Despite cockroaches and bedbugs, this HR leader ‘couldn’t be any happier’

HR leader profile: Sara Cromwell, vice president of people excellence at Abell Pest Control

Despite cockroaches and bedbugs, this HR leader ‘couldn’t be any happier’

“When I can have cockroaches fall on my head and not flinch, people treat [me] a little differently.”

So says Sara Cromwell, vice president of people excellence at Abell Pest Control, in talking about the importance of having “street cred” as an HR leader at the company.

As part of that, she often joins the company’s employees when they’re out in their trucks.

“I’m a licensed pest control operator too, so one of my ways I stay connected with people out in the field as well is I’ll go out and do service work alongside them,” she says.

“I was fearful of bugs and all of that stuff when I joined but I actually found so much passion after going [with the team]… I have so much passion and interest now in the science of rodents and the science of bedbugs and cockroaches.”

Many people think pest control is just about pesticides, but it’s very much about integrated pest management, says Cromwell, and stopping the rodents from entering a facility in the first place.

“You’ve got to think how those critters work. And getting licensed and being able to go out and do some of the work alongside the team, it’s fun, it’s a lot of fun — you feel like a detective.”

Catching ‘the HR bug’

Cromwell’s dedication is evident as she marks her 12th year with Abell Pest control, which is based in Toronto and has about 650 employees in North America.

But her career in HR first started back in the early 2000s, and she moved on to become an HR administrator and then HR generalist and HR manager at several companies, before landing at Abell.

“I somewhat fell into [HR],” she says. “I started off in a payroll admin role and I was working closely with the HR manager at an automotive supplier company, and just naturally I was really drawn to the different problems that she had to deal with and attacking those different solutions... So that got the HR bug in me.”

Over the years, of course, human resources has seen a lot of change – especially during the COVID pandemic when HR really gained a seat the table, says Cromwell.

“Historically, I think it was more seen as administrative, and … the ‘fun police,’” she says, “while now it's a very much a strategic position that's very important to the operation of the business.”

HR in blue collar ‘vastly different’ than white collar

While Cromwell has worked for a variety of companies on both the white collar and blue collar side, she says one highlight of her career was a brief stint at Altamira Financial. Sadly, there was an amalgamation and everyone was laid off, but a mentor there was very influential.

“She was a young woman and in a very senior position at Altamira, and the way that she held herself in boardrooms, how she worked the employees, how she worked with the executive — I looked up to her and she was the one who I wanted to be when I got older.”

Cromwell says she got the “blue collar bug” when she joined a steel coating facility, with “vastly different” challenges.

“I feel very protective of those that are in trades, in blue collar roles, because I feel like society, sometimes horribly, looks down on those positions. You’re always told throughout high school to go to university, and then university really prepares you for a lot of white collar jobs — as if working a blue collar job is a bad thing.

“And there's nothing further from the truth — blue collar jobs are keeping our company going. So once I joined the blue collar world, there was really no turning back. And that's ultimately what brought me to Abell as well.”

Focusing on diverse recruitment at Abell

But being in the pest control world has its challenges when it comes to recruitment, says Cromwell.

“Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Hey, you know what, I want to kill some bedbugs.’ Nobody really thinks about pest control as a career out there,” she says.

“But what our people are doing every single day is protecting our population — we're in the food plants ensuring that there's no illnesses being brought in by any sort of vector species; we're in the hospitals ensuring that people don't have surgery and have bedbugs on them.”

In its 100th year, Abell wants to reach out to a large audience, and that includes focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion as part of its core values, according to Cromwell.

“For a lot of HR professionals in 2020, what happened with George Floyd and the discussions that were being had really shook us and woke us to some of the struggles, and how inclusivity not being at the forefront of our values may be impacting our employees and holding them back.”

That could be something as simple – but necessary – as rewriting the process for uniform suppliers.

“I don't know if you've ever had to wear a uniform that has been tailored from a men's-type shirt to a women's-type shirt, but they do not fit whatsoever for a woman. And things like cargo pants are the working pants that women have to wear as well — again, structured for a male body,” she says, adding it was about changing the policies to be more inclusive.

Similarly, the company has focused on providing respirators that can fit beards which may be worn for religious reasons.

“There’s been a lot of great things that, when we really pulled it apart, and we spent time looking at it, we said to ourselves, ‘You know what, we haven’t been inclusive, historically, and we want to do better,’’ says Cromwell.

Boosting benefits for Abell employees

Also important? Listening to employees. As a company spread across North America, it can be hard to have discussions with staff but Abell is working to improve, she says. That includes being 100% transparent and showing “the good, the bad and the ugly” of any feedback, while leadership tours the company’s locations.

“We're listening, and we're learning; we give them anonymous ways to provide feedback and we're going to loop around back at the end of the year, once we finish our tour, and do a town hall based on all the feedback and our responses to what they've asked for,” says Cromwell.

The company has also rolled out an “Emerging Leaders” program that allows people in individual contributor roles to sign up for a program that will give them tools — from people management to communication skills to financial literacy — that they haven’t necessarily learned, she says, “and they need to have those skills to get them to that leadership position when it opens up.”

On the recognition side, the company has seen success in using software called Bucketlist to connect employees by rewarding points, says Cromwell.

“That allows us to connect with everybody throughout the company, no matter where we are, and celebrate certain wins that they may have. So it could be that our manager in Halifax is thanking… a technician over in Vancouver, because they did great customer service for a shared client, and they're hearing all about it, and it helped benefit that relationship.”

In the end, Cromwell says she couldn’t be any happier, working in the pest control industry.

“This is one heck of an industry and I love every moment of it,” she says.

“I don't think I've had a day that I've woken up and said, ‘I'm not excited to work.’ It makes taking vacation very difficult, because I just enjoy it so much. And the nature of the industry, I feel very protective of it.”

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