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HR Magazine - September 2000: Two Who Show the Way

By Bill Leonard  9/1/2000
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HR Magazine,   July 2000 Vol. 45, No. 9

The Society for Human Resource Management's top honorees for 2000.

At its Annual Conference and Exposition in Las Vegas this June, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recognized two human resource professionals for their outstanding contributions to the field of HR management. The HR professionals received the Award for Professional Excellence, the highest honor bestowed by SHRM.

This year, the Society named award winners in two categories: small organization (1,000 or fewer employees) and large organization (more than 5,000 employees).

Of course, her CEO was partly to blame. "I was set to make a presentation about a project that I had really worked hard on," Weixel recalls. "I was concentrating on my task at hand when the CEO’s assistant buzzed the meeting and said that the call he was expecting was on the line." Weixel continued concentrating on her presentation and didn’t pay much attention to the call. After all, her CEO is a busy man who often receives calls like that.

When Marilyn Weixel heard that she had been selected to receive the SHRM Award for Professional Excellence, she screamed. While her genuine reaction would be considered normal by most folks, she was embarrassed because her whoop of joy came during a meeting with her chief executive officer.

Weixel Picture A Passion for HR Management
Small Organization
Marilyn L. Weixel, SPHR
Vice President of Human Resources
Association Group Insurance Administrators, Carpinteria, Calif.

But this call was different. It was from Michael R. Losey, CAE, SPHR, president and CEO of SHRM, who was put on a speakerphone and announced that Weixel had won the Award for Professional Excellence.

"I really wasn’t paying close attention, so I did sort of a double take," Weixel says. "When I realized it was Mike Losey, and that I had just won the professional excellence award, I just screamed. I was pretty loud and probably made everyone in the room jump. It was just a great feeling to receive that kind of recognition from my peers."

Anyone who knows Weixel would say her emotional reaction typifies the passion that she has for her chosen profession. She simply loves her work and says she can’t dream of a better job.

When Weixel was studying for her master’s degree in psychology, she discovered that she had an affinity and passion for working with people. But she felt that clinical psychology limited her potential for interacting with people in a work setting and for participating in the fast-paced world of business.

"I really enjoy the business world and workplace and find it very exciting, so I decided while in graduate school I wanted to pursue a career in business," she says. "People considered me a little weird back then that I wanted to get into HR. This was when HR was considered more of an administrative role. The profession has changed so much since then, and I always believed that HR had a lot of potential to become more strategic and make a real impact on business and people’s lives."

Weixel took a job in HR management soon after graduating and has excelled in the field since. She began her HR career as a training specialist for Santa Barbara County, Calif. In 1989, she was hired for her current job as vice president of human resources for Association Group Insurance Administrators (AGIA), a provider of administrative, marketing and affinity-based insurance sales to clients such as trade associations and governmental bodies.

When she first began working at AGIA, the company had about 70 employees—all in one office in Carpinteria, a suburb of Santa Barbara. The company has grown to nearly 250 employees in five locations.

"We’re still considered a small organization, but we are definitely growing at a good pace, and that’s presented some challenges for us in HR," Weixel says.

She says the company has always had a friendly entrepreneurial culture in which employees felt they were part of a close-knit family. While growth and new offices mean the company is doing well, Weixel and her staff have worked doubly hard to make sure all the new employees feel they are a part of the organization.

"We try very hard to communicate company values and culture and to make all the employees feel comfortable and part of the family," she says.

Making employees feel at home at AGIA isn’t the only thing at which Weixel excels and works hard. Weixel was instrumental in researching and converting her employer’s health insurance benefits from a fully insured plan to a self-insured plan. According to Weixel, the conversion provided better coverage and more flexibility for employees and reduced the company’s health care costs by nearly 50 percent.

She also helped to develop and implement a comprehensive wage and salary plan for all AGIA employees. Weixel believes the compensation plan increased the company’s ability to attract and retain the best employees and helped to make AGIA an employer of choice in the Santa Barbara area.

"This is really crucial to us, because we face the challenge of operating our corporate headquarters in a very high cost-of-living area," Weixel says. "We have to attract employees, and it’s very hard to get people to move into the area because of the high housing costs. So employers in this area end up stealing from each other. Once we hire an employee, it’s very important that we do our best to retain them."

Weixel’s passion for her job and her profession also has translated into a real passion for volunteering and working with HR-oriented organizations—particularly SHRM and its local chapter, the Santa Barbara Human Resource Association. Weixel has been on the chapter’s board of directors since 1986 and twice been chapter president—in 1988 and 1998.

Since 1986, Weixel also has attended every SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition—a professional development opportunity that she regarded as so important that she negotiated it into her employment deal with AGIA.

"I got them to agree to let me go every year to the conference, because it is very important to me," says Weixel, who has been a presenter at several SHRM conferences.

If you ask Weixel about her philosophy on HR management and why she has been so successful through the years, she says it’s all about treating people right.

"To hire the best people and keep them on the job, you have to treat them well," she says. "Businesses that do right by their people will ultimately succeed. It’s really all about doing the right thing and, in today’s work environment, you really can’t afford not to do that."

Sinnott Picture Meet an HR Public Servant
Large Organization
George C. Sinnott, SPHR
New York State Department of Civil Service, Albany, N.Y.

