Profiling SHRP holders (HR leaders talk)

Canadian HR Reporter talks to 5 professionals — from a judge to the head of HR at a casino — about the Senior Human Resources Professional designation
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/06/2010

The Senior Human Resources Professional (SHRP) designation was introduced in 2009 to recognize senior HR professionals who have made a significant impact on their organization and the profession. There are 105 people who hold the designation, all of whom are in Ontario, though there are several applications pending in Saskatchewan. Canadian HR Reporter talked to five professionals about their careers and what the designation means to them.

Randall Echlin
Superior Court of Justice (Ontario)

The Superior Court of Justice has jurisdiction over criminal, civil and family cases in Ontario with 51 locations throughout the province. Justice Echlin works at the courthouse on University Avenue in Toronto.

In 1976, Randall Echlin was an articling student at McCarthy & McCarthy (now McCarthy Tétrault). One of his mentors, George Finlayson, was giving a lecture at the Law Society of Upper Canada on employment law.

At that time, there were no employment law specialists and Ontario’s Employment Standards Act had just come into law, says Echlin.

“Finlayson came to me and said, ‘Echlin, I want you to take a month or two and learn everything you can learn about employment law and write me a speech for it,’” says Echlin.

After that summer, Echlin knew he wanted to specialize in this area when he was called to the bar in 1977.

Borden and Elliot (which later became Borden Ladner Gervais) hired him that year to start an employment law department in the firm.

“They saw a burgeoning market that didn’t exist,” he says.

By 2003, when Echlin left the firm, he had 50 employment law lawyers below him.

Along with acting as counsel to HR professionals, Echlin also served as an ad hoc internal HR professional at the law firm and, from 1980 to 1990, gave biannual lectures on employment law to entry-level HR practitioners through the Personnel Association of Toronto (now the Human Resources Professionals ­Association).

His teaching and internal HR work at the law firm helped him be grandfathered into the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation, says Echlin. When he became a judge at Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice in 2003, the CHRP gave him a lot of credibility when hearing employment law cases.

“They tend to cycle a lot of the employment law disputes to me because they know I can do them quickly,” he says. And when other judges have an employment law case, they often come to Echlin for his advice, just as he turns to them for advice on criminal matters.

Once the Senior Human Resources Professional (SHRP) designation became available, Echlin applied for it as well, drawing on his experience advising clients and performing HR duties internally in the law firm. He is currently the only judge in Ontario with the designation.

“It gives me extra credibility with the counsel and the parties,” he says.

He highly recommends all HR professionals get the CHRP as soon as possible, but points out the SHRP comes with time as it is based on experience, not theory.

The designation shows others, inside and outside the profession, the professional is a senior player in the field, says Echlin.

When Echlin first began teaching employment law, HR was still known as the personnel department and employees were given very little respect in organizations, he says.

“A lot has changed over the last three decades,” says Echlin. “They have a much higher status and much more respect, and play a much stronger and more vital role in the way companies are run.”

In his 34-year career, from practising law to writing seven employment law books, becoming a judge has definitely been the highlight, says Echlin.

“Going to the bench gave me the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. I’ve probably written 20 or 30 employment law decisions in the past seven years,” he says. “(It’s about) making a difference and actually being able to shape the law and move it in a direction that I thought made a lot of sense.”

One such case was Link v. Venture Steel Inc., a complicated case involving a senior executive, stock options and notice in 2008.

William Link was one of the original founders of Venture Steel in Toronto in 1996. By 2005, as vice-president of sales, Link was earning about $536,000 a year, owned nine per cent of the company and held more than 25,000 preferred shares.

On Feb. 21, 2005, Venture fired Link, alleging he had installed carpeting in his home at company expense and sent a sub-standard grade of steel to a client. But in November 2008, Echlin ruled there was insufficient proof that Link didn’t pay for the carpeting himself or that he “knowingly caused” steel of an improper grade to be shipped. As such, he ruled Link was dismissed without just cause.

Despite Link’s young age (37) and short years of service (seven), his compensation of more than $500,000 a year, his senior position and his involvement in the founding of the company led Echlin to award him 12 months’ notice.

Because the company was sold for $43.5 million after Link was terminated, Link also had a right to nine per cent of the purchase price, after deductions, ruled Echlin. He also awarded Link dividends and options on the preferred shares he owned at the time of his termination for a total award of $4.8 million, plus interest.

