Putting HR in Rotation

Hanging Around Within HR

By Robert J. Grossman Mar 1, 2003

HR Magazine, March 2003 Over a decade ago, when he was in charge of HR for the City of Phoenix, Carlos Arauz was concerned that staff members were isolating themselves, retreating within their specialties.

Rotating jobs, he decided, was the answer. When people balked, Arauz pushed ahead, making the rotations mandatory. After three years in a specialty, people moved from one HR function to another. Eventually, Arauz started requiring mastery of at least two specialties as a precondition for promotion. To advance professionally, you had to move every two or three years.

Arauz may have been a trendsetter, but he was in good company. Several respected employers emphasize rotation programs within the HR function. Here are a few examples:

Baxter Health Care’s HR Development Program

Baxter Health Care’s HR Development Program began in 1990. Associates, usually no more than five, are “fast-tracked,” rotating every six months into jobs at headquarters and in various Baxter business units. They’re formally reviewed twice as often as regular employees.

Associates possess recent graduate degrees, have one or two prior college or graduate school internships, and, typically, have no more than two years prior work experience.

“I really feel grateful to be a part of it,” says Eugina Suh, who holds a master’s in HR management from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. “I wanted to move around and see parts of the business, and the program has made it possible.”

It also has helped her figure out her working preferences. For example, Suh is completing her second six-month rotation, as an HR generalist in quality and manufacturing at West Lake Village, Calif. Her first rotation was at corporate headquarters.

In light of her experiences, she prefers being in the field, closer to the action. “I’ve learned that I enjoy working in a setting where I have more direct exposure to the business,” she says.

Citigroup’s HR Management Associate Program (HRMA)

Currently, 24 associates are rotating through various global assignments in Citigroup’s HRMA program. Fifty alumni have moved up to key HR leadership positions.

“Our goal is to increase their acumen so they can get a seat at the table,” says Katrina Howchin, the program’s director. “We’re compressing a five- to seven-year experience into two years with the expectation that five years after graduation they’ll be in senior positions.”

For each of two one-year rotations, U.S.-recruited associates work in business units in North America, European-recruited in Europe, and so on. One rotation must be in an HR generalist slot, the other in a specialty.

The generalist rotation is one of the “non-negotiables,” Howchin says. “You have to be an HR manager with your own population of employees and deal with any and all HR issues. The other rotation will be as a specialist—compensation, employee relations or training and development.”

Howchin says there’s no time for cross-functional rotations. “There’s an appetite for it, but we couldn’t provide the HR-intensive experience we’re delivering in the same period of time.”

At the end of two years, associates graduate and obtain permanent positions in the organization. Or, they may opt to continue for a third year. That rotation may be international.

Grounding in business is essential. “If they’re from HR schools, we look for finance and business backgrounds,” Howchin says. “Generally we go for master’s [degrees] in HR and IR and MBAs.”

An alumna herself, Howchin credits the program with her rapid rise up the HR ladder. “As a junior professional without a program like this, I don’t know where I’d be. I probably would have found a job in HR, but I wouldn’t have reached the level I’m at so fast.”

General Electric executive development program

At GE, HR is treated the same as any other function within the company’s staff development system.

“HR is not the stepchild as in some businesses,” says Susan Peters, vice president for executive development, who oversees the growth of GE’s top 600 executives. “Everything that we would do for a marketing or technology guy, we do for the HR guy.”

That means HR executives can expect to be rotated—not into a new function or line of work—but to a different business in the GE empire.

Peters explains: “It’s our opinion that for the first chunk of your career—seven or eight years—you should stay in your home function; if you’re an HR person, push for functional depth, become a fabulous HR person. By the time you get to a senior level, it’s not common for us to move people cross functionally. Instead we move them cross business. I went from plastics, to appliances, to NBC, all in HR. The ongoing development comes from a new business context. I bring my functionality with me.”

GE also offers a separate rotation program that enables entry-level HR professionals to gain cross-functional experience.

Having both types of programs in place is a winning combination, says Ed Lawler, director of the Center for Effective Organizations at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Ideally, the development experience for a business partner is some rotation within HR as well as rotation into other functions,” he advises. “Most powerful is if you can get into an operating unit with profit and loss responsibility and play a role in managing a business unit.”

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