HR Reaches Out to Unemployed on Telethon

By Kathy Gurchiek Jan 29, 2010

A 2009 Pinnacle Award-winning project that paired HR professionals with more than 1,100 callers seeking job-hunting advice was so successful that the participating Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapters will return in a similar TV program March 3, 2010.

Seventy-five volunteers from two North Carolina SHRM chapters worked the phones feverishly during the seven-hour telethon, “Human Resources on Call,” on June 23, 2009. It was broadcast on WRAL-TV 5, which reaches nearly 1.08 million households in the Raleigh-Durham area.

The program was a joint project of the Raleigh-Wake Human Resource Management Association (RWHRMA) and sister chapter Triangle Society for Human Resource Management (TSHRM), which had been looking for an initiative they could work on together.


It was patterned after a similar telethon, “Attorneys on Call,” as a way for HR professionals to share their employment expertise at a time when unemployment was rising to its highest levels in 26 years. Callers were not being interviewed for jobs but getting guidance on topics like how to write a resume, negotiate a salary and COBRA.

“A lot of people are worried about losing their jobs,” said TSHRM President Ronita Caldwell, SPHR, during a WRAL-TV interview that can be seen on YouTube. “If you haven’t lost your job, that’s constantly on your mind because you look at the economy and see what’s happening. People who have lost their jobs, they’re concerned about how can I find a job, what’s out here, what do I need to do.So, it’s a lot of worry, still.”

Many displaced workers had no career transition support beyond what the state provided, and that was operating at maximum capacity, the chapters noted in their Pinnacle Award application to SHRM.

While caller demographics were not closely tracked, a majority of calls appeared to be from people who were casualties of the current economy, observed Caldwell, North America HR director at Underwriters Laboratories.

Job availability was the No. 1 question volunteers fielded, according to a post-telethon survey the chapters conducted with volunteers.

“Several of the callers had not been out of the job market for a while … so they didn’t know which way to turn. They were just kind of dumbfounded; they just did not know what to do,” she told SHRM Online.

The range of questions callers posed “blew my mind,” Caldwell said, running the gamut from job hunt basics such as resumes to inquiries about specific companies in a particular field.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Kim Mills, PHR, RWHRMA chapter president. She is vice president, client services, for Right Management.

“I think we were all surprised at the immediate volume [of calls] that hit the phones from 12 to 12:45 p.m.,” she said. Most calls came during a four-hour span, hitting a lull during a televised presidential address.

How It Worked

The program idea was the brain child of Paul Wasylkevych, SPHR, a member of RWHRMA and the North Carolina SHRM state council. RWHRMA and TSHRM pulled the program together in less than a month. In addition to helping job seekers, the program promoted the HR profession and SHRM, Caldwell noted.

Two co-chairs, representing each chapter, created a plan that included volunteer recruitment and training; developed orientation and reference materials for volunteers; and coordinated refreshments for volunteers for the day of the program.

WRAL provided the venue and phone banks and promoted the event with news stories and public service announcements on the radio.

The chapters used announcements at chapter meetings, e-mails and newsletters to solicit volunteers. Volunteers had to be active chapter members, had to be available to work a two- or three-hour telethon shift, and were required to attend at least one of four training sessions. Among the volunteers was Janice F. Sharp, SPHR, a past president of RWHRM. Sharp, vice president of HR at WRAL, died of cancer Dec. 19, 2009.

The telethon schedule consisted of three shifts with 20 volunteers per shift, with a few others available as backups.

“We didn’t want people on the phone all day long,” Mills said. “We tried to break it up so people weren’t in such [an] intense mode” the entire time.

HR subject matter experts were scheduled for each shift. A lesson learned, Mills noted, was to have someone who can address employment questions from applicants who had been incarcerated.

The chapters created a printed guide for volunteers that included potential questions and answers, as well as employment resources they could share with callers. JobLink Career Centers, a North Carolina program offering employment and training services, provided subject matter experts. Right Management donated the cost of printing and binding copies of the guide volunteers used.

Orientation covered the resource guide, WRAL’s expectations for the program, and appropriate behavior on live TV, including awareness of one’s facial expressions while on camera.

“It was important that we understood how to conduct ourselves within [WRAL-TV’s] world to support and enhance their brand at the same time promoting the brand for HR and being seen as the knowledgeable professionals that we are,” the chapters noted in the Pinnacle Award application.

“You kind of forget you’re on TV” as you focus on the call, Mills said.

The project didn’t end when the camera lights shut down. Volunteers gathered for an after-event celebration with appetizers and drinks and an opportunity to talk about their experience.

As the two chapters plan for the 2010 program, they won’t deviate much from their first telethon experience, Mills said.

Caldwell urged other chapters looking to replicate the project to partner with many different entities.

“We got JobLink involved, we got lots of folks who were experts in their field. When you think about career transition, it’s not just about resume writing,” she said. The availability of subject matter experts, including persons who could address questions about transitioning from military to civilian employment, was helpful, she said.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

Related Article:

Pinnacle Award Winners Demonstrate Wide Range of Service, News About SHRM, Nov. 24, 2009


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