Q&A: HR Acuity’s Deb Muller on Investigations, Employee Relations and Data

Employee Data

Deb Muller founded HR Acuity after a 20-year career in HR. Based in Florham Park, N.J, the company’s platform helps employers manage their employee relations and investigations using a framework of proprietary tools and processes. We spoke with Deb about the company’s history and why she believes a disciplined approach to employee relations can benefit both employers and workers.

Let’s start by talking about HR Acuity. Could you tell me about the product and how it got started?

So I was in HR for 20 years, started very young, doing a variety of things—HR generalist, HR specialist and HR leadership roles. Toward the end of my career I did a lot of investigations, a lot of employee relations work. When you do that type of work and get good at it, you handle more and more complex issues. So when I decided to found HR Acuity in 2006, it was to be a provider of third-party workplace investigations. A service provider. Technology was nowhere in the business plan.

But then I saw there were certain investigations where HR would decide to use an external investigator if they didn’t have their own capabilities or capacity. It might be particularly confidential, or maybe it was in the C suite or within HR, or they knew it was potentially headed toward litigation and they wanted it to be done by a neutral third party. At the time—and actually to this day—the only avenue that companies had for that type of service was a law firm.  

CEO Deb Muller talks about @HRAcuity and why she believes a disciplined approach to employee relations benefits both employers and workers. #HR #HRTech Click To Tweet

So I felt that there was a role for seasoned HR investigators there. As we got out there, we talked about our processes and I laid out a five-step process so investigations would be done consistently and comprehensively.

HR professionals are typically trained to do investigations in an ad hoc way, if they’re trained at all. There’s no consistency, no centralization of documentation. There’s nobody checking or auditing, and there’s certainly nobody looking at the aggregate data to see what can be learned. If people leave the organization, typically their files—if there are any—go with them or get lost and that puts the organization at huge risk.  

So that’s how HR Acuity got launched. We went live in late 2009. As it is now, the system focuses on two types of documentation of processes—what we call our yellow-light issues and red-light issues. Every organization puts in place green lights for how they want their employees to behave. That’s job description, roles and responsibilities, strategies, goals, policies, practices.  

But we know that employees don’t always do exactly what they’re supposed to do, right? Sometimes they exceed expectations and sometimes they don’t. When an employee deviates from those norms, we call that a yellow-light instance. They’re not necessarily things that need to be investigated, but they’re things that need to be documented.  For instance, it could be an attendance issue. You’ve got to let someone know that they can’t come to work late. Here’s a verbal warning. Here’s a written warning.  

You know, not everything needs an investigation, but you have to document how you managed it, what the remediation was, how successful it was and capture the data that can be used across the organization to spot trends, to see highs and lows, to see unexpected peaks that may tell you that there’s union activity or you have a bad leader or something’s brewing in the organization.

That’s the yellow light piece of it. Then [there’s the red light,] when there’s an allegation raised. It takes the organization through a step-by-step process to plan out your investigation, consider what you’re going to do, who you’re going to talk to, who’s going to be on the team. For the investigation itself, it covers the policies, the documents that you have to review, the interviews, the protocols. It takes you through it all so you have it completely documented and you can reach the right decision. And, again, you have all the underlying data so you can proactively understand what’s going on in your organization.  

You also offer a post-hire survey. How did that come to be? It seems like a bit of an outlier from everything else you’re doing.

HR Acuity's Deb Muller
HR Acuity’s Deb Muller

It is. Post hires came after exit interviews. We had a client early on who said, “You know, we really love your system, but we really need a better way to do exit interviews.” For me that was a natural extension, because I think exit interviews are another way of identifying risks. Someone’s leaving the organization because they’re going back to school or they’re going for another job. That’s why you think they’re leaving until you do the exit interview and find out they’re really leaving because their manager can’t keep his hands off them. So that’s something you need to investigate.

Also, as part of your standard exit interview you might ask, “Is there anything else that we need to know about your time of employment here? Are you aware of any violations of policy that we need to be aware of?” You might be told about something but, then again, you might not be. The person might say, “Everything’s fine.” Then three months later you get a lawyer’s letter that claims they were getting harassed. Now you can say, “Well, look, we gave you this opportunity to tell us. You actually said everything was fine.” So it can help the employer in that way.

After that, we had people ask for the post-hire survey. What can we learn from people coming into the organization if we give them a post-hire survey—30, 60, 90 days—that will help their experience? Can we correlate that to how many issues they have or when they leave the organization? We can look at our exit scores versus our post-hire scores and learn more about how we’re doing, where we source people from, the experience they had when they came on board and things like that.

That seems like a logical step toward developing a set of engagement tools. Is that on your mind?

Yes and no. I want to stay within our wheelhouse and not recreate things others are doing well. There are a lot of employee engagement tools out there, so I’d actually like to see integrations with them as opposed to creating our own. Integrating the data to see if there’s a correlation from the employee engagement scores with the actual behavioral scores. You can’t just look at one or the other.

If I were to pick, I’d choose behavior. Just imagine that you have this boyfriend, but something’s not feeling so great and you want to get the temperature of the relationship. You can ask him the engagement question, like, “Do you love me?” or “How do you feel about me?” He might tell me, “Things are good. I feel good about you.” But I can also look at his behaviors. He doesn’t text me. He forgot my birthday. He’s hanging out with other women. Which data do you think is more accurate? What he told me or how he’s behaving?

I have all respect for the employee engagement work that’s going on, but we’re putting so much money into that when there’s this amazing amount of data about employee behaviors that’s just being ignored in Human Resources.

You focus on a very narrow area. Why haven’t others focused on it? Has it been just skipped by the usual HR vendors or has it never occurred to anybody?

It’s just been skipped. When I was an HR generalist and business partner, employee relations was something that walked into my door every day. We called it employee relations, but there was never any formality around it. But you had to do it and it took up a great amount of your time. It’s sort of like payroll. It wasn’t sexy. Typical HRIS systems talked about the lifecycle of the employee, but employee relations was missing. If you look at technology, you look at the different buckets things fall into and there’s no real bucket where employee relations belongs.

It’s about the employee experience. You don’t want to use the same technology that you use for telling someone how much vacation time they have left. In some cases people are using the same technology they use for IT ticketing issues. So I have a broken mouse and I’m going to investigate that with the same software I’d use to investigate an allegation of harassment? That’s not great for the employee experience and it’s certainly not going to add to it.

Could you talk about your employee reporting function?  

Most of our clients have reporting functionality. Whether they use an ethics hotline or some other thing, we can integrate it so the ticket is actually pushed right to HR Acuity. Either it’s put into a queue and triaged or it goes to a specific person based upon the issue. We can also create different web forms so employees can fill one out if they need an accommodation or if they want to report an issue. And that can also get into the system.  

We’re trying to figure out how we can best handle reporting. Do we build? Do we integrate? With #MeToo and the like, we’re hearing a lot about reporting and training. Reporting’s important but we’re not hearing a lot about what a company does when it’s made aware of something. That’s really where we fit in. Because the cover-up is worse than the crime, right? So once you find out about something, how you manage it is really what’s important. And you can learn from it, too. You might be able to mitigate and stop things before they become issues.  

You know, people aren’t reporting harassment issues. It’s not because they didn’t know where to report. I firmly believe that in most cases, it’s because they don’t know what to expect. Will I be retaliated against? Is this going to look bad for me? Is the company just going to do nothing? Who are they going to tell? Companies need to provide some transparency in their process. They need to make the people involved feel like they’re being treated fairly.  

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