SARS and mergers and layoffs, oh my

Hewlett-Packard’s VP of HR bids farewell after 39 years

More than 20 years ago, the president of Hewlett-Packard Canada sat down with John Cross and asked him what he was going to do “when he grew up.”

Cross had been with the Mississauga, Ont.-headquartered company since he graduated as a biomedical engineer in 1967. He worked his way up from a medical sales representative to several key positions, including manager of medical equipment assembly, commercial services manager and manager of operations and corporate planning.

He told the president that one day he wanted to be in charge of human resources, even though none of his previous jobs had been in HR.

“All of my success in all of my jobs has been because of my people,” said Cross, who became the vice-president of HR in 1988 and is set to retire at the end of the month. He added that as the HR leader, he has been able to have the greatest impact on employees, “second only to the president.”

In 2003 his ability to manage staff was put to the test when 197 employees in HP’s Markham, Ont., office were sent home under quarantine after coming into contact with an employee suffering from symptoms of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

“Everybody was worried about even interacting with HP people,” said Cross.

The biggest communication challenge was to make sure everyone understood that even though employees were in quarantine, there wasn’t a danger to other employees or clients, he said.

Cross knew he had to focus on reassuring his employees first and then worry about calming down clients. He set up a daily conference call with the quarantined employees to share all the information he had with them and with the employees still at work.

“Anything we knew, we told the employees as soon as we knew it,” he said.

One of the biggest decisions Cross had to make was whether or not to pay employees who were quarantined. In the end HP continued to pay them, partly as an incentive for employees to stay in quarantine and partly out of HP’s own values of putting employees first, said Cross.

Initially Cross worried that some employees would be too afraid to return to work after the quarantine ended. But thanks to the open communication that he kept with all employees, every single one of them returned once the quarantine was lifted.

“The greatest success was that we kept the operation totally running smoothly,” said Cross.

His efforts received international recognition and helped put him on a worldwide task force for flu pandemic preparedness.

The HP-Compaq merger

While the SARS crisis and his success in handling it received all the accolades, Cross is most proud of how he handled the acquisition of computer manufacturer Compaq in 2002, which saw about 1,400 Compaq employees join the company.

At the same time as the Compaq-HP merger, HP was also bringing 1,100 CIBC IT employees on board as part of a contract with the bank. Cross was left with three distinct cultures from three different companies and had to find a way to blend them together.

“You go through some pain when you go through an acquisition. And everyone thought we would fail,” he said. “Instead, it’s turned out to be the largest integration (in the high-tech sector) and it’s been successful.”

The most important aspect of the cultural integration was allowing employees to express their feelings about each company. Cross put employees into small groups, with representatives from all three companies, and encouraged everyone to share the negative and positive things they believed to be true about the other companies.

“It got it all on the surface rather than underground,” said Cross. “People even started to emphasize the positives and we were able to dispel some myths.”

It also gave Cross the opportunity to learn about the different cultures and processes at the other companies and incorporate some of the best practices into HP’s culture.

“We’ve always been known for being very precise and Compaq was known to be moving at a great speed,” he said. “We needed a blend.”

As a result, HP introduced “speed and agility” to its list of values.

One regret

While Cross is proud of the successful integration, if there was one thing he regrets about his time as vice-president of HR, it would be the layoffs that followed Compaq’s acquisition.

Since he joined HP, sales have grown steadily from $250 million a year to $87 billion. The company was always growing and there was never any need to lay off employees until the Compaq acquisition, which resulted in the duplication of several jobs. But it could be worse, said Cross.

“In Canada we’re actually in better shape than in most other countries. We’ve always been known for being a very lean and well-managed company within HP,” he said.

The way the company has always prioritized HR has appealed to Cross since the very beginning. In the 1940s, HP was one of the first companies to create a social safety net for its employees and Cross said that, since then, the company has continued to be innovative in the creation of caring HR policies.

In Canada, HP has a recreation site north of Kingston, Ont., where employees can take a free vacation, stay in a chalet and fish or canoe on one of the company’s lakes. The company also offers flexible work arrangements with the majority of employees working from home at least a couple of days a week, said Cross.

While many HR departments across Canada are struggling to become strategic business partners, HP’s HR leader has always been part of the executive team.

“HR has always been a very respected function within HP,” said Cross. “I’ve always been at the leadership table and in fact I’ve been a key contributor to the leadership team.”

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