Member Feature: Williams County
Published: 3/02/21 (Tue)
In 2010, Williams County employed 140 full-time workers. Then the oil boom struck.
Over the next six years, the county nearly doubled its full-time workforce to meet the needs of its community’s swelling population, a task that required it to recruit, hire, and train new employees at an unprecedented rate as well as retain existing employees.
Collaboration and communication between the county’s human resources (HR) department and fellow department leaders enabled it to achieve this task, and the experience it gained has helped it navigate current operational and employment challenges related to COVID-19.
MEET HELEN ASKIM, WILLIAMS COUNTY HR, COMMUNICATIONS, AND GIS DIRECTOR
Following her graduation from Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM) in 1997, Helen Askim and her husband moved to Williston to pursue career opportunities. Armed with a degree in speech communication with a concentration in HR, Askim was offered a position with Williams County’s Veterans Service Office which led to future opportunities including IT Director, GIS Director, HR Director, and Communications Director. Today, she serves as the county’s HR, Communications, and GIS Director.
Williams County promoted Askim to HR Director in late 2005, making her the first person to serve in this role. In the first five years that followed, Askim further defined the county’s HR structure, processes, and systems, creating greater unification among departments. This task included ensuring the county’s legal compliance with hiring, discipline, and termination, as well as bringing continuity to benefit, wages, and hours programs.
Then the oil boom struck.
The population increase in Williams County created a need for more county government services and, therefore, more county employees, highlighting how critical it was for the county to have a strong HR framework off which it could build. For example, prior to the boom, Askim led the implementation of an online application process to centralize the collection of resumes, references, and other employment documents. By centralizing this process, Askim ensured the county was compliant with all hiring laws, including the Veterans’ Preference Act. Additionally, it helped departments develop standards for applicant screening, interviewing, and benefit preparation per employee classification.
R&R: Recruiting and Retaining
Askim remembers the first couple years of the boom as, “challenging, and exhausting, and sometimes overwhelming, but certainly rewarding to have been a part of that kind of growth in a government agency over such a short amount of time.”
One of the first challenges was recruiting and retaining employees, she shared.
To recruit qualified employees to fill its open positions, the county posted its job opportunities on websites such as Indeed and Job Service North Dakota. These sites enabled it to reach candidates from across the country and around the world. As applications were received, Askim worked with department leaders to screen applicants, schedule and conduct phone and in-person interviews, and ultimately, extend offers or express regrets. Initially, Askim was the only HR employee, but the department soon added two employees to meet the growing demand for HR functions throughout the county.
As they gained more experience in recruiting and interviewing applicants, Askim and department leaders continuously evaluated their processes to ensure maximum effectiveness and efficiency, which prompted enhancements, such as:
- Performing initial phone interviews of 15 minutes or less to ask basic questions and learn if applicants have specific knowledge and/or experience pertinent to the position. This step is taken depending on the position and is especially helpful in screening non-local applicants, ensuring the best use of both the applicant’s and Williams County’s time and resources.
- Establishing an interview committee size of three people, one of which is an HR representative.
- Standardizing interview forms and interview scoring per department.
- Having an HR representative make the job offer so applicants can get immediate answers to questions about compensation and benefits.
Retention was also key because the allure of high-paying jobs in the oil field was always looming, but department leaders and Askim routinely reminded employees about the advantages of working in county government, including reasonable compensation, good benefits, and stable employment.
A result of a brainstorming session with department heads and county commissioners was the realization their greatest obstacle in recruiting and retaining employees was the lack of available affordable housing. This discovery led to the county investing in housing units so it could provide new employees who are relocating to the area with a place to live. Available affordable housing soon became another advantage the county had over competing local employers.
At the height of the housing shortage from 2010-2013, Askim shared the county was managing 31 rental units which were sometimes occupied by two or three employees at once. Today, the county manages 18 units which are primarily used as temporary housing solutions for new employees until they can secure a more permanent solution.
The county also experienced more turnover in the first few years of the boom than it ever had before, so again, Askim sought collaboration with department leaders and county commissioners to determine the cause and develop a solution to combat turnover.
