Opinion

What it takes to be named HR Strategist of the Year

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Print this page by Genevieve Roberts

I recently talked with Deborah Slayden, director of workforce development strategy with VCU Health System (VCUHS), about her incredible journey to becoming the 2011 Human Resources Strategist of the Year.  She was very surprised to be selected for the award by the Titan Group and Richmond Society of Human Resources Management, especially given the talented competition and the stature of previous winners such as Bonnie Shelor of Bon Secours and Dr. Christopher Lee of the Virginia Community College Sysyem.  “For me, this is like winning a lifetime achievement award,” says Slayden, who has worked with VCUHS for more than 13 years.

After graduating from Braxton Business School, Slayden began her career as a secretary. She worked at Henrico Doctors’ Hospital for the head of personnel, Steven Bryan, who was instrumental in shaping her future in human resources.  He gave her many opportunities to try out different roles such as benefits coordinator and employment manager. Eventually, she became the HR director. 
Knowing that her career climb would be slowed down without further education, she decided to earn not only her bachelor’s degree, but also her MBA and master’s degree in health administration, both of which she did under VCUHS’ educational program with little cost to her. 

Slayden attributes most of her success in her current role to the “huge support” she gets from her manager, Maria Curran, and her team.  When she moved into this role about five years ago, she was given the reins to create whatever she thought was needed to develop a work environment worthy of being an employer of choice.  This was a strategic initiative for the health system particularly given the competition for highly skilled medical candidates.  She envisioned a workplace attracting so many job applicants that they would form a line wrapping around the building.  As a result of Slayden’s leadership and the HR team’s ideas, the health system has developed H.O.P.E., which stands for Housing, Opportunity, Potential and Education.

To help employees with Housing, VCUHS offers first time home buyers up to $7,500 on closing costs.  The health system also helps educate employees on how to improve credit scores and consolidate debt. 

In the Opportunity bucket, Slayden created a multitude of professional growth and training programs.  Many classes focus on preparing employees for the future and honing their management skills. Scholarships are offered to nurses who want to become registered nurses. Slayden and her staff also develop programs to help employees achieve their dreams, including basic needs like babysitting and transportation.  A really fresh program aimed at youth is JRIIS – “JumpRope to Stethoscope.” It partners health system nurses with local middle schools to introduce students to medical careers.  It works!  JRIIS has resulted in kids choosing careers in nursing and pharmacy.

Potential is aimed at valuing employees’ talents, recognizing them, rewarding them and working with leaders to identify rising stars.  For example, employees are invited to attend the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute, a 9-month program for developing leaders.  Also, VCUHS recognizes 12 employees each year by telling their stories in its annual report.

Education is focused on offering education opportunities for all employees.  VCUHS pays up to 18 credit hours per year, and the money is prepaid, not reimbursed.  Further, the program is not limited to just health system employees, but also is offered to spouses and dependents.  To make it easier for employees to earn their degrees, management will consider alternative work schedules.
Slayden believes the H.O.P.E. initiative has changed the work environment significantly.  VCUHS has received many awards recognizing it as an employer of choice and being among the best places to work in the Richmond area.  Because employees have support from their employer, they feel more loyal.  As a result, employees feel more motivated to “give their all” to the patients. 

Kristin Druhot, a nurse practitioner and mother of three, has relied on several work-life benefits offered by VCUHS to help her manage her personal and professional lives. These benefits include a flexible work schedule in which she works four nine-hour days, leaving the other four hours “flexible.” She can work those four hours whenever her schedule allows –either from home or at the office.
Financially, the impact of the program has been huge in terms of employee retention. VCUHS research indicates that, during the past five years, its turnover rate has reduced by 4 percent. The health system attributes this decrease largely to its rich benefits and work/life programs.  Furthermore, the organization has seen an increased number of qualified job applicants, and overall employee engagement has risen.

For the future, Slayden says that VCUHS will look at H.O.P.E.  every year and will add to the more than 400 programs already in place.  Some things under consideration include online grocery services, family wellness programs, expanded elder care services, backup child care and homework assistance for employees with school-age children.
After winning the award, Slayden did not take off for Disney World. Instead she decided to figure out a way to give back.  She would love to offer her expertise to other organizations that want to offer similar programs. (If you are interested in an onsite consultation, contact her directly at dslayden@mcvh-vcu.edu.)

Slayden’s advice for future applicants of the HR Strategist Award is to continually think about how to partner with their CEOs and business leaders to see what they need and lead them into the future.  Be prepared with specific action items and costs and estimated returns.  “Don’t worry about the past and just focus on the future”, Slayden recommends.

Genevieve Roberts is a partner at the Titan Group, a Richmond-based human resources consulting firm.


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