“What was even more gratifying was that it was appealed, because it was a lot of money, and the Court of Appeal backed me up 100 per cent. That tells me that yes, I am making a difference,” says Echlin.

For more information on the Link ruling, see Link v. Venture Steel Inc., 2008 CarswellOnt 7102, 70 C.C.E.L. (3d) 114 (Ont. S.C.J.).

Maria Graham
Vice-president of human resources
Fallsview Casino Resort

The Niagara Falls, Ont.-based casino and hotel has 4,600 employees.

Even before the 2008-2009 recession, Ontario’s gaming industry had been struggling financially since 9-11 with fewer American tourists because of the new United States-Canada passport requirements and a weakened U.S. dollar.

As the executive director of human resources at Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission, Maria Graham was given the task of reducing the workforce without laying off any employees.

“It meant getting creative,” says Graham, who became vice-president of human resources at Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls, Ont., in January.

She offered incentives to full-time staff to encourage them to drop down to part time and buyouts for those who wanted to leave.

But just as important as coming up with headcount-reducing solutions was developing a communication plan to ensure employees stayed motivated and engaged during the uncertain economic period, says Graham.

“We had to maintain customer service,” she says.

This experience was one of several from her career that Graham highlighted as part of her application for the Senior Human Resources Professional designation (SHRP).

While the process wasn’t difficult, it took Graham several days of reflection to be able to provide clear, practical examples that met the application criteria.

“They weren’t just looking for HR experience. You really had to demonstrate that you understood the business you were in, that you understood things like finance, operations, communications, stakeholder relations,” she says.

“You really need to have a comprehensive understanding of how HR aligns to the business.”

Graham received the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation in 1998 and views it as a milestone in her career. The SHRP goes a step beyond because it recognizes her career accomplishments, she says.

Overall, the SHRP takes the profession to the next level and gives holders of the designation formal credibility and recognition of their knowledge and experience, says Graham.

“With the SHRP, it’s not about theory. Applying for the designation, it was about being able to demonstrate practical, real-life examples of work that you have done. It conveys a level of distinction in the profession.”

But the most important reason Graham had for applying for the SHRP was to set an example for her team and motivate them to eventually get the designation.

“I want my team to be the best they can be, from a personal and professional perspective. So for me, personally, it just made sense to lead the way and then, if I got it, share the process with them,” says Graham.

She started her career 24 years ago as an HR co-ordinator after graduating with a BA in business administration. She climbed the ladder to supervisor, then manager and eventually vice-president.

She credits some of her success to her good fortune to have developed good relationships with business partners who truly understood the value of HR. She knows colleagues who haven’t had the same luck and it’s a battle for them to sell the benefits of HR programs to business leaders.

“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve worked with senior business leaders who understand how critical it is to have people programs and services that align with business goals,” she says.

Over her career, she has seen more and more business leaders and managers recognizing the value of human resources and the impact effective people programs have on an organization’s ability to compete, she says.

“At one time, there was a chasm between the goals of the business and HR services. In today’s evolved organizations, full alignment exists and that’s when the business is most successful.”

Which means HR managers also need a wide array of skills, from marketing to finance to communications, to be successful.

“They need to know the business they’re in from all angles,” says Graham.

Julie Giraldi
Chief human resources and information technology officer
Ontario Hospital Association

Based in Toronto, the Ontario Hospital Association represents 154 public hospitals in Ontario and has about 100 employees.

When Julie Giraldi was appointed as chief human resources and information technology officer at the Ontario Hospital Association in 2004, employee turnover was 31 per cent.

“That was a huge, huge amount of work from a recruitment and retention perspective,” she says.

Her mandate was to reduce employee turnover and increase employee engagement and she started by establishing a staff relations committee with representatives from all divisions.

To show employees how important they are to the association, both the chief operating officer and vice-president of educational services department, two members of the senior executive team, chaired the committee.

She also created a new HR portal and quarterly newsletter to keep employees up to date and a new performance management tool that tied the association’s values and behaviours to performance reviews.

“It’s very important to meet goals but the ‘hows’ are just as important as the ‘whats,’” she says.

By 2009, employee engagement reached 99 per cent and turnover had dropped to just six per cent.

