When you dance with the gorilla, it is the gorilla who decides when you stop

A disagreement between ADP®, one of largest payroll processing companies, and Zenefits™ a self-described startup that recently raised $500 million at a $4.5 billion valuation has now been escalated to the court room. This disagreement centers on the method that Zenefits™ used to gain access to ADP®’s payroll system without specific authority granted by ADP® to do so.

ADP® says: “On June 4, we disabled Zenefits access to ADP’s RUN small business solution due to unusual and alarming demand for data from Zenefits far out of proportion to the number of clients who have allowed them access to our system.”[1]

Zenefits™ has made a very public display of itself on social media outlets accusing ADP® of acting in bad faith and succumbing to fear, uncertainty, and doubt. In this squabble with ADP®, Zenefits™ has garnered some high profile endorsements including a couple of A-list celebrities.

So, you might ask how Zenefits™ got itself in this sticky situation.

1)      Their promise of delivering disruptive technology is somewhat misleading. The definition of disruptive technology is one that displaces older technology.[2] But Zenefits™ doesn’t own a payroll platform as a part of its hub-and-spoke business model[3]; its strategy is to leave customers with their existing payroll company such as ADP®.[4] But payroll is arguably the core hub technology covered by its service designed to administer HR, payroll, and employee benefit plans. Can Zenefits truly claim to be a disruptive technology without control of the core technology underlying its service? Is piggybacking on top of third-party payroll providers without control of the core technology too risky to be viable as a long term strategy?

2)      Zenefits™ is wanting to eat ADP®’s lunch and dinner by keeping the higher margin brokerage commissions and leaving ADP® with the lower margin payroll revenue. There is way more revenue per employee and margin in selling health insurance than in payroll.It’s no secret that payroll companies are looking to brokerage services as an area for future opportunity. ADP®’s (and Paychex®’s for that matter) benefits brokerage constitutes almost all of its current growth. Consider the fact that a 4% brokerage commission for a typical employer sponsored health insurance premium of $8k and $24K a year represents $320 to $960 in annual revenue per employee while fee revenue for payroll is just $90 per employee per year. And selling insurance has only a handful of customer service administration events per year while payroll has weekly (or even daily) customer service events per year to manage.

3)      When you dance with the gorilla, it is the gorilla who decides when you stop. Zenefits™ needs ADP® to play nice since ADP®’s payroll is the core technology to its hub and spoke service model. And ADP® knows it and is prepared to play hardball. The ADP® website states: “We have never integrated with Zenefits™ in any sense and have never authorized their method of extracting data from our RUN payroll system. They gained access to our systems by convincing clients to give them administrative access to our platform. Despite having many legitimate ways to integrate with ADP properly, Zenefits™ chose an unsecure and indirect approach.”[5] ADP®’s statement is likely vetted by their legal team and therefore sound and given ADP®’s size as the entrenched incumbent that does not bode well for Zenefits™ getting their way anytime soon.

Our industry—the HR, Payroll and Benefit Administration space—is extremely competitive and technology-driven with complex compliance requirements. It takes a lot of hard work, intelligence, deep understanding of the law and customer service to make it in this business. And it takes lots of effort to convert clients from one Payroll company to another. I know why Zenefitswould want to leave the hard-part—the Payroll part to someone else, but I also know that there are no shortcuts in life. To become a disruptive technology leader in our space, I believe that you need to own all of your core technology so you control your users’ experience without the risk of someone or something pulling the rug out from under you and your customers.

So, this move by ADP® is not surprising at all. ADP® is simply a business that is protective of its customers’ assets and its future growth opportunity within its client base.