“Through experience, we had to define the roles better, so we grew,” Askim said. “And that doesn’t just mean we added staff, but it means that we evolved departments. We evolved how they function. We evolved processes. We added positions that we’ve never had before.”
Part of the evolution included centralizing certain organizational functions to eliminate duplication of work. For example, the county has been able to save time and resources by having a specific financial department employee enter vouchers for all departments rather than having each department enter vouchers individually.
“We’ve been so lucky to have department heads who understand what we’re trying to do, who have supported this kind of collaboration and bought-in to the concept of working together to find efficiencies and share resources when it makes sense,” Askim said.
“Our culture is collaboration.”
Welcoming Work Environment
Collaboration as a culture driver has also enabled Williams County to benefit from the ideas, knowledge, and experience of its employees who are from other states, regions, countries, or continents, many of whom moved to the county during the early years of the boom.
“People from other states and other regions of the country who have encountered some of the challenges we experienced were invaluable in helping us understand how other organizations have tackled these problems and how things could be done differently because we’ve done them the same for so many years,” Askim said.
“It has really been interesting and enjoyable to have people from not just across the country but across the world join our workforce and bring new ideas, new culture, and language diversity into our organization,” she said, sharing the county’s international workforce has included employees from Brazil, Mongolia, England, Peru, Russia, and the African continent.
Despite its best efforts to recruit, hire, and retain employees during the early years of the boom, departments in Williams County at times found themselves short-staffed and existing employees stretched beyond their limits. Though not an ideal scenario, the silver lining was it made existing employees so appreciative of the support provided by new employees that bonds between employees quickly formed.
Additionally, new employees bonded with many others in the community who shared their experience of moving to an unfamiliar place as well as with those who had also experienced the rapid changes of living in a community during an economic boom.
“We’ve evolved as a community in how we approach each other, personally, and organizationally, we have benefitted,” Askim reflected. “I have had friendships with people with such different experience from my own, and I have benefitted from and really cherished that.”
GETTING NEW EMPLOYEES UP TO SPEED
Though each of the county’s 19 departments has a unique onboarding process in which new employees are given a tour, introduced to their fellow coworkers, and provided training resources, if necessary, all new employees at Williams County spend approximately 90 minutes with an HR representative on their first day.
“We think it’s really important,” Askim shared, explaining the time allows for new employees to complete HR forms, ask questions about benefits, and get their first glimpse of the county’s organizational culture.
“One of our goals would be to convey that we value the employees of Williams County, and that HR is a resource and place to go with questions or concerns,” she said.
“Local government officials who are elected and all of the workers who execute the work are fundamental to the daily lives of the people that live in a community.”
During its busiest years, the county was onboarding up to 120 new employees per year. From this experience, Askim and department leaders recognized new employee onboarding was most effectively managed per department as well as per employee.
“Having too structured of a training program caused a lot of stress and frustration for the trainer and the new employee,” Askim said. “Some people are visual, some are hands on, and some come in with a lot of experience,” she added, further demonstrating the need for having a flexible onboarding program.
Reasonably detailed job descriptions helped support effective onboarding, serving as a framework for department leaders and employees alike. Today, the county’s job descriptions clearly state the knowledge, experience, and/or certifications required in the position and provide specific examples of work duties. By having these items clearly defined in the job description, the county’s leaders have been able to better evaluate an employee’s performance and intervene more quickly if expectations are not met.
“We’ve learned over the years that when it’s not working, we have an obligation to attempt from several different angles to help this employee be successful,” Askim said. “Our process is to talk with them to ensure they’re aware our expectations aren’t being met and understand their perspective about what might be going wrong so we can make adjustments. Then, we find new ways to train them.”
Askim added the county has improved its ability to recognize when new employees are not a good fit, in which case they decide to amicably part ways. These conversations stress the importance of employees feeling good at work and finding a job that brings enjoyment into their lives.