George Sinnott doesn’t have fond memories of his first trip to Las Vegas nearly 30 years ago. After being discharged from the U.S. Navy, he decided to drive from Oregon to his family’s home on Long Island, N.Y. By the time his roundabout route hit Las Vegas, he was broke and had to pawn his television set for gas money.

Last June, Sinnott returned to Las Vegas, but this time he was on top of the world after being named a recipient of the SHRM Award for Professional Excellence.

"It was a completely different experience than 30 years ago," Sinnott says. "I thoroughly enjoyed my visit this time."

In receiving the Award for Professional Excellence, Sinnott joins an elite group of HR professionals. But winning the award became doubly sweet for Sinnott when he learned that he was the first recipient from the public sector. It’s an honor that Sinnott doesn’t take lightly.

"When I found that out, I was really touched," Sinnott said. "It’s great to be recognized by your peers and professional association, but to be the first from the public sector just puts icing on the cake."

To call Sinnott’s career path in HR management "unconventional" would be a tremendous understatement. Sinnott dropped out of college in the late 1960s and went to work on the New York City docks. He signed up to work on a Norwegian freighter and promptly jumped ship when the freighter arrived in Europe. Sinnott traveled around Europe for nearly a year and, when he finally returned home to Long Island, a letter from Uncle Sam greeted him.

"It was an invitation to join the armed services, so I chose the Navy," Sinnott recalls.

He took a medical training course, became a Navy corpsman and was assigned to the Marine Corps. Sinnott doesn’t talk much about his tour of duty in Vietnam, only to say he was with the Marines during the siege of Khe Sanh—which involved some of the most intense and savage fighting of the Vietnam War.

When he returned to the United States, Sinnott says he bounced between jobs until Alfonse D’Amato hired him as an administrative assistant for Hempstead Township, Long Island—the largest town- ship in the United States. D’Amato, later a U.S. senator from New York, was then serving as the township’s supervisor.

Sinnott did well, enjoyed his new job and was soon promoted to executive assistant. One fateful day, D’Amato pulled Sinnott into his office and asked if he was interested in becoming personnel director.

"I asked him: ‘Personnel director of what?’ And Al replied: the whole township, of course," Sinnott recalls. Thus began his career in HR management.

Sinnott accepted D’Amato’s challenge and quickly discovered that he enjoyed the work and had a talent for HR management. After eight successful years in Hempstead, Sinnott was named personnel director of Nassau County, just east of the New York borough of Queens and one of the most populous suburban counties in the United States.

While working for Hempstead and Nassau County, Sinnott resumed his college studies and eventually graduated at age 41 from Empire State College with a bachelor’s degree in HR management. He also earned a master’s degree in industrial relations from Vermont College.

Sinnott’s talents became well-known around the state, and former Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed him to a statewide civil service board. Sinnott served on the board and with Nassau County until George Pataki was elected governor of New York in 1994. Pataki appointed Sinnott commissioner of the New York State Department of Civil Service, effectively making him the top human resource executive for the state. Sinnott oversees the civil service function for all 170,000 New York government employees and the state’s more than 300,000 municipal employees.

The civil service system that Sinnott inherited in 1995 was one of the oldest in the country and desperately in need of reform.

"Frankly it was a mess, and, when I became commissioner, New York’s civil service system was ranked dead last among all 50 states," Sinnott says. "Everything was outdated and really needed to be re-formed. Someone said that civil service in New York might be considered state-of-the-art only if the year was 1915."

Many state officials believed that the civil service system was beyond repair, and the best thing would be to rebuild completely from the ground up. Sinnott disagreed and thought it could be fixed. He has worked tirelessly to fix the department and has had some tremendous successes. Governing magazine recently rated the New York civil service system as the most improved in the nation.

When Sinnott became commissioner in 1995, nearly 6,000 state employees were classified as provisional, meaning they had been hired by the state but had not yet passed civil service exams. By law, these employees must pass the exam within nine months of hiring. Of the 6,000 provisional employees, Sinnott says some had worked for the state since the Carter administration.

"Many of these provisional employees had been promoted and become fully vested in their retirement benefits—now that’s just absurd," Sinnott says.

Through the department’s efforts, the number of provisional employees is now less than 1 percent of the state’s total workforce. When Sinnott took office, people who took the civil service exam had been waiting an average of 160 days before receiving their exam grades, in some cases up to two years.

"When it takes that long to get your grade, a lot of folks forget that they had even taken the test, and that really hurt the state because we were missing out on some really good job candidates. It really hurt us among minorities, too; they just stopped taking the civil service exam altogether," Sinnott says. "The average report time is now less than six weeks. We’ve made some tremendous strides."

While Sinnott is clearly proud of his accomplishments as a civil servant, he seems equally proud that he earned his Senior Professional in Human Resources designation from the Human Resource Certification Institute.

"Passing that test and being certified as an SPHR was a big thing for me. It confirmed that I had mastered the body of knowledge and was on an equal footing with HR professionals in the private sector," he says.

Sinnott also values his membership in SHRM, which he joined 16 years ago. He says that access to the SHRM web site and HR Magazine are worth every penny he pays in membership dues.

Sinnott now can add the Award for Professional Excellence to his long list of accomplishments, and it’s a distinction of which he is most proud.

"It really is a confirmation from my peers and colleagues that we’re doing things right in New York, and that’s a great feeling," he says.

Bill Leonard is senior writer for HR Magazine.

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