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Week 8: Building an HR department from the bottom up

In its 35-year history, Trimark Sportswear Group has never had a full-time human resources person. The previous president dealt with issues as they arose; when that became too cumbersome, he hired a consultant to work part-time, to help with the annual employee survey and structure significant HR-related events, among other things.

But when Will Andrew took over as president in June and decided to focus on evolving the company’s culture, he realized he needed an HR manager on staff, full-time, to work closely with. “I wanted somebody who was going to live and breathe with the staff,” says Mr. Andrew. “We interviewed a number of experienced older people but my fear was they wouldn’t connect with the staff.”

What Mr. Andrew was looking for wasn’t someone who was expecting to sit in the executive wing and report directly to the president; instead, he was looking for a person in mid-career who was going to connect with customer service, shipping and other front-line workers ? and who could speak her mind, when necessary, with senior staff.

With culture change No. 1 on the priority list, this was a particularly important hire.

Stacy Marshall already had a history of coming into companies with no HR and building them from the bottom up, so the situation at Trimark was familiar. Only a few weeks into the job, she feels the team is a good one and many of the employees are keen for a more open environment and the empowerment to make more of their own decisions.

But she also quickly saw a problem with communication, an issue that came up in the first employee council meeting. “There’s a really small group that knows a lot about what’s going on and they’re not sharing that information with the bigger group,” says Ms. Marshall. “There’s this mindset of ‘We don’t want to give them too much information’ but you don’t have to tell them everything. Just let them in on what the plan is. It makes people feel tied to the company.”

Lack of communication also means many of the employees have no idea what the company’s strategies and goals are; employees understand what their daily jobs are but don’t know how it relates to the bigger picture.

Another issue immediately apparent to Ms. Marshall was the accountability level of the small senior group. “I think they’re very good at figuring out what the problem is,” she adds. “But they’re not so great at the follow-through.”

Ms. Marshall refers to the management meeting in June during which the senior team came up with Trimark’s strategic objectives. “Will asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Have you met any of the deadlines?’ The answer was no.”

One of her priorities is to change that, which means staying on top of everybody and making sure every person is hitting their targets.

Ms. Marshall is also planning on tweaking a few of the questions in the annual employee survey to reflect some of the changes under way at the company. In previous years, she says, there was little follow-up on employee comments. “There’s no point in doing them if you’re not going to take these surveys and take up one or two points on them. It’s a waste of everyone’s time,” she says. “You can be fun and exciting and the best company out there, but at the end of the day if employees don’t see any changes, it really doesn’t matter.”

Orientation and training are other areas that are lacking, according to Ms. Marshall. “The first impression is crucial,” she says. “Making people feel at home right away is huge in my eyes. And they haven’t been doing that.”

To her, it’s all about the “low-hanging fruit,” about tackling a few obvious issues first and not getting overwhelmed by how much there is to do. One such issue is the floor plan and seating arrangement at Trimark. “Sales isn’t across the room from Inside Sales,” she says, for example. “It’s just starting with the easy stuff. It’s fast and it looks like you’re doing something, to the employees. We build up the trust.”

But Ms. Marshall knows many challenges lie ahead, including winning over some people who have worked at Trimark since the beginning and who might have a harder time with change.

“When you’re trying to do something this big and this widely talked about, there are always going to be people who are resistant, people who don’t understand what’s going to go on,” she adds. “So you attack it differently. If you have one product, you’re not going to sell it the same way to different people.”