Today’s postcard is from
Australia should be proud of its high quality HR talent. The Australian HR community is now represented around the world.
Today’s Postcard is from ex-pat Australian, Rick Watt, who is a HRD based in Seattle.
Rick Watt is a Senior Human Resources Leader who started in accounting before building a career in Reward as well as other back-end HR offerings. From there he stepped in as new challenges presented themselves learning not only how to successfully lead an HR function but also how to build HR infrastructure from the ground up working in a range of industries in varying regulatory environments. These have included Global roles with Unisys, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and his current organisation, TrueBlue.
Rick generously set aside some time to converse with us about HR and life stateside. Rick migrated to the U.S. ten years ago to work at Unisys head offices, which led to the question:
Can you share a couple of your observations from the last ten years of working in the U.S. business landscape?
“Firstly, one of the main reasons for moving to the U.S. was to work at the corporate head office for a global organisation and gain exposure to new influences.
I spent some time on the east coast where I observed that typical industries included the likes of large pharmaceutical and financial institutions and after the GFC many of those businesses were hit hard and folded. However over in the west coast and particularly in Seattle, businesses such as Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Expedia, T- Mobile and many others overcame the GFC and pushed through it and in most cases flourished, especially Amazon.
Secondly, when I first arrived business seemed to be very U.S. centric as opposed to having a more global vision. It was common to export the US way to other countries. Over time, organisations began to realise that they needed to grow their own leadership on a local level - most likely driven from a cost perspective as the cost of ex-pats continued to increase. Over the last decade, I have seen a change from placing U.S. leaders out in the field to an approach of building local knowledge. Technology advances have definitely helped in creating cost efficiencies for organisations – the likes of mainstream video conferencing were in their infancy a decade ago”.
Your domain expertise is reward and alignment of compensation to business strategy. From a philosophical perspective do you think there is a lot of difference between the U.S. and Australia in this domain?
“From a compensation theory, philosophy and strategy perspective, I don’t feel there is much difference. However as you move towards the tactical application – the market offerings, regulatory structure and provision to employees there are big differences, I feel that a lot of this comes down to the different sizes of both economies. Additionally, the benefits landscape across the U.S. is complex and complicated, ……. and the US regulatory environment makes it that way – just think of the Affordable Care Act governing health care in the US!
Leaving health care to one side, the rules and regulations can vary by state or city a lot more than what you see in Australia. and therefore if you have a work population spread across the country you end up with a variety of city, state and federal regulations – e.g. the city of San Francisco is rolling out paid parental leave with specific city location requirements, while the state of California is implementing its own program, the challenge is that they are not identical– so you could have two workers in the same state that have different benefit entitlements. This can make it difficult to manage communication, administer programs and treat employees equitably. In my experience, a lot of other countries globally including Australia apply a more consistent, broader approach that makes it easier to apply the overarching strategy across the business."
This administration requirement must be very labour intensive and require a lot of technology to manage?
“Yes it does, however the problem with technology is, it can’t stay ahead of all the regulatory changes so organizations are forced into a manual activity to handle the changes. For instance, I currently have two benefit managers reporting to me, one solely looks after the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and legislative and regulatory requirements and the other looks after our staff benefits."
Let’s talk labour relations, Australia is a labour relations environment, how have you found the U.S. in comparison?
“This is the third organisation I’ve worked for in the U.S., not surprisingly, they all operate under an employment “at will” practice – the U.S. does not have an Employment Contract environment for the general employee population. . The way each organization handles labour relations have been very different. At Unisys, being an I.T. organisation dealing in hardware and outsourcing services for example, it bought its own set of labour relations needs with some employee groups being unionised whereas The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (1600 headcount in 7 countries) was very different as was the type of employee - they were for the most part highly educated specialists, more of a professional services organization - a very high touch requirement and more employee relations style issues”. “In my current organisation, labour relations is very different again. We have 550 Branch Offices in North America and we employ over 6,000 people internally in over 13 countries.
We placed over 840,000 people into jobs last year. Some of these were for a single day so tenure is short and there are often no collective agreements. Others are for longer term contracts on our payroll for clients all the way through to recruitment directly to our client organizations.
The sorts of labour hire employment type businesses in Australia have pressure on them from CFMEU and ETU (construction in particular) – do you have any third party involvement or any enterprise agreement structure that you have to work within?
We don’t have enterprise agreements, although if our client is under a union agreement, we must adhere to that agreement if we are placing labour on site.”
From a personal perspective, after moving to the U.S. with your family – what would you say you achieved on a personal level and what advice would you give to others who are considering making a similar move?
“Originally we had planned to come for two to three years, the main drawcard being career growth. We then realised the full effect of the GFC in 2010 which was difficult for organizations to navigate through, I was offered the opportunity to bring my knowledge and experience to other parts of the organization and we stayed. That said we also viewed the move as an adventure in all areas of life, personal, work and family.
Working in a U.S. corporate head office with a global focus gives you a different perspective, you get closer to what is going on at a higher strategic level and gain a better understanding on the impact of your decisions.”“The U.S. helped my career growth, I moved out of regional roles and into global roles as the organisations I chose to work with have representation in Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America and Africa. I gained a broader view and this enabled me to have a greater influence with on the programs that I manage and how they impact the organisation. I have also gained knowledge in more areas of HR leadership while adding value to the organizations that I have worked with.
Aussies tend to find each other wherever they are in the world, I have some great Australian connections in both Seattle and Philadelphia. While the cost of living is cheaper and travel is easier, there is still no place like home!."