Small business owners wear a lot of hats, the HR hat is one more to put on when you are already busier than a “one armed paper hanger” to quote a former boss. Foremost, before you hire, it is best practice in any organization to review the job description. Does the job still make sense? Are there better ways to restructure roles and responsibilities for this position? Can portions of the job be outsourced? If a portion of the job, for example an IT function such as web maintenance could be outsourced even for the short term; this would allow precious resources (the small business owner’s or manager’s time) to be utilized more productively in effective training for the new hire. After the new hire is trained adding the outsourced activities can then be reconsidered. Another option you may wish to consider is could the position be filled through an Agency? Long term temp to hire and short term staffing agencies are a great resource for small businesses if you want to make sure a candidate is a good fit.

Typically, the next thing to consider after posting your ad is a referral. Have you discussed the role with current staff members to see if they know any candidates? Although hiring of friends and family brings its own separate set of challenges, often the hire is better with the support of a colleague as the candidate may get a well-rounded view of the organization and the referring staff is also more vested in helping with the transition.

Next, reviewing resumes can be daunting when you may have a huge amount of applicants but none seems to have experience in the same industry or exactly the skill set you wanted. Be sure to stick to the critical skills, education, and focus instead on what you need long term. Consider an approach which includes a 15 minute phone screen for a larger number of candidates prior to spending a longer amount of time for a face to face interview. Many times, the best candidates may not come across on paper and spending a bit more time on the front end can yield better results. Ask key questions about the core skill needs for the position. This is a great time to do a motivational alignment check. Why are they interested in this particular position? Why your organization? A critical time saver at this point is to ask candidate salary range (what are you currently making/made at last job?). Be prepared for the comeback question (what does this pay?). Although you may not wish to disclose this yet this question also allows you to see if there is potential alignment or potential conflict over compensation before bringing them in for an interview.

Continued in "Hiring and Talent; Finding the Real Deal - Part 1" below

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Monday, June 02, 2014

Hiring and Talent; Finding the Real Deal - Part 2

Posted by Pearl Ivey on 6/2/2014 1:16:00 PM

The interview itself should consider the critical needs of the position and your organization. Behavioral based interview questions ( is a behavioral based interview question resource) consider core behaviors needed for best fit. In addition to the traditional interview model which asks about experience, you move quickly to core behaviors that are important to you and your organization. For example, if integrity is important, instead of asking, “Is honesty important to you?” which will elicit a response of what the candidate thinks you want to hear; ask “Describe a time when you faced a challenge to your personal integrity at work.” The behavioral based interview question is a better predictor of future performance because it is based on past behaviors and past behaviors are a reasonable predictor of future performance. Plan about 10-12 behavioral based questions for the interview. This provides a consistent platform for screening your candidates and ensures the candidate is doing the talking which is critical to interviewing success. If you find yourself doing most of the talking during an interview you may not get the true sense of the candidate. The behavioral based interview question is designed to get the candidate talking about the behavior and how they may have handled it in the past. Consider that the experience is less important than this step; how they fit with your overall business needs and the organizational culture is what is determined here. Every new hire requires training to the job and so experience does not replace this but a solid behavioral based interview will give you a good idea of what areas will be stretch roles for a candidate.

Next, be sure that you call the references personally. Does the reference provided seem consistent with your discussion with the candidate?  Consider criminal, background, and post-offer employment drug screening and physical capacity checks if needed, depending on your business. These vendors must be lined up before the interview process starts but if you will use the services then typically release forms will be needed to provide to the candidate.

Another consideration if you hire regularly is assessment testing. Testing must be job related and consistently administered to be compliant but a number of assessment companies administer testing as a reasonable cost, especially when you consider the cost of a poor hire. Hiring done well considers past, present, and future of the candidate. The past is your reference checks and experience checks, present is their responses to the interview questions and how they present themselves during the interview, the assessment testing is your predictor for future performance. For example, we use a psychometrics test service called Profiles International® ( The tool is web based, once we have identified a candidate then we send them a link to a test that takes about one hour. It assesses math, reading, and learning ability, preferred behavioral styles for work, and work preferences. In other words, it answers the following questions: a. can they do the job, b. how will they do the job, and c. will they love the job. This instrument is validated, compliant, and has been around for more than four decades. It is a good predictor of performance. Although hiring decisions are not based solely on this, it gives a well-rounded view when used with the other information.

