I had been with the hardware company in Virginia for about five years – three and a half as HR director. I had enjoyed the work and the people were great. We had made a lot of progress in establishing the HR department. We had formalized the hiring process and a significant number of HR policies and programs. I had also obtained my first HR certification – the PHR. I was ready to make a move to a larger company with a more established HR function. I interviewed with only one company, and with persistence (i.e. follow up), they did hire me as a corporate recruiter. They were a manufacturer based in Virginia.
I worked out of the corporate headquarters recruiting engineers and mid- to high level management personnel. I also traveled to their facilities on the east coast and into Canada working on employee relations issues, In addition, I also did quite a bit of generalist work, especially when a local facility’s HR person would leave. I would go in, determine the status of things and do the ground work to fill the spot.
After 18 months or so, I was transferred to the company’s chemical facility in Texas. It was instant culture shock. The facility had been in operation since the late 70’s, had been run on a shoestring, was drained for profit, and was in terrible shape. No one on staff (managers and engineers, much less hourly people) knew I was coming in and I was to set up not only personnel, but also safety. Suffice to say, they did not throw out the welcome mat. They made my life so unbearable that my wife and I were ready to take our two little girls back to Virginia after six months and forget we had ever been to Texas. We didn’t do it.
Everything that we did in HR and safety was geared to the customer – the employee. The chemical industry, like many others, is very competitive. We had to adjust the way the facility was run not only from an operational standpoint, but from an HR and safety standpoint as well. If we got the HR and safety programs right (i.e. good internal customer service), the operational side would fall into place (i.e. good external customer service).
There were some incredibly bright and well-educated people on staff at the plant. We initially concentrated on safety procedures related to hazardous materials of which there were numerous. I developed a safety manual and set up routine training for the chemical operators based on the manual. We also trained the operators based on all new operating procedures as they were developed for each different process. The work was significant. We were developing the parts of the safety program (the policies/procedures), implementing the program, training and auditing against the program (i.e. internally), and being audited against the program (i.e. by corporate personnel and external entities).
I was also responsible for essentially the same process on the HR-side. We started to grow quite a bit faster and needed to bring in new operators. We established a strong hiring> and hired people at a fairly good clip. We also formalized the personnel files, benefits and compensation administration, employee communications, operator schedules, etc.
We stabilized wage administration and ensured that we were competitive with the other chemical plants in the area. We did this against corporate’s directives and in spite of the fact that we were quite a bit smaller people-wise than our neighbors. We were not smaller from a revenue or profit standpoint. We also ensured that we were competitive with the benefits that we offered. We ensured that employees knew how to use their benefits and that any benefits issues received quick attention either from corporate or the insurance company. The division manager set up weekly communications meetings with people from every department in attendance. This fifteen minute investment of time broke down barriers that had been built over years and years. Another thing that we did that had a tremendous impact on customer service was to convert our 20-some contract maintenance personnel to direct, regular employees. Contract maintenance is common in the chemical industry. However, the client company can have little control over hiring and other factors that impact quality and customer service. We ran them all through our hiring process and hired only those who were successful. Making this change reduced redundancy and cost even though we significantly increased the wages of the maintenance craftsmen.
When I left the plant, I was responsible either directly or indirectly for safety, HR, maintenance, environmental, engineering and projects – basically all (internal customer) services in the facility. We had gotten voluntary turnover down below 2%, we had gone 10 years without a lost time injury, we were ISO-registered, sales were approaching $ 500 million a year and the plant looked like it had recently been constructed. We were able to accomplish these things in no small part because of the HR solutions that we had put into place and the excellent internal and external customer service that those practices enabled us to provide.
Tom Stables has been in industry, HR and general management for over 20 years. For more information on this topic and others, please go to Grayhill HR Solutions.com.