On Behalf of Staff: Human Resources Departments Have Sprung Up in Legislatures in the Past Decade, but They Need the Support of Leaders to Be Truly Effective

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When the Oregon legislature hired Lore Christopher as its first fulltime, professional human resources director 14 years ago, she didn't know what she was getting into--or that she was a trendsetter.

Christopher arrived at her new workplace to discover a hodgepodge of personnel authorities and practices distributed among the four legislative staff agencies, the partisan caucuses, the chamber staff and the leadership offices. She also arrived with 15 years of human resource management experience in the private sector, a B.A. in HR management, an M.A. in public administration and certification as a senior professional in human resource management.

"The first thing I said to them was, 'This will get us sued,'" Christopher says, referring to the many layers of personnel policies and practices. She and the managers of each staff agency worked together for 20 months to create a uniform HR program.

"That one action," says Christopher, "reduced the risk and liability of employment practice inconsistency and enabled me to better support the legislative branch as a whole."

Christopher's efforts mirror what's happened in most legislatures across nation. At the close of the 20th century, state legislatures ended a significant period of institutional transformation when they largely stopped adding staff to their ranks. Since the mid-1990s, the number of full-time staff employed by the 50 state legislatures has held at about 28,000. Before then, however, many legislatures had been in full-tilt hiring mode, adding professional staff to help with bill drafting, policy research, committee work, performance evaluation, budget analysis, media relations, computer applications, security, office assistance and political counsel.

With few exceptions, by the late 1990s every legislature employed hundreds or even thousands of staff, but very few of them had any formal plans, policies or procedures for staff recruitment, pay, promotion, training or compliance with state and federal employment laws. It was the wild, wild West of state government employment, with lots of deputies enforcing unwritten rules in an atmosphere of misinformation and legal naivete. Legislatures, from an employer's point of view, were at risk. They also were not thinking strategically about their most precious asset--their staff.

Fortunately, most legislatures began investing in more formal, focused human resource management personnel and infrastructure. The title "Human Resources Director" began showing up on an increasing number of legislative staff rosters.

FEAR OF PAPERWORK

This trend was not necessarily well-received everywhere, however.

Some staff directors and lawmakers were wary of efforts to formalize pay plans and document personnel policies for fear these practices would jeopardize flexibility and generate layers of useless paperwork.

Documentation of employee performance--a fundamental practice in human resource management--was particularly difficult to introduce and adapt to the legislative environment. Managers resisted the practice, citing the difficulty of setting meaningful, measurable performance standards for legislative work. And in some legislatures, the closest thing to a personnel manual was a collection of mostly forgotten memos tucked away in a staff director's side drawer. Coming up with a uniform, consistently applied, legally compliant HR plan met no shortage of obstacles.

Jim Tracy, who started working at the Connecticut General Assembly in 1973 as an administrative assistant, is now the personnel administrator.

"The HR field was pretty straightforward when I started working in it in the 1970s. However, it has gotten terribly complicated," Tracy says. "It's imperative to have a professional HR staff that can provide legislators and managers with advice on how to handle difficult situations."

Today, most of the "start-up" challenges for legislative HR directors have been met, but in some legislatures many HR bridges remain uncrossed. …