Last, but not least be sure to provide an offer letter with any outstanding conditions stipulated to candidates in writing. The size of the business is irrelevant for this task as this is a good prevention to misunderstandings and allows the candidate to review the offer on paper prior to acceptance.

Feel free to contact me about this or other HR topics at:
Pearl Ivey, SPHR, MA
207-890-0989 or

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Wellness Offerings for the Maine Small Employer

Posted by Sarah Conroy on 6/15/2012 9:00:00 AM

I’d like to focus in this blog post on some ideas to help you include wellness programming in your business even if you think your business is too small to do so.  As you know, health and wellness is constantly evolving, but it is all wrapped up in your bottom line, whether it be a safety issue in the workplace or a leave to care for a sick family member who might have avoided this had more prevention and wellness efforts been a part of their everyday lives.

How to Go About Developing A Wellness Presence in Your Workplace

I include here an interview I did on a wellness consortium for small employers in Midcoast Maine I was fortunate to create with other employers in 2009.  It might give you some ideas on how to go about it if you are a small employer and want to enjoy some of the benefits that collaborating with others brings.  While the article is about 2 years old as of this writing, much of it continues to be relevant.  For example, you will certainly want to begin by determining exactly what special discounts and programs are available via your insurer and build from there.

Besides your insurance provider’s offerings and wellness related behavior program discounts, there are all kinds of other community-based offerings.  Maine has put its tobacco settlement money to good use and there are Healthy Maine Partnership offices all over the state.  Here is a map to put you in touch with your local offices.   As you will note, the site is easily navigable and includes many other resources, like local walking trails should you want to put together a walking club.  You will also find a resource kit , and a link to Keep ME Well, Maine’s website devoted to wellness, including a free Health Risk Assessment tool that will help your employees and their families know how to set themselves on the path to wellness, regardless of whether your company’s health plan or your company itself offer such a service.

You may also want to familiarize yourself with the Wellness Council of Maine and get some training in their WELCOA programs if you want to take this to the next step and begin to more fully integrate all your offerings and supplement them with a true action plan to bring about employee wellness by incenting behaviors targeted toward the issues in your particular workforce.  You will learn much more about the wellness success stories of big companies like Cianbro and small companies like Northeastern Log Homes.  Success comes in reduction in costs to employer and employee, increases in employee satisfaction and many other forms.  Creating a culture of wellness is important and its care and feeding must be sustained to see results, so think about what you introduce and be sure you are serious about maintaining a wellness presence and including employees in the process.

Other Resources

While I have no connection to this program, I wanted to mention that there is a new option to join the first in the nation health insurance captive.  Maine recently allowed the offering of health insurance captives and the eyes of the nation are upon us.  So far, only one player in this market has emerged and I include it here to address any confusion its name may cause.  It is called the Maine Wellness Association, but it is not a wellness council, it’s actually an employer consortium to self-insure claims in much the same way businesses have been able to do for worker’s compensation programs.  They offer a health plan called Maine Sense.

I would like to recommend a group sponsored by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care called Let’s Talk Health Care. I have been asked to comment there and thus should be considered a compensated spokesperson, but I can tell you I find the group helpful and might not have found it on my own, so I would recommend it regardless.  There is much discussion on wellness, but also many other healthcare related topics relevant to our daily lives.


