Debbie Muller is the modern-day Nancy Drew of the business world. When allegations are made between employees or between employee and company, it’s Muller who does the fact-finding. She has been conducting workplace investigations for almost 30 years — first as a key human resources expert for numerous Fortune 500 companies like Honeywell, CitiBank, and Marsh & McLennan, and since 2006 as the founder of her own third-party investigation firm called HR Acuity.
Muller and her company will be accepting the Rising Star Award at the NJTC Awards Celebration on Thursday, November 21, at 5:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Princeton. For more information, call 856-787-9700 or visit www.njtc.org/events/celebration13/attend.html. Individual reservations: $225.
Muller was born in Stamford, Connecticut, the youngest of three siblings, and now resides in Summit, New Jersey, with her husband and three sons. She is no stranger to solving conflicts. By the time she graduated from high school, she had already worked at a Dunkin Donuts, hardware store, video store, and bakery. So she’s no stranger to getting her hands dirty either.
In her early HR years, Muller says that the company would come to her saying, “`Jane has made an allegation against Steve. He’s harassing her, or discriminating against her, etc., and we don’t want to investigate it ourselves.’ So they would call me in to do a thorough and neutral investigation,” she says. After the investigation was conducted as comprehensively and fairly as possible, Muller would hand over a report with the facts and her analysis, though the final termination decision was left to the employer. She quickly became an expert in her field and started getting more and more complex cases.
“You really like doing this, don’t you,” her last employer said to her. “I do,” she said, “I really do.” So after more than 20 years in HR, she started her own company.
Muller designed a more consistent, more defensible step-by-step process for evaluating employee relations and risk management, and it wasn’t long before companies wanted to apply her techniques to their own investigations. So Muller, recognizing a demand for her methodology, decided to develop a web-based application called HR Acuity On-Demand, a DIY workplace investigation tool. She opened a blank Power Point screen and thought, what now?
Muller, who attended Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (Class of 1987) in part because it didn’t require taking math and science, which she hated, didn’t know the first thing about intellectual property or how to design a website. So she recalled HR software she had used in the past, most of it bad, and got to work. First thing’s first — a login page, then a dashboard, and 50 screens later Muller had a functioning and comprehensive web app.
“If you would have told me seven years ago that I would be accepting an award from the New Jersey Technology Council, I would have told you you were off your rocker. You never know where life will lead you,” she says.
But Muller didn’t become the award-winning technology CEO she is today without a little faith and a lot of guidance. “Recognize that you don’t know everything. Figure out what your expertise is, figure out what expertise you need, and ask around,” she says.
She started with a list of what she needed and went to work gathering her advisory board. A financier here, a litigator there, a former boss, a technical salesman, people who knew about the things she didn’t, and soon her team was complete. “You have to be willing to say, ‘I don’t know what the heck I’m doing — teach me and I’ll learn.’”
You also have to be willing to go out on a limb for a new business. “Honey,” Muller originally told her husband, who works in the foreign exchange department at the Bank of New York Mellon, “I’m going to develop this software and I don’t think it will take very long or very much money.” She quickly learned that it takes a lot more money than you think; it takes longer than you think, and you need a very supportive staff.
Muller continues to be surprised by the people who came out of the woodwork to help her when she was first starting her business. As a result, she adopted a “Pay it Forward” attitude, ranging from encouraging her employees to give back to their community, to giving advice to other young entrepreneurs (“Buy a really good stapler and don’t waste money on a shredder!”).
But her most useful advice, ironically, teaches businesses precautionary steps to take so that her services don’t become necessary: It’s all about how you handle your employees:
1.) Do a background check. Know who you are hiring. It’s not expensive, you can do it online, and you need to know that the person you’re hiring is who they say they are.
2.) Check references. It’s easy to tell the difference between an okay reference and a great reference. Take the time.
3.) Establish policies and guidelines within the organization so that there are standards and consistency in regards to how you approach things. A 100-page manual isn’t necessary, but the policy should grow with the company. Make sure the employees understand what the expected behavior is in the workplace.
4.) Document. Document employee behavior.
Muller recommends a “traffic light” classification system for determining what to record. For example, “green light” behaviors do not need to be documented, however, “yellow light” and “red light” employee behaviors do. Green light means that everything is going as it should: the business is following policies and strategies, and employees are reaching goals. Yellow light behavior includes all deviations from the norm: showing up late to work, hitting the goal past the deadline, etc. Document these, as well as red light behaviors that can cause harm to other employees or the organization. These include sexual harassment and discrimination, and a company should already have a plan in place detailing how to deal with these behaviors.
“It’s not very different from police work,” says Muller, “when there’s a murder, even if the suspect is caught holding a smoking gun, the defense attorneys are going to try to find fault with the police work. Don’t give them the chance.”