Current Trends and Issues in HR – An Interview with HR Director, Catherine Kerr
Interviewer: Kareen King, President, SHRM Lehman College Student Chapter
Contributions made by Mayrelin Tapia, Vice President, SHRM Lehman College Student Chapter & Alondra Garcia, Treasurer, SHRM Lehman College Student Chapter
Bio: Catherine Kerr is an accomplished HR professional, with seven years’ experience in various HR roles, predominantly at GRID Alternatives. GRID Alternatives is the nation’s largest and fastest-growing non-profit organization that specializes in providing solar technology and job training to under-served communities.
Catherine Kerr is considered a trailblazer and is instrumental in defining what HR means at GRID Alternatives. Ms. Kerr is the key player in starting, growing and leading the HR team and defining the organization’s values. Catherine is passionate about leadership and combines this with HR’s values and into strategies that will keep employees, motivated, productive and engaged as well as lead the organization to success. Catherine is currently based at the head office in California and is responsible for overseeing all HR functions including coaching & management, benefits, organizational insurance, policies & labor laws, culture & values, and co-lead on safety.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your professional journey, how did you decide on HR?
I started in an AmeriCorps funded position called “VISTA Leader” where I was essentially doing HR functions for the 8-12 AmeriCorps members the organization had at the time – recruiting, onboarding, helping with benefits questions, offboarding, etc. At the end of that year, the organization was just getting large enough (50-60 employees) to warrant having a full-time HR person. I started as an HR & Admin Assistant for a 4-office, single-state, 50-60 employee organization. Seven years later I’m the HR Director for an 11-office, international, 350 employee organization.
2. What do you know now, that you wish you knew when you first started your career in HR?
I always joke that if the organization or I had any idea what HR was before I started that they probably wouldn’t have offered me the job and I probably wouldn’t have taken it. HR is just so critical to the success of an organization! That said, I’ve really grown to love this field, so I guess I’m glad we were naïve.
I will say that one resource I’ve really come to rely on is my network of other HR professionals and mentors/advisors like our benefits broker. I didn’t realize how much information gets managed by HR – recruiting, compensation, employee relations, insurance, labor law, coaching and professional development, etc. Navigating those things requires deep knowledge of certain areas (e.g. medical insurance) and others, like employee relations, mostly live in the grey when it comes to navigating. I’m glad for the team I have now (including the folks who work above, next to, and report to me) but had I understood this better when I started I would have started to build that network sooner.
3. What do you think the most disruptive force or area in the HR field will be this year and how do you think it will impact businesses?
I think the big stuff for HR this year will be reacting to cultural events which are intertwined with equity work and Presidential edicts. If DACA is ending or threatened to end, how does HR navigate to support employees and reduce fear while staying in compliance with labor law? How do we create space for employees to navigate serious emotional trauma after events like Charlottesville or Parkland and still come to work and focus? And how do we do equity, inclusion, and diversity work from a social justice standpoint that is really meaningful and not just lip service? As millennials and Gen Z start to move into the workforce, and into positions of significance in the workforce, I don’t think what’s been done to date in diversity work will suffice to retain great talent.
4. What are some of the pros and cons noted and foreseen, due to the new Paid Family Leave Policy, which became effective January 1, 2018? What strategies would you propose, to support these pros and cons?
I don’t know if I’d call this a con, but I would say that any time legislation is passed with additional benefits for employees (whether paid sick leave, additional unpaid time off for victims of domestic violence, increase in minimum wage) it always has real, budgetary and production impacts on employers. That said, I think it’s really important for employees to get time off to take care of sick family members and shouldn’t have to worry about their own income and job security to do so. We also already have a fairly generous policy as an employer headquartered in California, so it was less of a change/adjustment for us.
5. How difficult has it been to source good healthcare providers and what strategies could HR Managers implement in order to provide employees with more affordable health care plans or incentives to lower their health care spending?
When we were a small organization, it was much harder for us to source good healthcare than it is now. We tap into the CIGNA network nationally. That can still have limitations in certain regions/markets but generally allows us to provide a good network to all of our employees. Plus, we have Kaiser out in California.
One thing we’ve done to cut costs is switch to self-funding some of our plans. There is definitely some risk to doing so, but thus far we’ve saved a significant amount on our annual plan premium costs, that has allowed us to continue offering good benefits, and a high rate of employer-covered premiums, to our employees.
6. The Trump Administration has proposed to revise various wage and hour requirements for employers. What impact do you anticipate such legislation would have on employee’s pay and compensation policies as well as the organization’s growth strategy?
My sense is that ‘revise’ here means make better for employers and worse for employees. I don’t anticipate this having a huge impact on our organization, although I imagine it will for many. Currently, we’ve extended an internal policy that exempt employees must make at least the minimum salary required in California (we are a California Headquartered company) which is higher than federal regulations. So, we’ve mostly been able to remain in compliance.
If the federal exempt salary threshold is revisited, and it is done at the level proposed by the prior administration, then it will have impacts as we have to make hard decisions about whether we give significant raises or re-classify employees who we know will work significant overtime.
In such a competitive world, what strategies are needed to ensure retention and engagement of employees?
To the extent possible, compensation is always important. But beyond that, I think employers need to focus on: training and supporting good management and managers, creating a flexible workplace that understands that an employee’s personal life doesn’t disappear the minute they walk in the door, and I really believe that advancing diversity, equity and inclusion work, in a real way, will matter with the incoming workforce.
9. How has technology and social media helped to improve your work, and has it created any limitations?
We have a lot of locations, so technology plays a huge role in the work that we do. We track everything we do in some kind of system – SalesForce database, HRIS, etc. And we constantly talk via email, Google chat, Skype call, etc. It’s also allowed us to move some trainings to virtual which has created significant cost savings. That said, there is unquantifiable importance to in-person connections and each time an organization moves something from in-person to virtual, that cultural bonding piece is lost.
10. From an HR perspective, what would you say are some internal fears and barriers that limits organizational development?
Organizational cultures where employees don’t feel that their ideas can be shared and heard limit organizational development. Anyone can come up with the next great idea so your company needs to have a culture that supports that. Also, to work on growth, leadership has to be willing to say “we aren’t perfect, we could be better”. That’s strong leadership, but I think sometimes leaders fear that vulnerability in that way and will make them seem less strong as leaders.
11. What do you think the HR function would look like in the next 5 years?
I’m not totally sure, but I think in this day and age – with Parkland, with #metoo, with competition for good talent – companies see that HR is a critical function, so I hope that translates into HR being more and more invited and at the table for critical organizational conversations.