“We’re really proud of it because we put so much work into it. We really believe that the HR function is vital in everything we do as an organization,” says Giraldi

Helping an organization succeed through good HR practices is something Giraldi, who was one of the first four HR professionals to receive the Senior Human Resources Professional (SHRP) designation in 2009, takes great pride in. That’s why she took a secondment at eHealth Ontario as interim vice-president of HR in September 2009.

Giraldi was brought on board, with full support from her CEO at the Ontario Hospital Association, to develop a new people management plan, from recruitment and retention to engagement and workplace wellness.

She began by interviewing 20 per cent of the staff from all levels in the scandal-plagued organization as part of a full environmental assessment and held regular town hall meetings. This helped her assess where the issues were and begin to implement programs to address them.

This included 360-degree assessments, a new human resources information system and mandatory training on respectful workplaces.

In her nine-and-a-half months at eHealth, she implemented 26 new policies and reduced external recruitment costs by about $2.2 million.

“It was just a great experience, I really saw the transformation,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it without the full senior management team embracing this, and the board as well as the staff.”

Giraldi started her career at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) in 1988, fresh from graduating from the University of Toronto with a bachelor degree in criminology and Italian literature.

The TTC was merging its personnel and labour relations departments and gave Giraldi the role of managing the human resources administrative function.

“My portfolio continued to expand. When I left (12 years later), I was at the director level,” she says.

From her time at the TTC through to her role as director of human resources and corporate services at the Ontario Hospital Association to her current role, she has seen HR move from a transactional function to become a strategic partner.

“Today, my colleagues expect me to participate not only as a subject matter expert in HR but also as a business partner and be fully aware and engaged in our business,” she says.

Over the years, Giraldi had great mentors, role models and supervisors. Some of the best advice she was given was to “deliver” and be open-minded and collaborative.

She also continued to develop her HR skills and knowledge through various courses, including Queen’s University’s leadership development program and the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management’s advanced program in human resources.

While she was attending the Rotman program, a representative of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) spoke to her class about the new SHRP and she saw it as a designation that would recognize her 20 years of experience.

The designation tells others she has a “depth and breadth” of experience in various HR roles and she is recognized as a strategic business partner in her organization, says Giraldi.

“It provides me with the credibility within my organization and with the senior management team that I work with, but also enables me to take on more responsibilities on behalf of my organization to advise and support our members for further improvements within their HR practices,” she says.

Janis Boase
Vice-president of human resources
Liberty International Underwriters, a division of the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company

The global insurance company was founded in 1999 and its Canadian headquarters are in Toronto.

Twenty-five years ago, when Janis Boase worked at a computer hardware company, she watched two male colleagues try and fail at running the company’s human resources function.

“They were not HR professionals, they were trained in hardware as systems engineers. They were given the opportunity, as part of their development, to try their hand at HR. That would be like giving an HR person a systems engineer position. If you don’t have the expertise, you have nothing from which to draw,” says Boase.

After two years of trying to convince the president to give her a shot, he finally put her in the HR manager’s role. But, unlike her predecessors, she had to continue in her previous role as corporate administrator at the same time until she proved herself.

After six months of working both jobs, the company was sold and the new president asked her which role she preferred. Boase chose HR, launching a new career that eventually saw her become vice-president of human resources at Liberty International Underwriters, a division of Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, in Toronto.

In every HR position she has held over the years, Boase has always had to prove herself and show the organization exactly what kind of value she, and HR, can bring to the organization, she says. But gaining the trust of senior executives and showing them she can be a business partner has been the highlight of her career.

“You have to deliver. There’s no amount of talking that’s going to get you the credibility,” says Boase. “You have to show them that you can contribute, that you can save them time, that you can save them money, that you can help them run their business.”

At one company, Boase implemented in-house coaching for senior managers to help them move to the next level. At another company, where competencies for each level were clearly laid out, she created courses to help employees develop the competencies they needed for the positions they wanted.

“If you looked at the competency map and said, ‘I’m really weak in this particular area, what can I do?’ then you can go to the competency map to see what kind of training is required,” she says.

Boase highlighted these experiences as part of her application for the Senior Human Resources Professional (SHRP) designation, an experience that also helped her reflect on all that she has accomplished in her HR career with five different organizations.

“This credential raises the bar for the HR profession overall and I wanted to support that initiative to further advance and promote HR’s place in the boardroom,” she says. “The designation itself implies that the HR profession is recognized for its ability to provide a competitive advantage to an organization’s overall success.”

