Miss USA Knows HR: A Q&A with Cheslie Kryst

The lawyer and pageant winner’s remarkable career path was influenced by her mother, an HR professional.

Tony Lee By Tony Lee December 3, 2019
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Miss USA Knows HR: A Q&A with Cheslie Kryst

​When she was a student athlete, Cheslie Kryst hoped to excel in track and field and become a trial attorney. To say she has overachieved is an understatement.

Kryst landed in the record books at the University of South Carolina for her success in the triple jump, while achieving honors as a double major in human resource management and marketing. She then earned a combined J.D. and MBA at Wake Forest University and soon after landed a job as a civil litigation attorney with Poyner Spruill, a law firm in her hometown of Charlotte, N.C. Her most fulfilling work, she says, has been her pro bono efforts on behalf of clients who are serving excessive jail sentences for low-level drug offenses.

In her spare time, Kryst became Miss USA in May. She had won pageants before, and she's now qualified to compete in the Miss Universe pageant on December 8.

She takes this opportunity to appear on the global stage very seriously. As an advocate of the #MeToo movement, her answer to a judge's question during the final round of the Miss USA pageant about whether #MeToo had gone too far garnered widespread acclaim: "I don't think these movements have gone too far. What #MeToo and #TimesUp are about are making sure that we foster safe and inclusive workplaces in our country. As an attorney, that's exactly what I want to hear, and that's exactly what I want for this country."

Through it all, Cheslie's mother, April, has been by her side offering support and guidance, which is especially helpful since April is also a pageant winner (Mrs. North Carolina 2002). She's also a SHRM-certified HR professional and an active volunteer in the Carolinas Chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

How has your mom influenced your career direction?

My mom is my role model. I've always looked up to her and sought her advice. She set an incredible example as a state pageant titleholder, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps because I think so highly of her. That's true of my decision to double-major in marketing and human resource management. I vividly remember sitting in my advisor's office as an undergrad choosing the focus of my management major—HR or entrepreneurship. My mom made HR sound interesting, so that's what I picked.

What is the best way for HR to support employees who have passions like yours that extend beyond the workplace?

Flexibility is key. A common trend in the workforce nowadays is flex hours coupled with a work-from-home policy. This allows employees to pursue other projects outside of the workplace.

That type of flexibility and the trust by my employer that I would get my work done is one of the reasons I loved working for my law firm before I won the title of Miss USA. It allowed me to do appearances as Miss North Carolina USA and build my blog while pursuing my lifelong dream of being an attorney. Rather than feeling pushed out of the firm and encouraged to leave to chase my other passions, I was given flexibility that kept me committed to my firm. I appreciated that they wanted me to do great work as an attorney but also live a fulfilled life outside of work. Since winning the title of Miss USA, I have taken a one-year leave of absence from the practice of law, but I plan to return to my firm after my reign is over.

What advice do you have for HR professionals who might be tempted to rely on their own knowledge and interpretation of the law rather than seek advice by legal counsel?

I loved working with clients who had a thorough understanding of their respective industries. It made otherwise-tough conversations about complex issues much easier. I encourage HR professionals to continue to develop their own knowledge of employment law through careful study of applicable regulations and statutes. On the other hand, when it comes to interpreting those laws and regulations and giving advice, HR professionals should make sure to seek counsel from an attorney. Having some basic knowledge will help tremendously when those conversations arise.

During the interview round of the Miss USA pageant, you gave an answer about the #MeToo movement that swept through social media. Have you seen progress in how companies are addressing gender bias in the workplace?

Yes, slowly but surely. I sat on the diversity committee at my law firm, and what was most important to me was seeing men advocate for gender equality and serve as proponents of change within the firm. Rather than thinking gender bias was an issue for women to solve on their own, these men recognized the problem and lent a hand to fixing it. I've seen this gradual change in other businesses as well—taking an approach that creates an expectation that everyone, regardless of gender, will work together to reduce bias.

What types of policy changes do you hope to see implemented to reduce gender bias?

Paid maternity and paternity leave for every industry and profession—backed by management encouraging people to use the leave they are allotted.

You have a blog that focuses on women's workplace attire. What's the goal of the blog?

Figuring out what to wear in the workplace can be a daunting task. What's appropriate to wear to an interview? How high can your heels be at work? Why do the clothes you wear matter? What are some popular trends for professional clothing? Where can you buy work clothes on a budget? My goal in creating White Collar Glam was to answer the multitude of questions women have when it comes to professional attire. It serves as a resource to women navigating the workplace.

 


Interview by Tony Lee, vice president of editorial for SHRM.

Photograph by Associated Press.

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