An Unexpected Roadblock to Some of Our HR Automation

We are trying to use some of the available tools out there to better automate our application and onboarding process for employees.  Though we are not a huge employer (about 350 part-time people) we hire and fire them all every year, so there is a lot of burden for our size on the HR system.

We are running into a frustrating issue.  Most of our employees are older and often have limited computer skills, but we are getting past that.  But we tend to hire couples, and it turns out in the over-50 set that couples often share the same email address.  I can't even imagine having the same email address as my wife and having to filter through all of her business, but there it is.  Unfortunately, in the world of web accounts, must vendors use the email address as the one reliable unique identifier for a person and thus use it for the user name or expect it to be unique.

This is throwing us for a loop.  It is less of a problem in the application system because most of our couples just want to submit a single joint application anyway.  But for onboarding, they  each need their own W-4, I-9, etc.  So they need separate user accounts.

The question then comes down to this for us:  I can require them to get a second email address, but that is likely going to flummox some folks and require my manual intervention to help them.  Do I thus cause more tech support issues for myself than I save from the automation itself?

No point here, just venting on a problem I have not figured out how to fix.  And no fair saying stuff like "gmail is free and easy to sign up for, just make them get another gmail account."  I have managers who do a fabulous job for me that it took me days to teach how to log into and use Gmail.  A better and fairer comment would be "you have 20,000 applicants, make the application process require separate emails and even make it a little technically challenging so you limit your hiring pool to people who are better suited to using modern computer tools."  And yes, that may in fact be our solution.


  1. JBK:

    Just set up a step by step set of instructions for getting a gmail account.. Illustrate it with screen captures at each step of the process. Or you could even make a video to go along with the instructions and post that to YouTube. There are probably videos already up on YouTube showing the process.


  2. mckyj57:

    This should be an easy one. Just put the second person in as

    The "+wife" is ignored for email delivery -- try it by sending it to yourself, i.e

  3. Seattle Steve:

    Writing about your problem seems to have resulted in a workable solution!

  4. Jack:

    Do you actually use their email? If not
    simply assign them an email address. It doesn't even have to work.

    If you plan to use their email for
    communications you can give them a 'company' email. If you don't have
    an email server (I assume you don't) use gmail or hotmail as your
    company email and assign email using something like
    It may take a few hours but you can set up a large number of email
    addresses ahead of time and hand them out as needed along with a set
    of instructions on how to log in.

    The 'company email may cause some
    issues as everyone will have to use a different email than they are
    used to but support will be simplified as you will only have one type
    of email to support. A good set of printed illustrated instructions
    should go a long way resolving many issues. Just keep a stack ready
    to hand out as needed. Alternately you can set the company email to
    forward everything to their home email.

  5. Dan Lavatan:

    I would create a new email account and forward it to the joint account.

  6. Matthew Slyfield:

    Even better format for company email accounts for less computer savvy employees applying as a couple would be

  7. marque2:

    You don't really fire everybody every year - I hope you are laying them off, due to lack of work. There is a difference. You fire someone because they have performance issues, you lay people off when there is no more work to do.

  8. EricP:

    If all it needs is an email address, then get a domain for email then create aliases to their real email account (you can have multiple aliases point at the same account). This way the automated emails can be sent to their account via the alias. The software won't know the difference and the user will only need to use that email address to login to the system but still receive their emails in their regular box.

    It shouldn't take more than a couple of hours to setup the 350 email aliases per year and there will be no tech support. I've even seen some "control panels" that will accept a CSV file making it almost instant.

  9. TJSawyer:

    "... in the world of web accounts, must vendors use the email address as the
    one reliable unique identifier for a person and thus use it for the user
    name or expect it to be unique."

    I suppose that "must" is really "most" -- and they are wrong, wrong,wrong!

    Besides not being unique, it divulges information I may not want to share. A pox on everyone who requires this as an identifier. Send all such system designers to a class on identifier design and data modeling.

  10. jdgalt:

    Most companies I've worked for use software such as PeopleSoft or Clarify to manage their employee files. A system like that assigns each person a unique employee number on hire day, and makes him enter his contact information and set a password.

    The employee can then log into your server (either at work or via the web) using his number and password whenever he likes in order to change his home address, phone, e-mail address, and maybe to enroll in or cancel optional services such as direct deposit. He can also view his payroll history and download tax forms. The only time some human at HR has to intervene is if he forgets his password, or the computer is down.

    I've never heard of one of these programs assuming that an e-mail address is unique to one person unless that e-mail address is on the company's own mail server.

  11. Nosmo King:

    Some options:

    First, I'm assuming you've done some analysis on just what computer skills your employees need, rather than "they need to be able to use a computer."

    Filter Step #1 - Use existence of / ability to obtain an email account as a filter. If they can't figure that out they'll be an IT burden you'll have to spend money to resolve.

