Madison County officials are considering how to move forward with their human resources department after the recent departure of the third director in two years.
“At this point in time, we have pretty much determined that we’re just going to sit for a period of time and evaluate where we’ve been and give consideration to where we want to go,” said Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz.
The county’s first human resources director was hired about two years ago after the commissioners decided the need existed for a director.
The county has about 225 employees that span more than 20 departments, including the two county-owned nursing homes in Sheridan and Ennis. Historically, without a human resources director, the department heads and commissioners were counted on to navigate personnel issues that cropped up, Schulz said. At times, this could get complicated.
“In my opinion, with some 225 employees there are areas where a human resources position can offer a tremendous benefit,” he said.
Typically, human resource experts guide employers on a variety of things from employee manuals and policies, to discipline procedures to laws governing hiring and firing.
This advisory role is an important part of what the three human resource directors have provided for the county, Schulz said.
“I will tell you that our department heads have learned a lot,” he said.
However, the county has struggled to keep the human resources director position filled.
The problem is hard to pin down, Schulz said. It could be people using the human resources person in an inappropriate way by involving them in situations unnecessarily. Or it could be other supervisors not referring to the human resources expertise when they should.
Regardless, there are some folks who would like to see if the county couldn’t operate without a human resources director, he said.
“I wish I had a good answer for you but I think our generally agreed plan is to mull this over and contemplate it for a few weeks and then revisit it,” Schulz said.
One of the jobs the human resources directors have worked on is updating the county’s personnel policy, which hasn’t been officially updated since 2002. In the interim, the state had changed employment laws to some degree and the Montana Association of County’s also has new requirements for counties involved in their Joint Powers Insurance Authorities pool, of which Madison County is a member.
The JPIA is basically a way for counties to pool their resources and indemnify themselves from expenses resulting from lawsuits and claims over employee issues, said Harold Blattie, executive director of the Montana Association of Counties.
In return for membership in the JPIA, Madison County needs to have a personnel policy that follows MACo guidelines, Blattie said.
The county is also required to consult with MACo’s JPIA administrator prior to firing an employee or taking discipline actions that could lead to firing.
When Madison County hired a human resources director two years ago, Blattie was pleased.
“I know Madison County has been very, very proactive in risk management and doing the right thing,” he said.
However, it’s common for counties to go through a period of turmoil in getting used to having a human resources person on staff.
“It’s a situation that’s just inherently set up with some conflict as unfortunate as it may be,” Blattie said.
With the turnover in the human resources position, the update to the policy manual has been dropped and still remains a priority, whether the county decides to fill the vacant position or not, Schulz said.
The employee policy manual is crucial for every department in the county, he said. It is the guideline for everything from overtime pay, to sick leave, to progressive discipline measures.
“In the next several months we have to get that policy (revision) put into operation again,” Schulz said. “I think we’re pretty close to having a functional and approved policy again, it’s just a matter of giving it a good evaluation and getting MACos consensus to it.”
However, the revision of the employee policy manual might be farmed out to a private contractor or done in house if a human resources person isn’t hired early next year, he said.
Madison County Sheriff Dave Schenk oversees one of the largest departments in the county with some 20 employees. He sees the role of a human resources director as one of necessary advisor, and is in support of the county filling that position again with clear direction on the department’s responsibilities.
“I believe there’s a place for HR in every county as long as they perform the role I see HR has to perform,” Schenk said. “That is to act as a reference for their county government and assist the employees in issues that come up and provide unbiased assistance to employees and elected officials.”
Schenk feels like he and his undersheriff Roger Thompson have done well in handling any personnel issues.
“We’ve had issues that we’ve had HR come in and assist us on, but I feel that as an elected official and having the background and having my undersheriff on board, HR has always provided us with advice, so to speak,” he said.
However, other departments may need more help and sometimes personnel issues crop up that are complex and need some expert attention. That’s where a good human resources director could step in.
“They can be a real asset for this county as well,” Schenk said. “Not to take over, but to give us advice and provide us direction.”
The commissioners plan to take up the discussion about whether or not to hire a new human resources director with county staff early next year.