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Three Things That HR Can Learn From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

We’ve all at least heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, if not seen a video from one of our friends or a celebrity doing the challenge. Behind the immense success of the campaign is a great idea that lets people use their creativity to make the challenge their own.

We’ve seen plenty of “X lessons Y can learn from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge”, but none of it have covered what HR can actually glean from the viral sensation. Here’s my take on it.

First lesson

The number one thing Human Resources people should take away from the ALS ice bucket challenge is the knowledge that people with ALS and other disabilities can and should contribute to your organization’s success through accommodation. It took throwing a bucket of ice over my head to research amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disability that effects thousands of Canadians, including a brilliant family friend who has successfully battled the disease for over 30 years.

The effects of ALS can bring about sudden muscle degeneration, with most people becoming severely disabled within 2-5 years and, for most, a death a young age. For these people, having the option to work through a very difficult time will help them both financially and mentally.

Accommodation will also help your organization financially and mentally by reducing the amount of lost productivity and knowledge lost from sudden turnover. The cost of replacing an employee range from 46 percent of annual pay for frontline employees, to 176 percent for IT professionals and 241 percent for middle managers, according to Washington-based Corporate Leadership Council. Accommodation will be recognized by coworkers, customers and the community at large, will reduce insurance premiums and put off the cost of replacing a valuable employee.

People with ALS and other disabilities can be your most committed and brilliant employees. Steven Hawkins has ALS, as do thousands of brilliant people throughout Canada and the US. 11% of people with disabilities have a trade certificate, 2% more than the general population, and 17% have a college degree. Tim Horton’s in Ontario feels there is a much lower turnover and absenteeism rate for those with disabilities, and in Alberta, employers are finding that employees with autism learn complex tasks quicker and are more productive.

Second lesson

The second thing HR can learn from the ice bucket challenge is to keep things simple and say it with video or pictures. In just two months, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a 20-second video fundraising effort, has attracted millions of participants. How has something so simple resulted in over 10 million videos on Youtube, 313 million results in Google and tens of millions in donations in just 60 days? Technology has made it easy and simple for individuals to produce compelling messages and communicate with hundreds of people.

What can HR take from a bunch of videos and charitable donations? Well, we can think of how we communicate and interact with employees and stakeholders, and how can we improve this communication. Take the very simple act of applying for a job, something that happens millions of times a year. Is it simple or over complicated? Everyone has a resume or a LinkedIn profile, all with contact information ready to be communicated to us. So why do we ask candidates to re-type information into computer forms, in addition to submitting a resume? We can use a smart phone to take high definition videos and send it to dozens of friends across the earth in seconds, but we need people to type in hundreds of boxes on a web page?

60% of companies have applications that take 10 minutes to fill out and 8% have online application processes that takes an hour to fill out, but best practices in online usability tell us that 5 minutes is about the longest time it’ll take before someone becomes discouraged or annoyed. In the days of skills shortages in trades, engineering and management, maybe we’re making things a little too complicated. Some will argue that this helps us weed out serious applicants, but the truth is, if every step in an application process is not helping a company find the ideal candidates, it should be eliminated.

HR is often responsible for improving or rolling out very important programs such as employee referral programs, wellness programs and health and safety initiatives. One thing is certain, every time I have rolled out a new program, the message has been too complicated. Busy employees, contractors and potential candidates are all swamped and have a million things competing for their attention. We might need the fine print, but if we cannot communicate important messages in a short YouTube video, an infographic or the subject line of an email, HR’s message will likely go un-received.

Third lesson

The third thing that HR can learn about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenges is that human resources can no longer just be about our employees. Traditionally, HR was defined “as a function in organizations designed to maximize employee performance in service of their employer’s strategic objectives”. In 2014, if all of HR’s attention is focused on employee performance, we are missing the boat, as a growing percentage of the work being done in Canadian companies are contractors/temps who many consider to not be employees. Moreover, the opportunity to involve the public, like is being done by millions of non-ALS employees or stakeholders, can be missed.

HR departments and all companies can no longer be focused on employee head count; they must instead turn their attention to outcomes that can come from outside the organization just as much as from inside. In the case of ALS Canada, 11 employees were able to raise over $10 million in just 60 days… well, that isn’t actually true. The $10 million was raised almost entirely by those outside the organization through a fundraising effort that was not even part of their strategic plan or on their radar.

At Red Seal, one of the ways we consider expanding our view of HR is by providing benefits to contractors and temp employees, for example allowing contractors and even the general public to contribute and learn from our wiki knowledge base. Part of the HR professional in me says “hold on, give access to our knowledge base to our competitors, clients and the public? Are you crazy?” But the people who started Wikipedia weren’t crazy, and all of our knowledge base is likely out there on the web in different forms, so allowing interested people to help enhance and organize it may be a great idea.


Hopefully, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has raised those extra dollar to assist those suffering and those thriving with this disability. With any luck, it will start the research to find a cure and, at the very least, it has made all of us think about including people with disabilities, simplifying our messaging and involving other outside our organizations to contribute.

What HR can learn from the Ice Bucket Challenge


Vu, Ugen. What’s the Real Cost of Turnover? Canadian HR Reporter, July 2008. Available at