Sarah Conroy, SPHR, CEBS
SHRM Maine State Government Affairs Director

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Sunday, January 01, 2012

HR Training for the Maine Small Business (Part 1 of 2)

Posted by Sarah Conroy on 1/1/2012 9:00:00 AM

Some Definitions

OD vs. Training & Development:  Training can be a part of many disciplines depending on the topic and scope, but when found in a business with the focus on employee enrichment and growth in furtherance of the business, you will usually find it within Human Resources as a part of the Organizational Development (OD) function.  OD is a very broad term defined as “a long range effort to improve organization's problem solving and renewal processes, particularly through more effective and collaborative management of organizational culture, often with the assistance of a change agent or catalyst and the use of the theory and technology of applied behavioral science”.  Please visit here for more on OD.   One might say that Training & Development is a way to facilitate organizational development and achieve other human capital improvement goals.  To give you a sense of what matters OD concerns itself with in a business, OD professionals are known to identify employee competencies, develop the leaders and managers of the organization, facilitate succession planning and offer all manner of coaching.  Some of these are one time events, some are ongoing.  For example, facilitating at an executive retreat might happen once per year, where as new manager or new employee trainings could happen each week. 

Instructional design can be defined as creating “instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and appealing”.  More here.  Trainers may or may not be well-versed in instructional and curriculum design just as they may not necessarily be OD professionals.   

The Value of Employee Development

Most small businesses in Maine rely on outside assistance to create programs and even train employees either live or by using a learning management system (LMS).  The training requirements for each business will be different depending on industry, size, complexity and employee turnover.  When looking at your business needs, you will certainly evaluate when it makes sense to perform some function in-house vs. sending employees to training, whether it be a live local training or a live or canned distance learning event.  It is well worth your time to evaluate how much you are spending on on-the-job training (OJT) and have a plan for employee development if you don’t already.  Your Human Resources function should coordinate training whether it be required trainings like new employee orientation or appropriate behavior training or facilitating more technical offerings using an LMS or contracting for local trainers.  If you are lucky enough to have a trainer on staff, they might even assist with curriculum development as well as to conduct the training itself.  Whatever you do, you will want to centralize the recordkeeping so that each employee record will reflect their training and can be tied to their goals and evaluations as well as their opportunities for career laddering within the company.  Ensuring your Training & Development function is in order will assist with your succession planning so you won’t have gaps in your company’s skill matrix. 

Up next, resources for training in Maine…

Sarah Conroy, SPHR, CEBS
SHRM Maine State Government Affairs Director

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Friday, July 15, 2011

How To Maximize Your Benefits Dollar (Part 2 of 2)

Posted by Sarah Conroy on 7/15/2011 10:29:00 AM

How To Maximize Your Benefits Dollar (Part 2 of 2)

Additional Considerations – ERISA and all that!
While it is laudable to ensure employees get as much income replacement as possible during periods of disability, you will want to explore this in a larger context of how you are spending your dollars.  As touched on in the last blog entry, you retain liability and control as the ERISA administrator of all your benefit plans and so should consider the complexity and cost ramifications of any new approach.  In the earlier example, it’s clear that creating a gross-up is quite easy, but synchronizing and maintaining plan documents, summary plan descriptions and salary reduction agreements or tax choice plan opt-ins is an ongoing responsibility and requires not just record-keeping, but employee communication and ensuring that the plans not be considered discriminatory (favoring the highly compensated).  While beyond scope for this blog, you would certainly also want to attend to any state tax considerations for all your employees, which are not generally considered in the above example.  While too detailed for this blog, this approach is governed IRS Revenue Ruling 2004-55 and there are special Look Back rules to be considered.  I mention it only to help illustrate that there is much to consider and you should seek trusted advisors to help you do so.  Beyond all this, you will likely wish to determine how sustainable the approach is and envision what would happen should you need to discontinue the practice down the road for any reason.  This is not intended to rain on anyone’s parade – it is just something to ensure upfront will work for you.

Perhaps this *ERISA* primer will help: .  As you will note, ERISA has requirements that are not generally attended to by brokers or carriers.  The hope is that ERISA’s language will catch up to current practice, but it does guarantee appeals and require employer actions of which the small business owner may not be aware.

