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Undercover HR

A man and woman wearing face masks at a convention.
​Pamela J. McGee, SHRM-CP, meets SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo in Las Vegas in September.

When Pamela J. McGee, SHRM-CP, accepted an offer to become vice president of HR at The Father's Table, a national dessert manufacturer in Sanford, Fla., she decided to begin the job by going undercover.

"My background was in retail, not manufacturing," she said. "I wanted to get a sense of what life was like on a manufacturing floor."

McGee attended the new-hire orientation conducted by a staffing agency. She then went out on the floor and began to work just like everyone else. No one there, including the supervisors and managers on shift, knew she was the new vice president of HR.

During her one-week undercover stint, McGee learned invaluable information that has led to several beneficial changes. One of the biggest changes has been in communication.

"Frankly, we were falling short," McGee said. "We needed to do a much better job in communicating to new hires what to expect. For example, we make cheesecakes. There are two overall manufacturing units. In one area, the temperature is kept at 46 degrees Fahrenheit, while in the other, where baking takes place, it can reach over 90 degrees in the summer months."

New hires weren't being informed adequately by the staffing agency about the temperature difference, nor were they advised on what to wear. "Floridians are not used to 46-degree temperatures," McGee said, "especially when they're not dressed for it."

Another example was the rotation schedule, where workers would move from one station to another. The problem: New hires weren't told about it.

"I had no idea I was supposed to move to another station until a co-worker told me," McGee said. She also learned that while workers knew when their shift began, they didn't necessarily know when it would end, which created work/life balance challenges.

Perhaps most importantly, McGee discovered that employees on the manufacturing floor were largely ignorant of The Father's Table Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars worldwide to support women and children in need. Half of the company's profits go directly into the foundation.

"Through our company, we serve a fantastic mission. Our leaders are very passionate about it. And there's no reason this passion can't and shouldn't be felt by every employee. When people share an important purpose, it makes a difference."

McGee also learned about life challenges hourly workers face, including the fact that some of them are homeless.

When McGee shared her findings with the executive team, they were shocked. They didn't know about the lack of communication or employees' struggles. Their surprise turned into support for the changes McGee recommended. These included:

  • Better, more thorough communication with videos that explain responsibilities, working conditions and the lines of communication. Among other changes, there would be no guessing who was behind the face mask when employees needed someone to turn to for help: Supervisors, trainers and others would be identified by hairnet color.
  • Overhauling break rooms with changes that included adding charging stations for employees' phones. Before, employees had to unplug microwave ovens to find an outlet.
  • Scheduling ongoing town hall meetings so all employees are kept up-to-date on how the company is doing and what the foundation is doing to make the world a better place.
  • Changing the employee assistance program to boost day care resources and support mental health issues, among other things.
  • Establishing an education tuition reimbursement program.
  • Bringing in food trucks that offer a hot meal once a week and better coordinating with food vendors to accommodate workers' 30-minute meal breaks.

And soon, an employee steering committee will be formed to provide a way for employees to give input and share their perspectives.

Hidden Identity Leads to Funny Moments

McGee said her undercover work led to some humorous moments. Some of the executive leaders who had met her during the interview process tried to spot her on the manufacturing floor. "I'm a real girly girl—nails, jewelry, clothing, the works. Of course, on the manufacturing floor, that's all gone. Plus, I had a mask on." McGee got a few chuckles watching executives look for her in vain.

Another humorous experience involved hip bumping. When McGee found herself at the front of a production line, she soon noticed that a co-worker would join the line just in front of her and give her a nudge toward the back of the line. Nothing was said—just a mild hip bump to gently move her out of the way. This process would be repeated by other co-workers.

"I was the slowest," she explained, "so having me at the front of the line was not a good thing." After several hip bumps, McGee found herself at the end of the line, "where, by the time the product got to me, there was little or nothing more to do. I felt like I was in an episode of 'I Love Lucy.' "

When it came time to reveal her identity, the company held a series of team meetings. "At the beginning, I mingled with the other employees, wearing what I wore on the manufacturing floor. Our new CEO began by introducing himself. He then said, 'I'd like to introduce our new VP of HR. Have you met her?' 

"Of course, no one thought they had. The CEO then said, 'Please come up and address the team.' I got up. A song I'd selected began playing. I danced my way up to the front of the room. Everyone freaked out. It was great!"

Lasting Benefits

Benefits from this experience included much more than improved communication. "I have a level of respect from the executive [team] to the floor worker that I wouldn't enjoy had I not first put the work in," she said.

Her advice for HR professionals: "Don't make assumptions. Get in on the ground level. Listen and learn! Lots of leaders think they know what's going on, but they really don't. You can be their eyes and ears and help them become better leaders."


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