Ongoing Engagement with HR
The HR department meets one-on-one for 20 minutes with each employee during the county’s annual open enrollment. These meetings provide employees with an overview of all benefits available to them, including a more detailed explanation of one specific benefit which alternates each year, and the opportunity to get answers to questions about benefits.
Though COVID-19 caused the department to adapt its 2021 open enrollment process from an in-person experience to a virtual one, the department leveraged videoconference tools to maintain a personalized experience for employees.
In addition to causing organizations to change the way they interact and operate, Askim explains COVID-19 has placed an even greater emphasis on leaders and employees practicing kindness and patience with one another.
“The reality is there are a lot of people who are anxious and troubled because they’re more challenged than they’ve ever been in balancing what’s going on at home while still trying to come to work and execute the important work of government,” she said.
Over the past several months, the county’s HR department has had the tough task of determining reasonable boundaries and expectations for employees while understanding how their decisions might affect other departments and employees; however, its most important consideration has been to ensure employees remain positive, optimistic, and productive, because organizations are only as strong as the people they are employing.
In the early stages of COVID, and especially over the summer, the county’s more challenging decision was to determine how it consistently and fairly dealt with employees who travelled or made choices outside of work that could be perceived as risky.
“So many people have moved to Williams County, so we have to understand they may want to travel to another state,” Askim said, referring to employees who moved to the area from out-of-state and whose loved ones remain in their home state. “It isn’t reasonable, kind, or maybe even healthy to tell them that for an indefinite amount of time, you must stay in our state.”
Askim and the HR department turned to department leaders to make decisions regarding travel on a per department basis, following their pattern of collaborating to develop fair solutions.
The first county employee to test positive for COVID occurred in September, and as the community experienced a rise in COVID cases, large numbers of county employees had to quarantine and many had school or daycare interruptions.
Askim shared the challenge again was for departments to be fair and consistent, and kind and compassionate, but also ensuring employees understood the county’s expectations in terms of their compliance with North Dakota Department of Health guidelines. Through discussion and collaboration with county leaders, departments determined what level of flexibility they could provide, and thankfully, the county’s IT department had spent a lot of time over the summer acquiring and configuring equipment that enabled work from home accommodations.
The county’s goal throughout COVID has been to keep government going, Askim said.
As Williams County looks to the future, Askim shared there will be a time “when the impacts of COVID are lessened, and then we’ll have to talk about how, when, and why we incorporate remote working as a long-term strategy.” She expects there will be some challenges in ensuring these decisions are made fairly, but the county will again leverage its collaboration between the HR department and department leaders to develop solutions.
HR TOOLS, RESOURCES, AND SUPPORT
While there are a lot of HR tools, resources, and support available online and through various networks, Askim noted the ones that have been most useful to her as an HR professional for a rural North Dakota county include:
Conversations with HR professionals from fellow North Dakota counties. These conversations provide insight into the decisions other HR departments have made and why, helping others determine which decisions they should make for their counties.
HR Collaborative. This organization is jointly operated by the NDACo and the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund (NDIRF) and features an annual conference, HR Reference Guide, regional gatherings, and regular newsletter, all of which are tailored to HR professionals who serve in local government across the state. Visit www.hrndgov.org to learn more about the organization, the HR Reference Guide, and to register for events and the newsletter.
Regional HR Collaborative meetings are especially helpful for those who are new to HR or who previously worked in the private industry, ensuring they get up to speed quickly regarding the differences in government work, including open records, open meetings, and being overseen by elected officials.
Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Be sure to select local government resources.
NDIRF. Whether you need advice about HR policies and procedures or guidance regarding a Department of Labor Claim, just call the NDIRF! With a wealth of experience in handling HR-related claims, the NDIRF is a great resource as well as support.
“The NDIRF has been an invaluable partner to me over the years when we have had difficult employment decisions to be made,” Askim said. “I can’t say enough how much it helps in the midst of what is a bit of a stressful and worrying circumstance.”
Lastly, Askim will often research topics via Google, uncovering articles, manuals, or procedural guides from organizations similar in size and setting (i.e. urban or rural) that her department can use while creating or updating its HR policies and procedures.