    Filter Step #2 is an online employment application which requires an email address to complete. The online job application can be designed to test the basic computer skills they'll need to use on the job.

    Steps 1 and 2 will chase away some employees who may be very good employees otherwise; you'll have to decide if that's a better choice than paying for the IT burden they bring with them.

    Pro tip: Despite having a requirement to have a unique individual email account, use a 6 digit employee number that you assign rather than an email address as an identifier. Yes, email addy works for amazon, among others. Email providers go out of business, especially small local ISPs. A lifetime employee number (whatever number you assign stays with that person until death and is activated/deactivated as needed) will be mentally regarded as akin to their SS number. I worked at Sears for a few years in high school and still remember my employee ID number.

    Train them - Keep the online requirements very, very simple, and herd them into a classroom and conduct training in those simple online tasks. Geographical dispersion of employees, especially when that dispersion is small groups, will make that cost prohibitive.

    Create an online trainng program. Or, put the training program on an auto-start DVD that will run on either a PC or a DVD player. Pro tip: if it's presented in more complexity than "See Spot run" it's wrong. Second pro tip: put nomenclature education at the very front. Get them speaking enough IT language that they can communicate well with the people who will untilmately resolve the problems.

    Build a simple, intuitive help function on the company intranet. This, BTW, will be real work for someone in IT because it must be user-oriented and not IT-oriented. Don't forget a search function, and include alias algorithms because what you and I might call "display" the IT folks will call "monitor" and the users may call it "screen".

    Third pro tip: keep them routinely occupied on the basic computer tasks they need to perform with stuff like submitting reports, repair orders, work hours, etc. online. With skills it's use it or lose it

    Pick one person in each geographically distributed group and make them an expert. I did that with an LE agency I worked with - got the agency to create a skill slot called " Squad Computer Specialist" with a pay bump just like being on SWAT, trained in CPR/Trauma, or SCUBA-qualified on the Dive Team, etc. Took the volunteers, weeded out the ones that weren't suitable with testing, trained the heck out of the ones who passed. This put a "very high basic level" computer literate individual on each 12-15 person squad. Minor problems got resolved quickly at the squad level, and the IT people dealt only with one person per squad who also spoke their language. Huge time saver.

    Does your benefits plan (assuming you have one) include vision benefits? If so, does it cover computer glasses? Having inexpensive prescription eyewear formulated for using a computer (rather than distance vision) is much easier to use than bifocals or trifocals. The distance portion of the lens won't work with a screen 20-24" away, and neither will the reading portion of a bifocal lens - the focal langth for reading and comoputer screen is different, and the reading zone magnification may need to be different as well. Not to mention the constant head tilting required to use bifocals. Pro tip: computer glasses should include a bifocal reading section on the lens, just like bifocals for distance and reading, because the users will be going back and forth from paper to the screen.

  12. Guest:

    If the couple is sharing a gmail account, then you have one of two solutions built in.

    1- Periods in a gmail username are superfluous. Therefore, and go to the same account.

    2- Add a plus sign at the end of the username and then a variable: and will both go to

  13. Buanadha:

    This is a good approach, I think. I was also thinking he could even create the gmails or emails for them if he set up a domain. That way they can route them where ever they want, and his internal people can manage the email address setup and simply send out a password.. or route it to the couple's email address as needed.

  14. Rick C:

    That actually only works if the receiving mail server is Unix, or else you're using the proper mail server software, or something. Last time I checked, for example, it will not work with Hotmail accounts or Exchange-based email.

  15. Howard Luken:

    Fire everyone ? Freudian slip?

  16. markm:

    Good point about the computer glasses. They can't learn to use the computer if they can't clearly see the whole screen, and quite often people won't tell you that it's a problem. Since Warren mostly hires Medicare-qualified retirees for part-time/part-year work, I don't expect he provides any benefits to most of his work force, but a vision plan that covers two pairs of glasses would probably pay off in better

    I'm 61, working as an engineer in an electronics plant, and I use single-vision lenses set at 24" for almost everything but driving. That works well for computers, for looking into a wiring cabinet, and for reading a printout or manual laying on my desk. I am very nearsighted, so for close reading (or looking for defects on circuit boards) I simply push the glasses up and use my naked eyes. Past six feet things get a little blurry, but I can navigate in the plant and recognize people.

  17. David in Seattle:

    The major providers now allow aliases, which function the same way. If you have a couple that share one inbox, have one person create an alias through the web UI. Emails sent to either show up in the same inbox and may be the least costly way to solve this particular challenge (time-wise). Plus, everything stays under the control of the user and their family (i.e. kids can help with this sort of thing).

  18. Charles Clarke:

    First check that his system accepts plusses in email addresses. Some large(and small too) corporations don't accept plusses even though they are valid in the RFC. And if you have a foolish designer to start...