[1] ADP.com. The facts about ADP & Zenefits: Response to the claims made by Zenefits. http://www.adp.com/zenefits/downloads/The-Facts-About-ADP-and-Zenefits.pdf

[2] Zenefits has stated that it is a disruptive technology company. Zenefits | Disrupt NY 2013 Startup Battlefield. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KporpXG0XK8

[3] Inc.com. “Instead of charging for software, the idea was to do a hub-and-spoke model. http://www.inc.com/magazine/201503/liz-welch/hr-technology-with-benefits.html

[4] In an article written in the March Employee Benefit Advisor, Parker Conrad, CEO of Zenefits, openly stated Zenefits does not want to get into the payroll game. He says: “The reason is that payroll is really complex and there are really high switching costs. We’d much rather just be connected to everyone in that space and be friends with everyone in that space.”

[5] ADP.com. The facts about ADP & Zenefits: Response to the claims made by Zenefits. http://www.adp.com/zenefits/downloads/The-Facts-About-ADP-and-Zenefits.pdf

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Before you hire that old pro

It’s really not about ageism. It is simply that a great attitude and passion to succeed trump years of experience and perfect qualifications every time.

Most recently with a sluggish economy, I’ve seen more expert candidates apply for jobs in the past year than ever before. And you’d think that would be a good thing, right? A perfect match between a job seeker’s past work history and the job requirements seems like a perfect hire. But I’ve witnessed seemingly perfect job candidates become under-performing employees. I’ve seen this enough times that a seasoned candidate is now a red flag. My best hires have almost exclusively been individuals who viewed their new job as a growth opportunity and worked very hard to be successful. And my more memorable worst hires have been those who seemed heavily qualified but yet fell short of expectations after being hired.

So why do these seemingly seasoned hires fail to thrive?

#1 reason – hiring managers are so focused on the technical match between the candidate’s past experience and the job requirements that they shortcut or deemphasize the rest of the recruitment evaluation process. It is huge rookie mistake, and I’ve made it myself. We become so enthralled by the possibilities of hiring the hit-the-ground-running, take-me-to-the-promise-land job prospect that we overlook the candidate’s shortcomings in terms of organizational cultural match, willingness to learn, and overall attitude.

#2 reason – our expectations are too high for the seasoned veteran’s performance. The seasoned veteran is short-changed on job training and knowledge transfer. The idea is that they really don’t need it, right? They already know what they are doing. Just look at their résumé. That is just wrong because different companies have different ways of doing things, and you can’t assume that a seasoned pro will be able to translate 100% of his/her skills from one company to another.

#3 reason – we undermine peer support. We position our seasoned new hires in a way that threatens peers and coworkers. They then gather no support and are left to die on the vine. Seasoned hires are often viewed as a threat to job security within a department or organization, so it is imperative that you ensure that each new hire is embraced and socialized adequately.

#4 reason – our seasoned new hire can carry some unwanted baggage and can be difficult to manage. I characterize these overconfident hires as overzealous in their contributions and opinions, unwilling to learn, and often lacking motivation or drive. I’ve seen and heard it all from this group. From “been there done that, so I’m not going to try it again”, “it’s worked my way just fine for 25 years” (whether the new hire is 25 or has 25 years of experience), or my favorite is the “I do not need to be told by some 20-something how I should be doing my job”. Organizations only thrive when teamwork, knowledge transfer, and learning are part of the work environment.
So how can I avoid this? I can’t just disqualify a seasoned pro. That wouldn’t be fair or even legal.

Here’s what I’ve decided.

Balance the technical match of skills to job requirements more evenly with assessments of your job candidates regarding organizational cultural match, ability to learn and adapt to change, leadership qualities, etc.
Carefully evaluate every candidate’s individual motivational factors. The best hire will often have something to prove. He or she is motivated to do a good job and be noticed. Access what will drive each of your candidates to perform, and this should help you more wisely choose who to hire.

Don’t always hire the smartest guy in the room, especially if that person is convinced he or she is the smartest. A better candidate is the one that demonstrates the ability and willingness to learn. These skills will serve your organization better longer term than any accumulated knowledge that a candidate may seemingly have.
The next time you are considering hiring a seasoned candidate, I recommend sticking to a balanced evaluation process that does not over-emphasize the technical needs of the job and being mindful of the need to support your seasoned new hire with the same training and internal support as your other employees.