The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 8, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Nov. 12.
Next up is HR Exec of the Year (Large Company) finalist Janet Hanofee, who’s chief human resources officer at SOS International LLC. Here, she talks inflection points in her career, taking professional risks and shaping the next generation of industry leaders.
What key achievements did you have in 2019/2020?
Wow — what a year it has been. If ever there was a time when HR needed to be on the front lines in an organization, it was during the early days of a global pandemic! Our employees feared the virus and what it meant for our company and their future. Our HR focus was to be a source of comforting, positive, helpful and frequent communication. We required our corporate employees to work from home beginning the first week of March. By the following Monday, we had rolled out new policies and guidelines for our employees.
We also launched a SharePoint site with information on COVID-19 and how to stay safe. We created a 24-hour COVID hotline, scheduled weekly Friday Q&A townhall virtual meetings with our CEO, and hired a consulting physician to guide our COVID strategy and response. By the end of March, we had found and purchased over 5,000 antibody tests for our essential workers.
If you think back to those early weeks of the pandemic, most employers were struggling with how to proceed and looking for guidance, but at SOSi, we were already working on solutions. I’m very proud of the work we did in those early days to support our employees.
Of course, we have implemented countless additional support initiatives since, including: providing temperature check stations, touchless faucets, daily electrostatic cleaning in offices, monthly antibody testing, branded masks, sanitizer stations and we even sent our employees toilet paper during the nationwide shortages. There was so much chaos, fear and misinformation nationally that our HR function needed to be a beacon of clear communication focused on solutions.
Throughout this crisis, it has been personally important that our employees feel supported and understand how much we care about their well-being beyond the workplace. That’s the difference between being a good company and a great one.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
When I was in my mid-30s, the lack of a college degree was hurting my career advancement. I had gone to college for four years in the late ’80s on an athletic scholarship. However, I dropped out of school before I graduated because I realized that I didn’t want to be a newspaper reporter, and I had nearly completed a degree in print journalism.
Fast-forward 15 years, and I was in an HR job but unable to advance to senior positions because I was missing that bachelor’s degree. I decided to go back to school. Unfortunately, most of my prior credits were no longer applicable — so I enrolled as a full-time student and juggled night classes while still maintaining a full-time job in HR.
My two sons were in high school, and I knew they were watching me do homework and study, so I had to set a good example. I graduated magna cum laude with a 3.98 GPA (Human Anatomy cost me a 4.0) and a degree in humanities.
After I graduated, I advanced to a new job leading an Alaska Native Organization’s HR department. But even better, my youngest son ended his semester with his best report card ever. At a school ceremony recognizing his achievement, he proudly told his classmates that his mom had just graduated from college and that I was his inspiration. That was a proud mom moment!
How do you help shape the next generation of government leaders/industry leaders?
I am passionate about education, and I love to give back and support students trying to follow a path similar to mine. I volunteer at Northern Virginia Community College and work with adult learners pursuing business degrees and HR degrees. We work on their resumes, interviewing skills and coaching them on how to transition to a new career while helping them leverage the skills and experiences they bring with them from previous trades.
Additionally, I sit on the board of directors for the Human Resources Certification Institute, the leading HR certification provider and competency measurement organization in the HR profession. I have volunteered as a writer for the HR exams for over 10 years, and this year, I was offered a position on their board to shape the strategy and advancement of the HR profession for the next several years.
Lastly, one general piece of advice I try to pass along to the next generation of leaders is that it is OK to admit that you do not have all the answers. Far too often, I see colleagues who believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness. In my opinion, having the emotional intelligence to be aware of your blind spots and knowing when to ask for help is one of the greatest strengths any leader can have.
I encourage business leaders to network and find mentors they can trust to provide honest feedback and advice. Leaders don’t always have to have the “know-how;” sometimes they just have to “know who” can help point them in the right direction to find the answers they need.
Which rules do you think you should break more as a government/industry leader?
Be brave and take a little risk if the end justifies the means. When the pandemic hit this year, most organizations did not have a pandemic response plan. Or if they did, it was on a shelf somewhere collecting dust and likely not robust enough for COVID-19.
In HR, we had laws and regulations that did not align with the workplace responses we needed to implement to protect our employees. For example, employers getting medical information directly from employees is not supported by several laws and regulations. But we needed to ensure our employees were safe.
So, we started taking temperatures and giving antibody tests long before the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Association came out with guidance. We didn’t get everything precisely right, and we had to amend our practices a bit and tweak our policies when the DOL guidance came out, but if we had waited for advice, our employees would have missed out on two months of protective actions.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
While living in Anchorage, Alaska, I served as the head of the local HR professional association chapter when the mayor of our town declared that he was drafting an amendment to the city employee benefit plan that violated federal law. At the time, Alaska was struggling with the cost and availability of prescription drugs. The mayor wanted to authorize city employees to go across Canada’s border to get their prescriptions at a lower rate, which was illegal.
Additionally, this was a democratic mayor in an election battle to retain his seat. The local chapter and my employer did not want me to challenge the mayor’s decision as it was a creative solution to a frustrating Alaska dilemma.
As the city’s HR leader, it was my responsibility to question the policy’s ethics, as it blatantly encouraged constituents to break the law. I asked for a meeting with the mayor and came to him, armed with several alternative solutions. He was very receptive to my concern and ultimately retracted his statement about allowing the city health plan to reimburse employees breaking the law.
Additionally, in a previous job, an executive team member was behaving unethically and inappropriately. Even though I was a direct subordinate to this executive, it was my responsibility as the organizational HR leader to confront this executive and hold them accountable, even at the risk of my employment.
I took a deep breath and set a meeting to discuss my concern. The executive apologized and corrected the behavior. They also commended me for being brave enough to address the situation, and we continued with a positive professional relationship for the rest of my employment at that organization. Doing the right thing is critical for an HR leader, even at their own risk.
Employees depend on HR to ensure that ethical behavior occurs at all levels of an organization. Any employee who calls out questionable practices or actions in good faith, regardless of the potential impact on the organization or its executive team, needs to be heard. Retaliation against employees who raise ethical concerns is never appropriate.
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
I am proud of being confident and reaching for that brass ring. I worked as an insurance executive, and a local job became available for an HR manager on the Alaska pipeline. I was tired of working in insurance, and this was my dream job. I wanted that job, and I knew I could do it, but I didn’t have the same experience that the employer desired. After all, I was an insurance executive — and there was no direct HR experience on my resume. But I wrote a cover letter explaining why I was an excellent candidate and emailed it to the CEO.
A few hours later, I got a phone call from the CEO, and he asked if I could fly from Valdez to Anchorage the next day for an interview. I was excited, but also really nervous! During the interview, he asked me if I had ever fired anyone. I said, “No.” He then asked me, “Do you think you could fire someone, and what makes you sure that you can?” I responded, “Well, as an insurance executive, I have a lot of difficult conversations with policyholders that I think are comparable. For example, I had to tell a new widow that the life insurance her husband had purchased was not available because it exempted suicide from the policy. I had to tell a family whose house was burning down that they had let their coverage lapse, and no policy on their house was in force. Those were both tough conversations, but I needed to lead the conversation with compassion and gently explain the facts despite the emotional responses of my customers.’”
The CEO responded: “I agree. You could handle firing someone.” I got the job, and I went to night school to get the HR courses I needed to succeed in the role.
Taking a chance and trying for a job that I knew I could do, even though my experience wasn’t directly in the field, resulted in the beginning of a career that I love. If I hadn’t been confident and stretched for a job that seemed out of reach, I might never have become the HR practitioner that I am today.