Boase has a bachelor of applied arts and a general BA, and received her Certified Human Resources Professional designation in 1990. Over the years, she has continued to upgrade her knowledge and skills. She completed a certificate in the psychology of human relations, attained the Adler Certified Professional Coach certification and completed a program in alternative dispute resolution.

“The learning never stops,” she says. “Things change. You can’t afford to fall behind, not as a leader of HR. You just can’t.”

But learning isn’t just about taking courses — it’s about constantly seeking out new experiences and surrounding yourself with other experienced HR professionals, she says.

The profession has become significantly more demanding and complex and HR professionals must also have an in-depth knowledge of their business and industry to be effective business partners and HR leaders, she says.

“HR does not stand alone. It is a lens through which the challenges and opportunities of the company are viewed and HR strategies must be aligned in support of the corporate direction,” says Boase. “The success of an organization relies on a strong HR presence.”

Barb Bidan
Manager of global research and development talent acquisitions
Research in Motion

Creator of the BlackBerry, Research in Motion (RIM) is headquartered in Waterloo, Ont., and has research and development sites throughout the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Asia Pacific. The company has about 14,000 employees worldwide.

As someone who holds the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation and is dedicated to professional development, Barb Bidan saw the Senior Human Resources Professional (SHRP) designation as the next logical step.

While it helps to have some experience to pass the CHRP exams (and now in Ontario those who want to attain the designation must fulfill an experience requirement), the value of the SHRP lies in its recognition of a professional’s experience, says Bidan, who is manager of global research and development talent acquisitions at Research in Motion in Waterloo, Ont.

“Since receiving the designation, I’ve actually had multiple other HR professionals reach out to me as a resource. What the SHRP is saying to them, in some ways, is that I’m an experienced voice in the profession that they should or would find credible.”

In that way, the SHRP is also different from graduate degrees in HR or business. Graduate degrees still focus more on theoretical knowledge while the SHRP highlights real-world application of that knowledge, she says.

“They’re both valuable for different reasons,” says Bidan, who is currently working on her MBA. “The SHRP, to me, is about applied knowledge specific to the field of HR and the MBA lends itself to creating a more well-rounded business professional.”

As a member of the board for the Grand Valley chapter of the Human Resources Professionals Association, Bidan acts as a resource for chapter members, she says.

“It helps me act as an ambassador of sorts to other chapter members who were considering whether undertaking the application process would be something that would be right for them,” says Bidan.

While the application process itself was fairly simple, Bidan spent a lot of time reflecting on her accomplishments to be able to complete the application.

For the first time since she started her HR career, she really took the time to look at her experiences and see the contributions she has made to the organizations she has worked for, she says.

Bidan began her career in a sales and marketing role at Alliance Fitness ­Corporation, a large fitness club chain that was later bought by GoodLife Fitness.

The company didn’t have a formal HR role and after dealing with HR issues at the line-manager level, Bidan convinced the company it needed a dedicated training function to deliver consistent training in an environment with a lot of employee turnover.

She became director of training and development and, over time, managers called her in to deal with various HR concerns, including employee relations and legal issues. While her role expanded to include most of the company’s HR functions, her title stayed the same.

“I loved those 10 years of my career,” she says. “I still believe those 10 years are what gave my career the trajectory it has had.”

Early on during that time, Bidan completed a college certificate in HR and received the CHRP designation.

“I wasn’t fully comfortable with being the pseudo-HR expert who just happened to be the most experienced of all the people who didn’t know what they were talking about. So I figured if I was going to act in that role, I should have some academic credentials to back me up,” she says.

Bidan moved on to a year-long contract as an HR manager at a small software company and then joined RIM as an organizational development business partner in 2008.

Now, she leads the teams responsible for recruiting all of RIM’s technical engineering talent for the company’s global research and development departments, which account for more than one-half of the company’s total growth, says Bidan.

“Being part of such a Canadian success story, and now a global success story, is pinch-myself cool sometimes. It feels like a great responsibility but it’s super exciting and I’m having so much fun doing it that, as hard as the work is, it doesn’t feel like work,” she says.

Working for three great leaders during her career, who taught her how to lead by their example, and forming networks of HR colleagues from across various organizations have helped Bidan get to where she is today.

“I place a very high value on being well-networked. The people that I stay in touch with outside of my own organization help me to broaden my approach, help me to consider outside viewpoints that aren’t just the viewpoints you would hear within your current organization. They challenge me in a really transparent and honest way,” she says.

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