Please remember that employee benefits are part of compensation and can be used strategically to hire and maintain your workforce of choice. Changes in business need, changes in compliance requirements and changes in employee needs all mean that the offerings must be dynamic or at least refreshed on occasion.

Final Thoughts
You can’t go wrong with employee communication and education.  A review of your benefits program to ensure the components still meet your company’s strategic goals is an excellent start.   Employers who regularly survey employees and their families on what they most value ensure their offerings remain fresh and appreciated and that capital is well spent.

Of course there is much more to this and I’d be happy to offer more concrete solutions.  As always, I can be reached at and I thank you for your interest!

Sarah Conroy, SPHR, CEBS
SHRM Maine State Government Affairs Director

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Friday, July 01, 2011

How To Maximize Your Benefits Dollar (Part 1 of 2)

Posted by Sarah Conroy on 7/1/2011 8:46:00 AM

How To Maximize Your Benefits Dollar (Part 1 of 2)
A recent question got me thinking.  A small company in Maine was looking to maximize benefit dollars for employee use and was looking at grossing-up a fully-enrolled, employer-sponsored, tax-deductible disability plan.  The idea was to layer on a tax choice plan (and possibly a cafeteria option) so that an employee would have the chance to elect an option for taxable premiums so s/he could enjoy tax free benefits OR continue with tax free premiums (the company enjoys a deduction for these benefits) and taxable benefits.
Although this can be done, I recommended against it because it simply does not seem to be the best way to achieve the goal of doing all you your small business can for employees with limited benefits dollars.  I will discuss other options below and would ask you to also keep in mind that any ERISA, tax or other liability and necessary administrative expense arising from an approach like this would rest with you, the employer, not your broker, nor your employees.  It is important to weigh alternatives when planning employee benefit programs.
In order to make the numbers work in a small employer’s favor, there would need to be a number of disability claims – not something a company wants to encourage.  The cost to set up and maintain a tax choice or cafeteria plan along with the increased liability should it not be maintained properly will likely more than offset any benefit in the long run and your benefit dollars might be better spent in other ways.  
Some Benefits to Consider When Benefits Budgets Are Tight (when AREN’T they?)
  • An employer might address this issue by offering a different disability plan design with employee participation.  You could still have an employer plan with everyone enrolled at a basic rate with employees being able to buy options to either reduce their waiting period or increase their income replacement percentage or both.  You would want to marry this to an overall benefits philosophy for your company and ensure you can maintain it over time.  Your current broker can likely present you with a range of options for both sponsored and perhaps voluntary plans for disability.
  • A business could offer some supplemental voluntary plans.  A number of Maine companies offer a range of options via Aflac and Colonial so that employees can purchase benefits through the work place at no cost to the company.  This approach is popular among employers in that employees will still thank the employer for the benefit and employees love it because it is generally portable.  Employers will often restrict the voluntary offerings so as not to pull from their other plans.  More on these benefits may be found here: and here:  (as you may know, Colonial is a subsidiary of Unum)
  • It may be time to revisit health insurance in light of healthcare reform on both the state and federal levels.  I am sure your broker will explain the range of options available under Maine’s new healthcare reform law as well as what federal reform offers and requires.
  • Discount programs – employees generally appreciate whatever can be offered to enhance their employment experience, including programs that allow your employees to receive discounted services via purchasing consortiums and trade groups.  Is your company taking full advantage of the programs offered via groups you belong to in your industry or community?  
  • Paid Time Off – I mention this here only because you will want to ensure your paid time off programs dovetail with any disability and leave programs you have in place for your employees.  You will want to ensure they are managed to balance funded and unfunded liabilities with employee and company needs.
Of course this is merely a snapshot in response to an issue that arose, there is much more to employee compensation and benefit planning.  
Up next, ERISA and what the heck you need to worry about as a small business in Maine.
Sarah Conroy, SPHR, CEBS
SHRM Maine State Government Affairs Director

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End of HR in General Posts

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