Sunday, July 29, 2012

Getting Headcount Reporting Right -- How Napkins and Yankee Stadium Helped

It goes like this ... in the 90's I was brought to Zurich as an expat to run global HRIS for the investment banking division of 1 of the 'big 3' Swiss banks at that time. I spent the first month gathering the perspectives of my key internal customers and was then summoned to Basel to meet with the #2 executive in the overall bank. The first half hour of that meeting focused on what the bank was paying in expat costs for me (and my family) to be there. The exec then lit up his cigar, took out a napkin, drew criss-crossing horizontal and vertical lines on it, and said the following: "If you can help us get and maintain a truly accurate headount by business unit / by region (filling in the boxes on the napkin with illustrative numbers), your 3-year stay here in Zurich will be well worth the cost." We then each had a small cognac in his office for good luck and off I went.

In retrospect, that astute executive knew that the global rollout of an HR-ERP, innovative comp planning and workforce planning tools, and even HR process re-engineering to leverage the new tools (i.e., the global HRIS function's mandate) would all be compromised if consumers of headcount and 'people cost' data didn't believe the numbers ... or the numbers didn't match the excel s/sheets they felt compelled to maintain. Fortunately for me, I had been down this road before. In the late 80's I received my one and only call from the Chairman of Paine Webber as I ran HRIS there as well. He said the following ... "I would like you and your team to suspend all headcount reporting until we can get all employees in the company to Yankee Stadium to raise their hands -- so we can finally get an accurate headcount." We were obviously forced to get it right.

The answer or solution was twofold: Data Standards and Effective Education -- including mandatory education and training for all consumers of HR data / reports / metrics ... so they (a) understood how ALL numbers were being arrived at; and (b) understood why Finance, HR, Payroll and Business Units might report numbers that were different -- even though all might still be accurate based on their reporting methodology! The training also included real-time 'learning tidbits or booster shots' in how to properly interpret every report or specific data when delivered.

There are appropriate reasons and purposes for counting or not counting employees on salary continuance, or on paid or unpaid leave, or long-term or short-term contractors, or summer interns, or part-timers under or over 20 hours/week ... and on the comp costs side, whether to count deferred comp, or sign-on's, or employee referral bonuses, or other imputed income (e.g., club memberships) or whether to blend different salary rates if multiple assignments for hourlies, etc, etc.

There are 2 choices for getting this right as I see it: Let your line managers, sr execs, HR, Finance and other admin staff throughout the organization spend untold hours (and perhaps millions of dollars) forever reconciling and explaining why numbers are different depending on who reports them (the "1 source of the truth" notion is not enough ... purposes will vary) --- or aggressively attack this near-universal problem with HR-related data standards and very effective training for all consumers of the information.

Steve Goldberg
HR Technology Advisor
July 2012


  1. Great points made, Steve. It seems trite that systems designed to count heads do such an appent poor job of it.

    Maybe, that's because it will vary based on who you are talking to and their purpose.

    I would posit that it is all about the definition of "head count" which can (and is) measured by the eye of the beholder ... Financial head count (department costing); Reporting head count (HR's view of who reports to whom); Reporting relationship head count (span of control); Project head count (who's working on what); etc.

  2. Thanks, Steve. Getting the fundamentals right - headcount reporting, age/tenure diversity profiles, workforce costs, etc - provides the impetus and resources for HR teams to then attack several business-critical workforce questions:

    1. How productive are our staff?
    2. In which workforce segments should we over-invest?
    3. What's the ROI of our talent management strategy and major programs?

    Armed with fresh data-driven insights, HR leaders can walk into the C-Suite office and truly change leaders' views on talent management.