Increasingly, human resources (HR) professionals are being given a seat at their companies’ decision-making tables — in part because of the agility and leadership they showed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Research released in May 2022 from recruiting firm Allegis Partners showed HR leader appointments to public company boards jumped 300% from 2017. Additionally, the majority of new HR leaders appointed to these boards were diverse by race, ethnicity, or gender.
The Rochester Business Journal talked to HR leaders from area organizations in different industries to learn how being agile during a crisis has contributed to the redefinition of their profession.
Olga Mendez: “We showed up.”
“During the pandemic, we had a pulse on the employee population,” said Olga Mendez, director of human resources at American Packaging Corporation, which operates six centers of excellence in the U.S. including two in Rochester. “It gave us a seat at the table to be heard and to help the leadership team be more proactive than reactive.”
Mendez, who was born in Puerto Rico, knew she wanted to pursue a career in personnel management even when she was a student at East High School in Rochester.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in human resources organizational development from Roberts Wesleyan University and a master’s degree in career and human resource development from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“My ultimate goal was to lead an HR team and make a difference in the lives of employees,” Mendez said. “For me personally as a Latina female being able to report to the COO of a company means a lot.”
Since Mendez began in HR twenty-five years ago the field has changed considerably, and she attributes much of that to HR professionals rising to the challenges of the pandemic with agility, creativity and empathy.
“Most people used to think of HR as the people who hire and fire,” Mendez said. “I like to think the pandemic helped people see HR differently. We showed up as the voice of the employee.”
She also notes that the crisis management aspect of the pandemic is not necessarily over but has taken a new form. She and other senior leadership at American Packaging Corporation recently led a series of town hall meetings and pulse surveys to gauge where employees were at and found the biggest area people were struggling was mental health.
Some of the things they’ve implemented in response: a new benefit for community service time, more education via the company’s EAP program, and easy access to farmers markets.
Shannon E. Struzik: “Our greatest asset is our people.”
The past few years in HR have been a “wild ride,” says Shannon E. Struzik, vice president of people and development at Leonard’s Express, a family-owned asset-based transportation provider headquartered in Ontario County with seventeen locations across the nation.
“HR has evolved from just a department to a core leadership seat at the table,” Struzik said. “The focus on compliance and benefits is still there, but experts in this field have become organizational experts. We are now more of a strategic partner for business growth.”
During the pandemic, Struzik said HR teams like hers often led the charge on relaxing rigid policies, such as schedules, which at Leonard’s Express led to improved organizational outcomes and employee experiences.
The biggest challenge she faced was the staffing crisis between 2021 and the first part of 2022 when the company’s business grew exponentially and there was a critical need for drivers, forklift operators and account managers. Trucks from Leonard’s Express cross the contiguous United States 24/7, 365 days a year.
Staffing is now solid and the company is continuing several HR and organizational development (OD) initiatives it initiated during the pandemic.
“Most companies now have HR/OD presence on the leadership teams and if they don’t they should,” Struzik said. “Having HR on the executive leadership team makes it that people are the focus of everything you do as a company. Our greatest asset is our people.”
Struzik entered human resources four and a half years ago after transitioning from a career in advertising. Even with the challenges of the pandemic, she’s happy she made the move.
“The thing that gets me up and going each day is helping people reach their highest potential,” Struzik said.
Dean Moore: “To participate and help.”
In the spring of 2020, the HR team at St. John’s — a Rochester senior living and care provider — stepped up and into an unfamiliar role: screening people who entered the organization’s buildings for COVID-19.
“We took our traditional skill set as human resources professionals and applied it to something else,” said Dean Moore, vice president of work/life at St. John’s, explaining how his team was able to use their established HR skills in leadership, data management, and process improvement to coordinate a massive screening effort.
By handling their own screening, testing, data collection and reporting, Moore says St. John’s was able to save more than 3 million dollars during the pandemic.
“It gave us a chance in a really tough time to participate and help,” Moore said.
His team also worked hard during the pandemic to meet employees where they were at, including offering flexibility with work schedules and locations.
“A remote worker is more productive than an open position,” said Moore, who explained that in health care many roles must be done in-person, but for those where there was an opportunity for hybrid or remote work St. John’s worked hard to accommodate it.
They also introduced new benefits that were targeted to meet flexibility for employees, including PayActiv — an earned wage access service; Our People — a team communications app; and EZaccessMD — a 24/7/365 telemedicine and mobile urgent care service.
The HR team at St. John’s also took the lead in keeping staff informed about regulations, changes, and other important information regularly during the pandemic.
Caurie Putnam is a Rochester-area freelance writer.n